How Energy Efficiency Creates a More Sustainable Community

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published February 8, 2019 In Energy Central

On cold winter mornings in Buncombe County, North Carolina, Tracy used to wake up to a difficult choice: try to heat her Asheville home and face an impossibly high utility bill, or ignore frozen fingers and toes so she could afford to feed her two small children.

Tracy isn’t alone. Peak demand in the county during the colder months has more than doubled in the past several decades as the population has grown, and many of those energy users are low-income families that struggle with the cost of heating.

To meet the spike in demand the local utility, Duke Energy, proposed construction of a natural gas-fired “peaker” plant, but Asheville and Buncombe County residents pushed back against the idea. Asheville and Buncombe County have adopted an ambitious energy goal: to be powered by 100% renewable energy for all government operations by 2030, and for all homes and businesses by 2040. To reach this goal – and to eliminate the need for a peaker plant – the area not only must work toward renewable energy production, it also must reduce energy demand.

The city and county governments entered into an unprecedented partnership with Duke Energy to find a different, more sustainable solution. Together, they created an Energy Innovation Task Force (EITF) in 2016, which in turn created the Blue Horizons Project in 2017 — an effort with a clear near-term goal of reducing energy demand, and a longer-term goal of moving to 100% renewable energy. An energy analysis conducted by the Rocky Mountain Institute at the behest of the EITF revealed the potential for dramatically reducing energy consumption in low-income households — and driving down residents’ energy costs – by making homes more energy efficient.

 “Our short- and long-term energy goals are important, but we also want it to produce other community benefits like reduction of utility bills for lower income individuals and families and making them more comfortable and healthy in their homes,” says County Commission Chairman Brownie Newman. “Directly tackling home energy efficiency helps offset peak demand and also directly helps address high utility costs for families. It checks a lot of different boxes in terms of what we're hoping to accomplish.”

It may ultimately help the county’s budget as well. Buncombe County spends nearly $2 million each year in emergency heating assistance.

“Energy inefficient housing is already very expensive for taxpayers because we're investing money to address the critical heating needs of low-income families who struggle with utility bills,” says Newman. “This program won’t eliminate that need in the short term, but it could save us millions down the road.”

Although the Blue Horizons Project is wide-ranging and long-term, the element of immediate energy reduction in low-income homes aligned perfectly with a grant opportunity from the Southeast Sustainable Communities Fund (SSCF), a program of the Southeast Sustainability Directors Networkand The Kendeda Fund, with support from Merck Family Fund. The city, county and utility applied together and received $300,000 to help make area homes more efficient, warmer, and healthier for those who live in them. In some cases, this can be accomplished by relatively simple weatherization and efficiency upgrades. In others, a full energy upfit is required, including new heating equipment or more substantial solutions.

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