Beneficial Electrification in Low-Income Communities

Beneficial Electrification in Low-Income Communities: The First Step Toward Healthier Housing for All

Low-income families in America must surmount countless challenges—food deserts, inadequate medical care, job scarcity—the list goes on. However, one of the most prevalent issues that low-income American communities face, and is often forgotten about, is poor housing quality. Poor housing quality which includes energy inefficiency, leads to high energy costs and disproportionate health burdens.

Over 26 million U.S. households still burn costly, health-damaging, and climate warming fossil fuels, 29 million still have lead paint in their homes, and 9 million continue to utilize lead pipes1.

While most homes have been updated to replace these destructive features—including poor insulation, air leaks, and old or inefficient heating and cooling systems and appliances—low-income communities have been neglected and remain at risk. The majority of families living in low-income neighborhoods are dominated by people of color, as the effects of structural racism, segregation, and redlining persist in America.

Photo collage, vacant building stock, City of St. Louis by: Richard Reilly @rrconstructor   

In St. Louis, 52% of low-income households and 46% of black households face “energy burdens”—the percentage of household income spent on utilities—that are more than twice the citywide median2.

These disparities force households to choose between paying their electricity bills or purchasing necessities like food and medicine. Households with high energy burdens also cut back on heating and cooling in an attempt to save money, keeping their homes too cold in the winter or too hot in the summer, risking their health and safety2.

Although there is no easy solution to fix these disproportionate health outcomes, there could soon be new opportunities to vastly improve housing for historically marginalized communities with “beneficial electrification”—benefiting health, climate, and the economy. Congress is currently considering allocating tens of billions of dollars in funding that would help advocates confront these challenges and institute interventions for low-income communities. Specifically, money is needed to fund “beneficial electrification”.

In concept, beneficial electrification should lower energy burdens and improve housing quality by creating a safe and healthful indoor environment, while reducing climate pollution and enabling buildings to better manage electricity demand.

Beneficial electrification is done by replacing all existing gas appliances with:

  • high-performing all-electric appliances,
  • enhancing ventilation,
  • improving building energy management, and
  • creating a high-performance building envelope.

Essential to resiliency, these amendments must be accompanied by protections against eviction, displacement, and gentrification to truly make a difference. According to the Environmental Racism in St. Louis report,

“The City of St. Louis has long used its planning and zoning powers not only to enforce racial segregation, but also to confine blacks to areas with greater environmental and health risks” and “historically focused its urban development and code enforcement efforts primarily on majority-white areas and cleared majority-black areas of residences for various development projects or allowed them to deteriorate”2.

Beneficial electrification could be the first step in the right direction, as it helps ensure households have safer air quality indoor and outdoor, decreases health burdens due to less fossil fuel pollution, and lowers energy cost.

State and local governments need to create resources and frameworks that enable the transition to beneficial electrification possible.

It is also paramount that state and local governments partner with community-based organizations to ensure they meet the needs of the people who live, work, learn and play in the communities government officials serve. Your Missouri Gateway Green Building Council has been instrumental in passing policy within the City of St. Louis and connects members to the work of local community organizations in Southern Illinois and Missouri. Some of the infrastructure and budget bills currently under review are:

  • $35 billion for replacing lead pipes
  • $34.5 billion for low-cost clean energy financing
  • $18 billion for efficient homes and electric appliances
  • $14 billion for lead paint removal
The above infographic depicts how utilizing renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency can decarbonize our community. www.stlbenchmarking.com

Additional community health and climate crisis solutions that support beneficial electrification have already been deemed financially viable and effective by Project Drawdown—an organization that conducts analysis of technologies and methods that reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere. To support beneficial electrification, the use of high-efficiency heat pumps, LED lighting, low-flow fixtures, and smart thermostats should be implemented. These changes will help to eliminate the disproportionate energy burden that is faced by low-income and black American households.

To learn more about indoor air quality, how to best protect yourself from indoor air pollution, and how poor housing conditions impact indoor air quality, especially in low-income or racially diverse communities, join us for our next coffee break on Friday, August 5, 2022, @ 10-10:30am. We will be discussing “Indoor Air Quality Sensors” via Zoom with Sarah Gudeman, a mechanical engineer and the Director of Sustainability at Morrissey Engineering!

Sources:

1 “Investing in Healthier Low-Income Housing.” RMI, March 2, 2022. https://rmi.org/investing-in-healthier-low-income-housing/.

2 Rep. Environmental Racism in St. Louis, September 30, 2019. https://7gxsl10eqdj9anba1k3swtoo-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/2019-09-30_STL_Env_Racism_Report_REVISED_FINAL_Cropped.pdf.

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