When DeAndrea Salvador was in high school in Charlotte, North Carolina, she volunteered helping out her grandmother’s neighbor with her bills and expenses. One winter, Salvador says, she remembers Ms. Jacobs remarking on how high her energy bill was, and saying how difficult it would be for her to pay it.
In the U.S., an energy bill that exceeds 6% of a household’s income is considered unaffordable. Jacobs’s bill fell into that category, as do the bills of most low-income households in the country, who generally have to allocate around 10%, sometimes as much as 20%, of their income to power their homes because the buildings in which they live are often more poorly insulated against extreme weather conditions, which pulls heating and cooling costs into exorbitant territory; they also have less access to renewable energy technology like solar panels, which can be expensive but ultimately work to lower a household’s energy costs. As climate change produces warmer summers and colder winters, more and more households will find themselves struggling to pay their power bills.
After learning about Jacobs’s situation, Salvador never stopped looking into the burden lower-income people shoulder when it comes to power—also known as energy poverty. In the course of researching the causes of energy poverty, Salvador realized that it’s not just a simple equation of the same energy bill netting out to a greater income percentage for people with less wealth. Rather, lower income people often end up paying a lower energy bill in terms of sheer dollar amount, but much, much more in terms of the cost per square foot. Higher energy costs, a 2014 Columbia University study found, are also correlated with poor health outcomes, including asthma, food insecurity, heart disease, and mental health issues.
Still living in Charlotte, in 2014 she founded the Renewable Energy Transition Initiative, a nonprofit that educates lower-income people about renewable energy strategies to lower their bills, and advocates for more inclusive sustainable energy policies. This year, Salvador joins the 2018 class of TED Fellows, a group of 20 young innovators working on scalable solutions to global problems.
The reasons for energy poverty, Salvador says, is that the buildings where lower-income people live are often very inefficient: they leak air, are poorly insulated, and as such, can often require up to three times as much energy to heat and cool. Furthermore, “there’s essentially a barrier for lower-income folks to access solar energy and renewable technologies to lower their bills.” Especially in the southeast, Salvador says, there’s less political support for renewable energy, and there are also fewer policies in place than say, a state like California, that mandate certain building standards that would increase energy efficiency. While wealthier residents can afford some of those upgrades, or more comfortably foot a higher bill, lower-income residents would benefit greatly from a political climate in favor of greater energy efficiency. “We’re craving some structural changes,” Salvador says.
Through RETI, Salvador is beginning to push to fix the problem. Ultimately, she intends to use the nonprofit as a vehicle for setting up shared solar installations in low-income communities; she imagines large solar arrays that can connect to houses in a neighborhood, and provide supplemental power to offset families’ usual charges through the utility (a pilot project for an initiative like this, she says, is underway in South Carolina, in partnership with the regional utility, Duke Energy).
But the first goal of the nonprofit, she says, is to increase awareness of the causes of energy poverty–and how to overcome it–through education. RETI hosts regular workshops around the Charlotte area, in which Salvador and a team of volunteers equip community members with tips for reducing energy usage; they handed out water heater gauge cards, which residents can use to determine if their heaters are turned up unnecessarily high, and instructed people in the energy-sucking dangers of household items like idle cell-phone chargers.
These are small interventions, Salvador says, but they’re important for galvanizing people to be more proactive in learning about how energy bills are determined, and eventually, uniting to advocate for larger interventions like community solar.
Helping people to take matters into their own hands will be essential for closing the energy equity gap because federal programs designed to do so fall very short of the need. Through the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, North Carolina receives around $88 million in annual federal funds, which only covers 6% of the 1.5 million state residents who qualify for aid. Even for those who receive aid, the money is only enough to offset around one monthly energy bill.
As Salvador continues to educate and galvanize the community, she’s also working directly with the city and community on a project to create a “smart district” in Charlotte’s north end. RETI is instrumental in creating the educational framework for the inclusion of smart homes in the development, which will be affordable and energy efficient in the way that many lower-income homes in the state are not. She’s optimistic that through connections with other TED Fellows this year, she’ll be able to expand the reach and scope of her nonprofit out to other cities where lower-income people face undue burdens in accessing energy.