Targeting the Most Vulnerable with Sustainable Solutions

Increasing costs for basic necessities coupled with stagnating or reduced real income over time is a recipe for increasing hardship and inequality. Energy is one area where costs have risen dramatically compared to income over the last several decades. Added to this, the poorer quality housing available to low-income families in Vermont is often uninsulated and inefficient, resulting in higher costs for home heating and cooling. The result is severely disproportionate energy burdens for low-income households. Those earning 50% - 100% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) in Vermont are estimated to have home energy bills amounting to 25% of their income, and those who earn less than 50% of the FPL pay almost half of their income (Fisher, Sheehan & Colton, 2016).  

But there is at least one aspect of this bleak picture that offers some hope, one in which Vermont is one of the leaders in the nation—the increased focus on sustainability of our energy resources, particularly the commitment to increasing home energy-efficiency. And far from “freezing out” households with low incomes, Vermont has invested in programs that specifically target these households. The Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), offered mainly through the state’s Community Action Agencies, including SEVCA, is at the cutting edge in terms of offering sustainable, energy-saving solutions for some of our most vulnerable households at no cost to them. This program receives some funding from federal appropriations, but the majority of its funding comes from a consumption-based state tax on heating oil, propane, and kerosene. While funding has not nearly reached the level that will enable the state to achieve its goal of 80,000 homes weatherized between 2008 and 2020 (the goal set when the Vermont Energy Efficiency and Affordability Act was passed), it is having a significant impact.

Benefits for the residents of homes and apartments that are weatherized through WAP are dramatic and immediate—they save an average of 24.5% on their energy costs every year (Office of Economic Opportunity report to the Vermont State Legislature, January 30, 2018). Households with heating oil as their source of heat in state fiscal year 2016-17 (FY17) were estimated to have saved $442/year (at $2.27/gallon for fuel oil, a price which has increased significantly this year). Plus, there are huge benefits for our environment. According to a report by the Thermal Efficiency Task Force, fossil fuels used in buildings are the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont, and weatherization is recommended as the most important, cost effective intervention to address that. The estimated reduction in carbon released into the atmosphere of for the 893 homes weatherized by WAP in FY17 alone was 1,592 tons/year —add to that the carbon savings from all of the units weatherized in previous years (the program has been active since 1973), and it’s clear that WAP makes a considerable contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet these impressive benefits are only the beginning. By partnering with Efficiency Vermont, WAP is working to simultaneously improve thermal and electrical efficiency. Each household scheduled for weatherization services is visited by an Efficiency Coach, who explains the entire weatherization process and also does an assessment of various efficiency improvements the household is eligible for, from simple things like LED light bulbs to appliances like heat pumps, energy-efficient refrigerators, and "mini-splits" for heating and cooling. The Efficiency Coach can install some items at this visit, like bulbs and low-flow shower heads, but a crucial aspect of the service is talking to clients about behavioral change. “The most important part of what I do is talk to them about the impact of lifestyle changes on their energy costs,” says Victor Baisley, SEVCA’s Efficiency Coach. “For example, hot water can be one of the major factors in high electricity bills, and I tell them how much they can save if they do their laundry in cold water or take shorter showers.”

The Efficiency Coach is also the point person for another important state intervention—the One Touch program, which generates referrals to numerous health and basic needs programs based on an intake survey of weatherization clients. The survey identifies people who don’t have health insurance, might have a high risk of falls, suffer from asthma, want to stop smoking, etc., and connects them to relevant programs that can help them. “We’re in the home, and that gives us the opportunity to develop a relationship with the client; one of the first things I do during my visit is to make the client feel at ease,” says Baisley, so much so that most agree to participate in One Touch and are glad to find out about these resources. Last year, Vermont’s program won a HUD Healthy Homes Award for their efforts to deliver health and home improvement interventions in an integrated way.  

Weatherization itself generates longer-term direct and indirect health benefits to residents as well as extending the life of the home. The whole-home approach WAP utilizes helps keep homes at a comfortable temperature while minimizing hazards like mold or other air pollutants in the home (triggers for asthma or exacerbating factors for emphysema, for example), or ice dams on the roof (leading to damaged and/or leaky roofs). This helps protect low-income households from having to cope with unexpected health care or home repair expenses that perpetuate the vicious cycle of poverty.

Despite all of the persuasive arguments in support of increased funding for Weatherization, the program continues to be vulnerable to budget cuts. The recent Trump Budget for 2017-18 zeroed out the Weatherization program, and while Congress is unlikely to take this recommendation seriously, the program could still be targeted for large cuts. Nor is the State of Vermont committed to appropriating the funding needed to meet its own goal for Weatherization…yet; though there is a strong coalition of organizations pushing for just that.

Miguel Orantes of Bellows Falls received Weatherization assistance from SEVCA at a low point in his life, when he had been waiting for months to receive disability benefits after a debilitating accident, followed by a serious illness. Prior to Weatherization, he said he needed four cords of wood plus oil heat to stay warm, and it was much more than he could afford. Now that his home is weatherized, even with the cold winter we’re experiencing this season, he says he doesn’t expect to use more than half a cord of wood, and his oil bill is “almost nothing.” “It’s ridiculous to live in an uninsulated home in New England,” Miguel says. “The Weatherization program is a necessity, not a luxury. Cutting it is simply not sustainable.”

We couldn’t agree more! Vermont has invested much, but could still do more to bring the financial and environmental benefits of weatherization to all residents. In the longer term, as the impact of climate change promises to be ever more devastating, home weatherization and efficiency measures need to increasingly become one of our national priorities.

“Nothing could be worse than the fear that one had given up too soon, and left one unexpended effort that might have saved the world. ”

Jane Addams (U.S. social worker, 1860-1935)