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A new report by Community Climate Collaborative indicates which neighborhoods in Charlottesville face “energy burdens,” and officials say that solutions can interconnect between the city’s ongoing development of its Climate Action Plan and its Comprehensive Plan.
An energy burden is the percentage of a household’s income that goes towards energy costs. Myriad factors contribute to energy burdens to include insufficient insulation, appliances that are not energy efficient, construction quality and the income of a household spent on energy.
The neighborhoods where residents spend more of their income on power are 10th & Page/Venable, Jefferson Park Avenue and Ridge Street — neighborhoods between downtown and the University of Virginia composed of a mix of renters and homeowners, many of whom have lower incomes.
Energy burdens disproportionately affect low-income residents. Laura Goldbatt, of the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition, said that higher percentages of such a resident’s income going towards utility bills could mean the difference between taking on a second job or having available funds for other personal expenses.
She noted that by mapping energy burdens in the area, targeted policy can be created to reduce emissions and enhance affordability — two prominent goals in ongoing local planning processes.
“This report represents only the beginning of our understanding of how energy equity impacts our community and how climate and affordable housing policies help address it,” said Caetano de Campos Lopes, C3’s director of climate policy.
De Campos Lopes spearheaded the report, which analyzed census tract data.
“I think that this report has the goal of trying to demystify this perception that climate conversations are only for climate advocates,” de Campos Lopes said. “We look forward with this report and other organizations to bring this perception that the city should be more holistic in its approach to solutions.”
The report confirms suspicions or hypotheses some officials have had regarding which areas could benefit most from ongoing efforts related to energy efficiency and how those solutions connect to other area goals and strategies.
“We knew that pockets of wealth could hide energy burdens,” C3 Executive Director Susan Kruse said. “In order to see disparities and inequities, you need to look beyond the averages.”
As a collective average, most Charlottesville residents pay less than 3% of their income on power. But while examining deeper into each neighborhood, C3 determined which areas residents are paying more of their income to heat or cool their residences.
Among key findings, the report says that nearly 5,000 homes are paying more than 6% of their annual income on energy costs while more than 4,000 are paying more than 10% and more than 800 homes pay more than 20% of their annual income on energy costs — particularly a burden for residents with lower area median incomes.
As the city works towards the development of its Climate Action Plan and revises its Comprehensive Plan, the processes are a chance to bring the conversations together.
Planning a more equitable environment
“Our area is expected to see an increase in the number of our higher heat days,” said Susan Elliott, climate protection program manager for Charlottesville.
Data from Climate Central — a scientific nonprofit organization — also shows that the number of extremely hot days has increased in recent years, with the average July temperatures up by nearly 3%. As of Thursday, there had been 35 straight days of high temperatures in Charlottesville at or above 90 degrees. The previous record, set in 2016, was 21.
Last summer, Elliott led the charge in the city establishing its goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over time and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. She is also involved in the city’s development of a Climate Action Plan.
Previous Charlottesville Tomorrow reporting explored the connections between urban planning, construction quality and appliance types on energy efficiency. As temperatures rise, so will the efforts to cool residential and commercial buildings.
About ⅔ of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions are from buildings — both commercial and residential. Elliott said reducing emissions in buildings can stem from reducing the amount of energy a building would need to draw upon through things like adding insulation, more efficient HVAC and the installation of solar panels. In lower-income households, the upfront costs associated with retrofitting measures or maintenance could be prohibitive.
Elliott said strategies to reduce energy consumption include retrofitting buildings with more energy efficient appliances and enhancing insulation, along with switching to renewable energy sources when able, and thoughtful planting that can pull carbon dioxide out of the air.
“How I view a lot of this is going to feed into the Climate Action Plan conversation is hearing from the community where we should be putting our time and what scenarios meet multiple values from these efforts,” Elliott explained.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the city’s planned engagement process for the Climate Action Plan has shifted. Elliott said that in August there will be messaging about signing up for email lists to stay up to date along with a survey to refresh community members where previous outreach left off. She noted that previous outreach had yielded desire to bring equity into climate planning conversations.
“We heard about equity and making sure that conversation includes how we frame goals and how we talk about strategies in the [Climate Action Plan],” Elliott said.
Meanwhile, de Campos Lopes says that C3 hopes its report can help inform local planning and policy decisions that bridge affordable housing with climate measures.
“We have these very rich content on previous studies around affordable housing in our community, but there was never a big emphasis in the role of energy costs in the lack of affordability,” de Campos Lopes said. “We are adding to this conversation with this energy perspective we hope will make more feasible and actionable solutions for affordable housing.”