What’s Really at Stake for the Smarter Cities Partnership?

In Guest Ed. by Rick Heldleave a COMMENT

What’s in a name? In the case of a just-launched program called Knoxville Extreme Energy Makeover, not exactly what it says. It’s not as if all of Knoxville will get an “extreme energy makeover.” It’s not even as if most of the households who could really use one will get one. But if the Smarter Cities Partnership is smart enough to not declare mission accomplished with KEEM, it could spark big changes for the better in the city’s overall energy efficiency and economic development. Or not.

On its face, KEEM should make a big difference to a select few homeowners who have been barely—or sometimes have just not been—able to pay their utility bills.

It’s not that KEEM will be paying more of those overdue bills for these residents. Local charities and agencies continue to do that, though the need is threatening to outpace the available aid while KUB cutoff notices have been close to record levels in recent years. KEEM is getting at one of the roots of this problem by lowering those bills in the first place, enough so that some homeowners might be able to pay them before they come in the envelopes marked “FINAL NOTICE.”

Many of those final notices are being sent to low-income people living in some of the leakiest houses in town, in terms of energy. KEEM is targeting 1,271 of those houses for free energy efficiency upgrades, typically including a new heat pump, air sealing, and insulation of walls, ducts, pipes, crawlspaces, and attics. This means some of the people who can least afford steadily climbing energy costs will be paying to heat and cool more of the inside of their houses and less of the great outdoors, which may result in lower utility bills and fewer cutoff notices. It also means a little less demand for electricity from burning coal, a fuel that effectively heats up an already-overheated atmosphere, which we can thank for recent increases in killer weather. And then there are the new weatherization jobs.

But the $15 million awarded to a local coalition to implement this program will not really accomplish the critical mission they came together to address in the first place, before this money kind of fell out of the sky for them.

In one sense, the Smarter Cities Partnership Stakeholder Council formed in 2013 to address the root causes of burgeoning numbers of KUB customers who could not pay their utility bills. A local community organization that I work with called Socially Equal Energy Efficient Development was documenting this growing problem through community surveys starting in 2009. SEEED repeatedly asked city officials to assemble community leaders to consider expansion of weatherization programs to address the issue. Those pleas were met with benign neglect until 2012. By then, things started heating up at the various agencies and charities that provide emergency utility bill assistance. Between extreme weather and a prolonged recession, pent-up “demand” for emergency utility bill assistance finally burst the flood gates.

According to an IBM study of KUB and agency data, total aid to households with cutoff notices went up 66 percent in one year, from $3.3 million in 2011 to $5 million in 2012. With emergency aid reportedly stretched to limits, the city applied for and was awarded an IBM Smarter Cities Challenge Grant, which brought a high-level team to Knoxville for three weeks to assess the problem and propose solutions. IBM’s key findings sounded very familiar to SEEED: Form a stakeholder council to “develop one strong voice on energy efficiency in Knoxville,” and find a sustainable funding mechanism to expand weatherization of low-income housing.

With much fanfare, Mayor Rogero accepted the IBM report and anointed the Smarter Cities Partnership. Aside from a modest new low-income weatherization fund set up by KUB (funded by automatically rounding up bills to the next dollar, unless individual customers opt out), after almost two years of committee meetings (many in which I participated), the council had no comprehensive program to approve.

This was the type of vacuum the Tennessee Valley Authority was destined to fill. Because their coal plants had been violating EPA air pollution permits, TVA has been under a court order which in part requires the power producer to spend millions on energy efficiency in low-income communities.

TVA was clear the money would not be funding a sustainable program, which is the ultimate purpose of the partnership. However, some of the key Smarter Cities partners, including the city of Knoxville, KUB, the Alliance to Save Energy, and Knox County Community Action Committee, decided to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and that $15 million was very good indeed. With no other localities in the Tennessee Valley having such a broad group of stakeholders already in place to, at least on paper, improve energy efficiency in low-income communities, their joint proposal proved hard for TVA to refuse.

KEEM is slated to weatherize 1,271 low-income homes over the next two years, with energy savings required to test out to at least 25 percent for every house. TVA says the average cost of each retrofit will be close to $10,000 per house, fully underwritten by the program, for income-eligible homeowners and tenants with landlord permission. The breadth and depth of the effort is unprecedented in the seven-state TVA region.

But the program barely scratches the surface of the need.

CAC, a federally funded agency that has been weatherizing low-income homes with politically fluctuating budgets since the ’70s, administers the program. CAC is signing up many homeowners for KEEM who have been on their weatherization waiting list for years, most of whom got there by receiving emergency utility bill assistance.

The fact that CAC has had a waiting list of homes to be weatherized for much of its existence provides a clue about the need. Over the last five years the agency has weatherized 2,000 homes. If the almost 1,300 homes that get an Extreme Energy Makeover are taken off the list of households that received emergency utility bill assistance in 2014, maybe 11,400 households will still need help.

Of course, not everyone who gets a cutoff notice needs to weatherize their house. But it is also true that just because someone doesn’t apply for emergency assistance doesn’t mean they couldn’t realize great benefits from a retrofit. Thousands of working-class families eke by, paycheck to paycheck and KUB bill to KUB bill.

Reducing cutoff notices could be an appropriate starting point for “developing one strong voice on energy efficiency in Knoxville,” but our energy efficiency picture is bigger than unsustainable, one-time triage entitlement programs such as KEEM. The most dynamic and sustainable programs, in cities similar in size and climate to Knoxville, such as Charlottesville, Va., recognize that energy efficiency is a job-creating economic development tool. One of the ways to sustain this development is through low-cost energy efficiency loan programs, where the loans require no down payment and are paid back through energy savings. The program’s loan payments aggregate back to a revolving loan fund, which funds more loans for more residential and commercial retrofits, across all income brackets.

To achieve its mission, the Smarter Cities Partnership will need to think outside of the “poverty management box” and start laying the groundwork for an emerging market in clean and efficient energy for all. υ

Rick Held is the co-founder of the Knoxville Energy Alliance and Partnership for Green Jobs.

If you have a burning opinion that must be shared (and if you generally know what you’re talking about), send it to: editor@knoxmercury.com

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