You may not think about it, but home improvements can sometimes have unpredicted positive effects…not only lowering your power bill and improving efficiency, but maybe even improving your health. TVA’s Home Uplift program is helping families with limited means achieve a better home life.
It was a typical hot summer day in Huntsville, Ala., when residents of the Northwoods neighborhood stepped outside to hear some good news: They’ll be getting new HVAC units—but that’s not all!—more home energy efficiency upgrades would be coming through TVA’s Home Uplift initiative.
The idea behind Home Uplift is to give a hand to limited-income customers whose residences are usually older and less energy efficient. Typically, older housing comes with higher power bills, with occupants having little means or control to take energy efficiency into their own hands. Resident Vera Stokes is loving the concept. “It’s going to be a different outcome for us—having a lower power bill makes me think ‘Wow, that’s great,” she says. “Everybody likes a lower power bill—especially right now when it’s 95 degrees and you have to have the A.C. on.”
Limited-income residents in the Southeast face some of the highest energy burdens in the nation. Aside from allocating a larger portion of their income to utilities, families with high energy burdens are also at a higher risk for long-term health effects, economic adversity, lack of affordable housing and elevated stress.
“I think customers with financial means take the steps necessary to make their homes efficient and comfortable, but limited-income customers or renters just can’t do it,” says Wes Kelley, president of Huntsville Utilities. “That’s why I’m proud that Huntsville Utilities is partnering with TVA and the Huntsville Housing Authority to step up and help the people who need it the most.”
Huntsville Utilities has a program called Project Share that allows users to round up their bills to help those in need pay their power bills. “That’s just a Band-Aid,” says Kelley. “Home Uplift is a lasting solution. I realize that this one project is just the dip of a toe in the water, but I hope it will create other opportunities going forward.”
“TVA’s energy efficiency efforts are now firmly focused on limited-income residents of the Tennessee Valley,” explains Frank Rapley, senior manager of TVA’s EnergyRight Solutions for the Home. His group has experience in the field, having completed a series of Extreme Energy Makeovers throughout the region last year, which likewise provided home improvements and energy efficiency education designed to help those of limited means gain control over their power bills. They succeeded wildly, reducing energy bills by an average of 35 percent—or 4,000 kWh—per home.
“We had great success forming partnerships with our local power companies and state and local agencies, as well as consumer groups such as the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance,” he says. “And though we didn’t exactly have funding to move forward with the EEMs, we had some savings [$5.5 million to spend over the two years] we wanted to put toward a similar effort. So we started looking for places we could achieve a 1:1 match or better to launch Home Uplift—and we were looking for places we knew we could scale up quickly.”
His team found several: Along with Huntsville, Home Uplift will be piloted in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga in Tennessee, as well as at two rural power companies in Mississippi: 4-Count Electric Power Association and Columbus Light and Water.
Typically, the local power company leads the way—and gives the Home Uplift initiative a local flavor. “In Huntsville, Huntsville Utilities helped us secure a $1 million in matching funds from the Huntsville Housing Authority,” explains Scott Harrell, program manager for EnergyRight Solutions for Home. “HU is doing the contractor management and auditing work, as well as joining with HHA in educating residents about additional steps they can take to save on energy bills.”
And TVA’s role? It’s not just putting up the matching funds. “TVA alone can’t possibly solve the problem at hand,” Rapley says. “But we can work as an organizing force when we work with other organizations. We bring expertize and systems, and knowledge of how to get this kind of work done efficiently. We have a contractor network to draw from, as well as back-office systems, auditors, inspectors, etc.—and now we’re pointing those resources toward the limited-income space.”
Much of the work in Huntsville in particular will focus on heating and cooling the duplex units that make up the bulk of the housing at Northwoods. Contractors will be installing “minisplit” electric pump heating and cooling units, as well as performing appropriate duct work, air sealing, insulation and everything else it takes to not only weatherproof but also protect air quality in these homes.
“I hope these units will not only be working better, but better for breathing,” says Northwoods resident Stokes.
Wes Kelley expects that they will be. “When you’ve been in the business as long as I have, you’ve seen the mold and mildew that’s associated with poor heating and cooling situations, and you’ve seen how that can aggravate health conditions,” he says, “having clean, conditioned air has got to improve their quality of life.”
That’s a large goal of the Home Uplift initiative, and TVA is working to prove the efficiency-health connection. “We are working with a research firm out of Knoxville called Three3 to do clinical studies as we do our Home Uplift work,” Rapley says. “We want to look at quantifiable health effects, like fewer workdays missed, fewer doctor visits and fewer hospitalizations. We want to have hard data that will help us talk to potential sources of funding in the medical field—we want a real business case. We spend about $8,000 per home to upgrade and seal the air system; that’s nothing when you consider that a three-day stay in the hospital for a child with asthma could cost upwards of $20,000.”
Helping with bills, helping with health—it all falls under TVA’s mission.
“TVA was formed because this part of the country was suffering in economic ways,” says Rapley. “We were here to bring prosperity to this region and to lift the people up. It’s 85 years later, and we still have people who need to be lifted up. We’re trying to do that, to be a resource for ALL Valley residents.”