‘Share the Pennies’ weatherization program tackles climate solutions, reduces cost

Published 9:08 am Tuesday, July 2, 2024

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Rebecca Maino would set aside $20 each month for her house repairs. Her aging home in Memphis had a leaky sink, an outdated air conditioner, and holes in the walls.

It just wasn’t enough to cover the costs. On her limited budget, she couldn’t manage to save more money while paying her family’s bills.

“When [contractors] come in and the scope of work that they tell you is thousands of dollars, people that are on fixed incomes that have worked their whole life to pay their home off, they simply cannot afford that,” said Maino. 

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Over the years, the inconvenience evolved into a safety concern. With the increasing frequency of extreme weather – like last week’s deadly, subfreezing temperatures – her energy-inefficient home was becoming a health risk. Maino turned to Memphis Gas Light and Water (MLGW) and their weatherization program that could help with improvements. 

As storms intensify, environmental coalitions are backing these assistance programs as a viable climate solution in southern cities like Memphis. Weatherization gives residents the resources they need to protect themselves while reducing energy use from sources that emit climate-altering pollution. It also reduces energy during peak power demands that Tennessee now experiences as people try to stay warm in winter weather.

Weatherization programs have a longstanding presence across the nation. It’s a strong policy framework that MLGW has adapted into a program that is uniquely its own, some of which comes down to Memphis grit: the people behind the program who are dedicated to working hard for their community. 

“I take my job personally, because I came from a challenging upbringing right here in Memphis. I know what it’s like to be cold in the wintertime, hot in the summertime, and not having a lot of necessary needs to be met,” said David Wright, the technician who was assigned to Maino’s case. 

“We can’t rebuild a house all over again,” he said. “We try to make the [recommendations] the best that we possibly can give to a customer and to meet the needs they have.” 

When Wright showed up at Maino’s doorstep, that’s exactly what he did. He walked Maino through the issues while writing a work order that prescribed her a new air conditioner and heater, pipe repairs, and wall patchups. That order also identified the contractors responsible for installing appliances and making the necessary fixes. 

Maino never received an invoice, because the ratepayers had it covered. 

$8.3M in ratepayer donations funds weatherization projects 

In 2016, a MLGW customer-led advisory board told the utility it wasn’t doing enough with Share The Pennies – a small program that rounded up utility bills to the next whole dollar for weatherization services. For three years, customers were given the option to donate their extra change, but many weren’t checking the box. 

The board worked with Memphis City Councilmember Patrice Robinson to propose a resolution that would make Share The Pennies an opt-out program, asking customers to remove themselves if they didn’t want to participate. The city council passed it. 

Margie Borrum-Smith took the calls from unhappy customers. 

“People would say, ‘I don’t want anybody telling me what to do with my money,’ but when they hear about what’s going on, they want to participate,” said Borrum-Smith, who is now the manager of MLGW’s energy services and oversees the Share The Pennies program. 

Customers contributing to the program give about $12 each year, resulting in a collective revenue of $8.3 million. It has funded the weatherization of 935 homes. 

But, managing the program budget is not just about the quantity of work, it’s about the quality of the work, said Borrum-Smith. 

MLGW technicians oversee home projects from beginning to end. To perform services, they are required to hold certification as a home energy rater, an accreditation recognized by the U.S. Department of Energy. 

Trained to conduct ethical inspections and uphold industry standards, they offer cost-saving recommendations and investments in sustainable appliances such as heat pumps – an energy-efficient technology capable of both heating and cooling homes.

During installations, technicians collaborate with a roster of 41 local contractors, with many being small businesses owned by people of color and women. Together, they adhere to a set of standards and code enforcements.

“In the end, the technician has to sign off and the customer has to sign off,” said Borrum-Smith. “It’s the technician that should be asking, ‘are you satisfied?’ Because we shouldn’t let anything pass that should not be like we want it in our home.” 

The demand for weatherization services exceeds what Borrum-Smith’s team can currently meet. In addition to better living conditions, people want more affordable monthly utility bills. 

Memphis has one of the highest energy burdens nationally, where families or individuals allocate a significant portion of their income to utility bills. Thirteen percent of households face energy burdens, nearly 10% higher than the national average, as reported by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. 

MLGW’s next enrollment period opens on Tuesday. The utility partners with the Metropolitan Interfaith Association to manage the hundreds of people who ask for weatherization services. In past years, they’ve received so many applications, they closed the portal in just a day. 

Borrum-Smith hopes that the program can eventually offer a second enrollment period each year, but this expansion would require more funding. Despite that MLGW receives federal and state funding for weatherization programs, as well as contributions from ratepayers, meeting the pace and scale of demands will require more funding. 

Energy efficiency as a solution in motion 

Weatherization is among America’s oldest resiliency policies. 

In response to the 1973 oil crisis that brought about soaring energy costs, the U.S. The Department of Energy created its weatherization assistance program. Now, nearly half a century later, the Biden administration is using similar approaches as a tool to meet climate targets with unprecedented funding packages for clean energy. 

“Weatherization is key from a climate resilience standpoint,” said Will Bryan, policy director with the Southern Energy Efficiency Alliance. 

“There are two dimensions to this,” he said. “There’s certainly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which is vital and which weatherization does. The other benefit improves the kind of resilience of a household in the face of climate impacts.”

The impacts of climate change, such as hotter summers and more intense winter storms, pose dual threats to both safety and the operational integrity of energy grids. Tennessee Valley Authority, the energy provider for MLGW, has been grappling with these challenges. 

In recent years, the utilities have implemented rolling blackouts due to high electrical demand that strains its energy grid. Just last week, they jointly issued energy conservation alerts, urging customers to voluntarily reduce their energy usage when temperatures dropped to single digits.

While cohesive emergency plans and the adoption of clean energy sources are imperative for a holistic climate response across Tennessee, these solutions are years away. But weatherization already has a strong policy groundwork. 

That’s why Bryan and his colleagues at SEEA are actively aiding state energy offices now on home energy programs, offering guidance on effective strategies for administering and allocating federal funding. He anticipates that millions of dollars could come through Tennessee because of initiatives such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. These funding packages offer rebates and other funding streams that can be used to directly lower the cost of energy improvements. 

Already, Memphis city planners funneled $500,000 awarded from the American Rescue Plan Act into the Share The Pennies program last year. 

As program managers and energy consultants try to expand their financial resources for weatherization programs, they are grateful to customers like those at MLGW who are helping their neighbors. This accessible and dependable revenue source is something even Share the Pennies participants, like Maino herself, can contribute to. With her monthly utility costs now $30 lower, Maino rounds up her bill, passing on the assistance to others. 

“Everybody wants to be Bill Gates. Everybody wants to be Warren Buffet, but the reality is when you’re a single mother, like I am, I don’t have the liberty to sit here and write a $10,000 or $10 million check,” said Maino. “But rounding up to the nearest dollar, that’s not going to affect anyone’s bottom line.”