By Randy Moore
For The Virginian-Pilot
Sep 30, 2018
ACROSS VIRGINIA, families will soon turn on their heaters as temperatures drop. Sadly, some Virginia families have to cut back on groceries and other essentials when their monthly power bill arrives, just to keep the lights on.
Many Virginia residents who live in multifamily homes, such as apartments and townhouses, don’t enjoy the same access to energy efficiency as other Virginians. This is largely because landlords have no financial incentive to invest in reducing power bills that someone else pays.
Adding to this challenge is the fact that Virginia has the highest rents in the Southeast, and some of the highest rents in the country. Especially for low-income families struggling to get by, high energy and housing costs combine into a unique financial burden and a threat to their quality of life.
In Virginia Beach, one in four low-income families living in multifamily homes dedicates 10 percent or more of their income on utilities, meaning these households shoulder energy costs about three times as high as the average Virginia Beach family. Because incomes aren’t increasing as quickly as energy costs, many Virginians, especially African American and Latino residents, dread the arrival of the monthly power bill.
Overwhelmingly, Virginians want the state to step up on energy efficiency. A 2017 survey revealed that more than 80 percent of voters think Virginia should incentivize and even fund efforts by utilities to boost energy efficiency. Almost 90 percent of Virginia voters backed the idea that state utilities should be required to work with their customers to help them save money with energy efficiency.
Right now, Gov. Ralph Northam is devising his energy plan. This document will shape energy policy in Virginia during the next decade, so it’s critical that Northam chart a smart course to tap the full potential of energy efficiency, and that all Virginians can reap these benefits.
The Virginia Housing Alliance, a member of the Virginia Multifamily Energy Efficiency Coalition, works to ensure that multifamily residents can access housing that is affordable not just in terms of rent or mortgage but also in terms of the power bill. This is particularly relevant because Virginia has the 11th-largest multifamily housing stock in the United States, and nearly half of these homes were built before 1980 building codes and might be squandering energy by modern standards.
According to a study by Optimal Energy, Virginia could slash energy use by as much as 28 percent by harnessing the full potential of energy efficiency in affordable multifamily homes alone. By empowering customers to cut energy use in this way, Virginia can reduce its overall energy use, delaying or even averting the need to invest in costly new power plants. This saves us all money.
One little known barrier to greater efficiency in Virginia’s multifamily homes is the fact that the State Corporation Commission — which regulates energy policy in Virginia — doesn’t accurately evaluate the cost effectiveness of proposed energy efficiency programs.
Northam’s energy plan should encourage the SCC to consider the vast range of broader benefits of energy efficiency— such as reduced pollution and healthier residents — in analyzing efficiency programs. Ideally, the governor’s office will use his energy plan to take a more active role in efficiency overall, reconvening the Governor’s Executive Committee on Energy Efficiency, creating a subcommittee on low-income and multifamily housing, and defining how the committee can support Northam’s energy-efficiency vision. We also suggest the plan endorse a public benefit charge to lend a helping hand to low-income families in installing energy-saving upgrades, something 20 other states already do, and an approach supported by 60 percent of Virginia voters.
On Friday, Virginia will celebrate Energy Efficiency Day. We hope Northam recognizes there’s more we can do on energy efficiency, particularly for those who have the least and who often get overlooked. With his 2018 energy plan, he can help all Virginia families save money and save energy. We hope he’ll seize the moment.
Randy Moore is director of policy and advocacy with the Virginia Housing Alliance, a member of the Virginia Multifamily Energy Efficiency Coalition.