In 2006, the City of Houston partnered with CenterPoint Energy to begin the Residential Energy Efficiency Program (REEP), designed to provide free energy efficiency retrofits, to low-income households in the city. The goal of REEP is to reduce both the energy bill burden on low-income households and energy consumption in the city.
Although the program brings considerable savings to weatherized households, the participation rate among qualified households has been somewhat low, averaging approximately 50 percent — though with substantial variance between neighborhoods — in spite of the high satisfaction ratings received from participants. To examine applicant participation across neighborhoods, the city is collaborating with Rice University to assess why citizens are reluctant to participate, and also to determine how the program could be modified to increase participation. Moreover, the study will also analyze the impact of the “rebound effect” on energy saving: whether energy efficient homes induce households to use their appliances more or spend the money saved on electricity bills to buy other electrical appliances, thereby inadvertently increasing overall electricity usage. State and federal commitment to reducing the burden of utility bills on low-income households makes this study relevant for cities across the country.
Neighborhoods that qualify for REEP generally consist of old houses, which are most in need of energy-saving improvements; yet the owners of these houses are the least likely to be able to afford energy efficiency upgrades. Low-income households face very high energy bills. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, low-income households spend between 19 percent and 26 percent of their income on energy bills, in contrast to the 4 percent spent by middle-income households . A substantial number of these homeowners are elderly or disabled and receive a fixed income. In extreme cases, these households are forced to choose between purchasing food and medicine or paying their energy bills. With the savings that result from the efficiency improvements, they could afford both.
Energy efficiency improvements implemented by REEP include weather stripping windows and doors, insulating attics and hot water pipes, caulking windows, and replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs. Weather stripping, insulating and caulking seal a home’s thermal envelope (the interior living space), reducing interior-exterior airflow to keep the inside of a house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Other possible measures include installation of sunscreens and smart thermostats, and replacing old and energy-intensive refrigerators, heat pumps, water heaters and air conditioners if necessary. REEP takes care to ensure that upgrades fully comply with health and safety standards, and has considered the cost and effectiveness of each of these technologies.
Since the REEP’s inception, more than 7,000 homes across multiple neighborhoods in the city have been weatherized. At present, six neighborhoods have been completed, six are in progress and seven have been identified for future projects. Data collected from the weatherized homes indicates that, on average, electricity usage decreased by 12 percent each month and even up to 20 percent during the summer, when electricity bills are usually highest . REEP, in combination with other energy efficiency policies for public buildings and infrastructure, is decreasing energy demanded from utility companies, which in turn is reducing the need for new transmission and distribution lines and new power generation facilities. Ideally, these programs will reduce the number of coal-fired generation plants, thereby improving air quality and lowering carbon dioxide emissions.
REEP has adopted a community-based implementation system in which contractors work in one neighborhood at a time. After identifying and qualifying low-income neighborhoods, the program communicates and meets with community leaders to educate the neighborhood about the program and its benefits; signs up residents at community events; and assigns homes to a weatherization contractor. The contractor then conducts a home energy efficiency assessment, implements required energy measures and conducts a follow-up inspection. This community-based approach aims to capitalize on existing social networks, with the hope that participating households can share experiences with their neighbors, thus promoting the program while simultaneously educating everyone about the importance of energy efficiency.
Energy Forum Team