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When aspiring mechanical engineer Chase Counts packed his bags for Virginia Tech, the earnest freshman from Manassas was intent on inventing the next revolutionary renewable energy resource “that would save the world.”
Fast forward 15 years. Counts now directs operations for the energy solutions division of Community Housing Partners. While the weatherization program he oversees might not have the global reach he once envisioned, it’s a boon for low- and moderate-income Virginians struggling to pay high electric bills.
And its scope will expand significantly because of a cash infusion spawned by Virginia’s decision to join an East Coast carbon cap-and-invest enterprise last year.
The 11-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, is designed to curb the emissions of heat-trapping gases from fossil fuel power plants by auctioning carbon dioxide allowances. Member states decide independently how to spend the dollars.
Virginia’s General Assembly directed roughly half of the estimated $100 million in annual auction proceeds to a range of energy efficiency programs for low-income households. The Department of Housing and Community Development is administering the program.
What’s momentous is that for the first time ever, Christiansburg-based Community Housing Partners and 16 other similar nonprofits are on track to receive money to attend to long-deferred and unfunded home repairs that have to be completed before weatherization can even begin.
“These RGGI funds are a Virginia-specific solution to a nationwide problem,” Counts said. “It’s huge for the state.”
Close to one in five Virginia households in need of weatherization was being left behind.
Counts educated the stakeholders in a RGGI advisory group by writing a policy brief that explained how the funding gap in deferred maintenance was exacerbating energy burdens.
He and other weatherization specialists statewide breathed sighs of relief in mid-July when the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond struck down a challenge of the state’s RGGI regulations from the Virginia Manufacturers Association.
Virginia’s journey to becoming the first southern state to join RGGI has been circuitous and twisted. After years of obstruction, the General Assembly finally voted to join the 2008 initiative last year. With House Bill 981, legislators tasked the Department of Environmental Quality with establishing parameters for the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act.
In addition to deferred maintenance, the state is also funding two other non-weatherization housing initiatives with its portion of the RGGI dollars. Both target low- and moderate-income Virginians. One “bucket” covers energy efficiency efforts for new construction, rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of affordable and special needs housing. The other, still in development, is a new grant program for housing innovation partnerships.
In this interview with the Energy News Network, Counts explains why it matters that weatherization nonprofits will finally have the funding for necessary house repairs after years of chronic shortages. His answers were lightly edited for clarity and length.
Q: First, can you tell us a bit about your background and how you landed at Community Housing Partners?
A: I realized that mechanical engineering wasn’t for me during a nine-month internship at a nearby company. What I enjoyed were the two weeks where I assembled a team that did an energy assessment on the plant and figured out how to save the company hundreds of thousands of dollars by reducing peak demand and introducing energy efficiency measures.
I changed my major to environmental policy and planning. During my senior year, I took a one-credit elective course in residential energy evaluation that connected a lot of dots for me. The professor was on the board of directors for Community Housing Partners. One of the guest instructors worked there and he invited me to tour the new training center in Christiansburg. That visit basically turned into a job interview.
Before graduating, I started with CHP as a building science and weatherization trainer. I have been promoted regularly, most recently a year ago to my current position.
Q: It looks as if the state Department of Housing and Community Development will be directing $55 million to three housing programs for low- and moderate-income Virginians during the fiscal year that began July 1. How much of that is for weatherization programs?
A: It will be $16.5 million this first year and something close to that in the following years. And it’s not all for Community Housing Partners.
It’s distributed to all 17 providers that do similar weatherization work across the state through the Department of Housing and Community Development. We’re the largest one. All of us are mission-driven nonprofits. Each provider is required to make an allocation request to the state, estimating how much money we will need for the next fiscal year.
Q: Is this $55 million allocation for pre-weatherization work as well as housing renovation and new construction one indicator that equity and environmental justice have moved beyond buzzword status in Virginia?
A: It’s absolutely an advance that demonstrates Virginia’s active interest in environmental justice and equity.
With that initial $16.5 million we’ll be able to begin addressing problems in households that we haven’t been able to serve before. A recent survey of the 17 providers in Virginia’s weatherization program revealed that weatherization services had to be deferred on 525 out of the 2,901 households who applied in 2018. That’s because weatherization providers didn’t have the resources to take care of health and safety issues.
That survey by the local trade group, the Association of Energy Conservation Professionals, was the first attempt by the weatherization provider network to gather this type of information.
Q: What are some of those health and safety issues?
A: Most of them have to do with structural problems, electrical and plumbing issues, lead paint, and moisture and other biological hazards. Leaky roofs are by far the biggest problem. For instance, attic insulation can’t be installed until a roof is replaced or repaired because water could damage the new insulation. That potential for compromising any weatherization measures can defer an entire project.
Federal funds and utility-sponsored programs have a very limited capacity to cover these types of repairs, so every weatherization provider across the country has this issue.
Q: Is this “new” money for organizations such as yours or will it replace dollars you have traditionally received from other sources?
A: We will combine this money with what we have available from the federal government and utilities. It will help us to optimize the deep energy retrofits and other services that reduce energy burdens. As winters become colder and summers hotter, making houses healthier, safer, comfortable, and more durable and resilient is our goal.
Q: Ventilation and indoor air quality have always been considered crucial to those in your line of work. Has COVID-19 added urgency to that tenet?
A: Even prior to the pandemic, ventilation was a core component of our weatherization efforts. Now, people are staying at home more and in some cases working from home. If they have a pre-existing carbon monoxide issue, they’re exposing themselves to that danger even more. High relative humidity, often caused by heat pumps or straight air conditioning systems that are oversized, causes moisture problems.
More people at home also means an increase in utility bills. The repairs and other work we do to right-size and tune-up equipment can provide relief from higher bills and make inside air cleaner and healthier.
Q: Millions of RGGI dollars might sound like a lot of money. But how much of a dent can they really make in a state with such deep needs?
A: This initial $16.5 million and the money that follows really opens the door to make households ready for weatherization.
For example, at Community Housing Partners we have proposed to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development a plan to utilize RGGI proceeds to help about 2,300 low- and moderate-income families with deferred maintenance repairs over the next three years. About 1,700 are in multifamily households and the rest are single-family households.
To provide a broader picture, CHP usually completes weatherization projects for approximately 7,500 households per year. About 550 are covered with federal money but most of them, about 6,950, are done with money from utility-sponsored programs.
Q: The state Department of Housing and Community Development formed a 14-member advisory committee, which includes a representative from your organization, Community Housing Partners. Why is that group necessary?
A: All of the representatives have expertise in low-income housing. The new committee was established in 2020 to formulate how RGGI proceeds could be best used to address the legislative intent of House Bill 981. They established the funding buckets and figured out how to deliver those services.
Q: Might Virginia, with its focus on communities often left behind, become a model for other RGGI states?
A: I’d like to think that Virginia can be a leader in this space. I’m a little biased toward weatherization, but it’s a need everywhere. If the state could be a model, that would be great.
In hindsight, we should have looked at what other RGGI states were doing. But we were focused on addressing deferred needs because those were the roadblocks.
Q: What else would you like to cover with these funds?
A: Something else we want to consider is the protocols Community Housing Partners established for energy audits on older multifamily properties with natural gas appliances that weren’t maintained.
That was done back during the time of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Our hope is to go back to those properties that were evaluated a decade ago and eliminate problems with backdrafting and carbon monoxide hazards by electrifying those houses. That requires us to research if local utilities can meet the demand, if the household’s electric panel can handle the switch, and what impact it will have on a resident’s utility bills.
Q: Energy efficiency improvements are almost invisible because it doesn’t draw attention to itself like a solar panel array or a wind turbine. What’s the nicest compliment your organization has received upon completing a project?
A: Our workers receive their share of full meals and baked goods, but two other examples come to mind. We received a handwritten thank you note from a 5-year-old boy in northern Virginia who saw us weatherizing a home and was fascinated with the work. He included pictures he had drawn of our crew. It was very sweet.
Also, a crew was on a job site at a manufactured home in central Virginia in the middle of summer repairing ductwork and insulating the attic. When workers went back the next day to finish up, the homeowners told them it was the first time cooled air from the central air conditioning unit wasn’t escaping outside. What a relief that they could feel more comfortable inside their home.