The environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth says Memphis could reduce its high energy burden -- one of the higest in the country -- by helping low-income residents weatherize their homes.
Despite Memphis' relatively low utility rates, low income households devote about 25 percent of their income to energy bills.
The primary cause is the city’s deteriorating housing stock countywide. Old and poorly maintained homes have cracks and other infrastructure problems, which allow internal heating and air to escape.
“Poor people unfortunately live in homes that leak," says David Freeman, a Friends of the Earth consultant and former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority. “They use much more electricity per square foot than a rich person that’s got a well built house.”
The organization now says it’s time for Memphis Light, Gas & Water to make a substantial investment in “weatherizing” low-income houses. Friends of the Earth proposes that the public utility borrow $250 million over five years to weatherize 72,000 households.
The group also wants the utility to drop a fixed charge of $11.60 on low-income bills. Advocates say the loss could be recouped by increasing fees for above-average energy users who are not low income.
The weatherization process involves a visit from an energy auditor who recommends energy saving fixes, some costlier than others. For example, a home may just need new caulking around doors or windows frames. Other homes may need new windows or energy efficient water heaters.
MLGW already funds some weatherization grants through its “Share the Pennies Program,” which rounds up residents’ utility bills to the nearest dollar. But former MLGW head, Herman Morris, also a Friends of the Earth advisor, says the pennies program is too modest.
“It’s good that you’re sharing pennies,” he says. “But pennies solve penny-sized problems. We’re talking about a problem that’s not a penny-sized problem in this community. It’s a problem that is a million dollar problem.”
The group will be presenting its proposal to City Council for consideration in the next fiscal year budget.
“This is public power, and it needs to be focused more on helping...low income people,” Freeman says.