High power bills, poor houses accentuate poverty

Homes in Atlanta’s Dixie Hills neighborhood, such as the one where Brittany Cofield lives, are a modest 900 square feet, smaller than many apartments. But there is nothing modest about their energy consumption.

Cofield said she frequently hears her mother complain about their electric bill, which averages $300 a month. One month it was $1,000, said Cofield, 22. The family often turns off the thermostat to the upstairs of the rented house when they are downstairs, to help manage their utility bills.

“It’s not comfortable, especially in the summer,” said Cofield, who is looking at apartments as a way to save money. “In the winter it gets very cold.”

Cofield and her mom put a face on a trend affecting the region’s poorer residents: Georgia’s historically low energy costs are rising, while programs to make older homes more energy efficient are lagging.

As utility bills aggravate poverty, ripple effects on public health, the economy and quality of life affect everyone, environmental and community advocates say. And, according to the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, bad debt from nonpayments drives up bills for all consumers.

“The real key to the region being competitive and sustainable relies on us supporting our weakest link as well as our strongest,” said Nathaniel Smith, founder, chief equity officer, Partnership for Southern Equity, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that focuses on the metro 10-county region.

“The South is poor, it got poorer during the recession, it’s staying poorer … and yet utility bills are going up. People have less money to spend on buying their kids good food and other things that matter if you want a healthy set of kids and a stable family life,” said Mandy Mahoney, president for the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Government officials say the state’s poorest residents — 18.7 percent, or 1.83 million Georgians in 2011, according to 2011 U.S. Census data — can pay as much as 17 cents of every dollar, compared to an average 3 cents for most households, to keep the lights on and to heat and cool their home.

Since 2008, average utility bills in Georgia have shot up 17 percent, including rate increases that started in 2011 in part because of environmental compliance costs and in part to pay for Georgia Power’s nuclear expansion at Plant Vogtle.

Though natural gas prices have remained low, Atlanta Gas Light had a net increase of 90 cents for its portion of a typical monthly bill starting in 2011 and a 48-cent increase starting this fall.

The poor often pay more because of the condition of their dwellings: older, non-insulated homes where the heat seeps out through doors, windows and roofs.

The Hyacinth Avenue houses in Dixie Hills, many of which are boarded up or need repair, have window air-conditioning units. Bobby Green, Cofield’s former next-door neighbor, said the easiest way to cool them in the summer is to turn on the air-conditioner, usually bought at a pawn shop, then open the front and back doors to let air circulate through.

“The main issue we’re dealing with here is quality of life,” said Green, founder of the nonprofit CHEC Pro, whose goal is to revitalize low-income communities. “I cannot be comfortable in my own home because I’m worried about my energy bill. People are either freezing or sweating.”

In Atlanta, a host of energy and community nonprofits have formed an “energy equity coalition” to help low-income residents understand how to save energy and to encourage the utilities to do more. Local energy-consulting business Ygrene is working with Clean Energy Atlanta to start a $500 million capital fund to make commercial buildings and multi-family units more energy efficient.

For its part, Georgia Power offers rebates for energy-efficient appliances and recycling old refrigerators. It quietly started a “My Power Usage” program so residents can view online how much electricity they used daily to help manage costs.

“We don’t want our customers to waste electricity,” is the basic message, said Michele Wagner, Georgia Power’s energy efficiency director. The utility tweaks that message to drive home the part about saving money when talking to low-income residents.

For bill-payment assistance, such as the Salvation Army’s Project Share, Georgia Power matches dollar-for-dollar what customers contribute. Last year that amount was $2.3 million. AGL gives $1 million a year to United Way’s utility-assistance programs. Natural gas marketers also contribute to state programs and have opportunities for their consumers to do the same.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy says Georgia Power’s programs are good but could be expanded. It says Georgia Power lags in energy-efficiency programs compared with 11 major other utilities in the Southeast, including some in Florida, North and South Carolina and Tennessee.

“They need to scale up, doubling, at a minimum,” on helping low-income residents with energy efficiency, said Marilyn Brown, Georgia Tech public policy professor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. “Their goals for energy efficiency are much more modest compared with other states.”

Georgia Power’s new energy-efficiency goal is to reduce consumption each year between 2014 and 2016 by .4 percent. Brown said the number is meaningful but noted many states are trying for reductions five times that amount, or 2 percent.

Wagner said Georgia Power’s efficiency programs are evolving. She touts a group started in 2008 that includes Georgia Power, staff from the Georgia Public Service Commission, large industrial and commercial customers and environmental groups, which looks for ways to reduce energy consumption.

In Florida and North Carolina, Duke Energy and Progress Energy offer “neighbor energy saver” programs for poor communities. Volunteers go door to door to install weatherstripping, compact fluorescent light bulbs and hot water heater wraps.

Other states with aggressive energy-efficiency programs include Arkansas, which spent $50 million on energy efficiency programs last year, Brown said.

By contrast, Georgia spent $7.5 million in weatherization programs last year. This money came from the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as well as a $2 million grant from Georgia Power, according to the utility and Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, which said the money helped weatherize 1,919 homes.

Georgia Power’s most robust energy-efficiency program is offering in-home energy audits, available to all consumers. A team of energy-service representatives reviews a house from top to bottom to see where energy may be wasted.

Decatur resident Brad Kaegi called Georgia Power for an energy audit when his utility bills were at least $100 more than the home’s previous owner had been paying. An hour-long review indicated sealed windows and doors but showed an older air conditioning unit that isn’t running as efficiently.

“When there’s a 30 percent increase in bills, that’s why we called Georgia Power,” he said.

Ratepayers’ awareness of how their own home energy costs can make a difference.

“People don’t realize, ‘OK, I’m wasting $50 a month,’ well, gosh, that’s $600 a year,” said Dennis Creech, executive director at Southface, which offers a weatherization training program to help people better insulate their homes to lower their bills. “If you would come to people and say, ‘Give me a check for $600,’ they’d go ballistic. Well, that’s really what you’re doing if you don’t make your house energy-efficient.”

In Georgia, the break between turning air conditioners off and furnaces on is often short or nonexistent as hot summer suddenly becomes cold winter. This climate makes it difficult to make homes and buildings more energy-efficient, Creech said.

Southface’s Southeast Weatherization and Energy Efficiency Training Center has trained several thousand contractors to seal ducts, install insulation and take other steps to tighten air gaps.

“If we have an aggressive weatherization program in this state, it is not just about helping the homeowners,” Creech said. “It’s about helping the economy of this state. It’s about helping the environment of the state.”

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