Vanessa Carson with her central air conditioning system
Vanessa Carson of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says her health has improved since installing a central heating and air conditioning system. She had previously heated her home with a portable kerosene heater. Credit: Elizabeth Ouzts

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The summer’s punishing heat has abated across much of North Carolina for now, a special respite for those struggling to pay rising air conditioning bills.

But that’s not the only relief in store for the state’s most energy burdened. The state budget allocates $90 million from last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law for adding insulation, tightening seals, and other energy-saving home improvements for the state’s poorest residents. And while the details are still being sorted, congressional Democrats’ new climate law will make even more weatherization money available.

Advocates welcome the surge in funding, most of it to be distributed over five years. A surprise $10 million appropriation to the state’s Housing Finance Agency could help stretch the funds even further. 

“It’s really needed now,” said Yvette Jones, regional field director for PowerUp NC, a project of the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters Foundation that works to connect those in need with weatherization services. “Climate change is affecting Black and Brown communities and low-income communities the most.” 

Still, taking full advantage of the near doubling of the state’s weatherization budget will come with challenges — from identifying those in need to recruiting and retaining workers who can perform the services. 

‘Life-changing’ 

Crystal Barnes of Winston-Salem is among the thousands of North Carolinians who have benefited from federal weatherization assistance, targeted at those making up to twice the poverty level — about $53,000 for a family of four. 

It was 2019 when Barnes, a mother of three, was recuperating from cancer among other health issues. She hit a rough patch, she said, and her Duke Energy bills began to pile up, topping over $900 for just two months.  

With PowerUp’s help, she applied for weatherization assistance and got permission from her landlord. Thanks to the improvements contractors made, including adding insulation, her monthly bill now hovers around $150.  

“I really think it’s a life-changing program for people in the community that are in need,” Barnes said. “But it’s also a great leap as far as helping out with the environment.” 

Weatherization can cut indoor as well as outdoor air pollution, a fact Vanessa Carson, another recipient of PowerUp’s services, knows firsthand. She had relied on a portable kerosene heater that released smog- and soot-forming emissions into her home in the Easton neighborhood. “I didn’t realize that by me inhaling that stuff that I was having problems,” she said. “I started being nauseated and couldn’t eat.” 

Now that she has central heating and air, Carson’s $400 utility bill has been cut by more than half, and she notices a difference in her health. “I can smell. I can breathe now. I don’t have to open my windows if I don’t want to.” She added with a wry smile, “I can just cut the air on and lay back.” 

Dorothy Hughes shows off her new attic access. “It’s a cute little door with a lock on it,” she said. Credit: Elizabeth Ouzts

Dorothy Hughes lives on the other end of Easton and was in the early stages of weatherization this spring. She hoped her old propane furnace — so loud her elderly mother once mistook it for thunder — would get replaced with a new central heating and air conditioning system. 

“I want to be like Miss Carson,” she said. “I want to chill out in the winter and the summer.” 

It’s little coincidence that Carson and Hughes are neighbors. Decades of redlining and other discriminatory housing policies mean people of color and low-income people — especially renters —are more likely to rely on old, inefficient appliances and live in manufactured housing or homes built before the advent of energy conservation codes. 

The Easton neighborhood is a case in point. The 1949 community was built for veterans taking advantage of government-backed, low-interest home loans that overwhelmingly benefited White people. Today, the residents here are mostly Black and Latino, but the Levittown-style structures are little changed, with poor ventilation, scant insulation, and heaters powered with liquid fuels. The resulting sky-high electric bills — not to mention the cost of heating fuels — make energy burdens well above the 6% of annual income experts consider reasonable. According to one realtor, the median household income is $33,000

Easton is far from unique. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality estimates 1.4 million people across the state live with unaffordable energy bills, with the poorest residents facing the highest proportional costs. For those earning half the poverty level, the average energy burden is a whopping 33%. 

Yet a tiny fraction of these energy-burdened households receive assistance. Two different pots of federal money administered by the department, totaling between $20 and $22 million, serve between 1,100 and 1,600 households a year. Less than 1,000 benefit from the state’s HVAC repair and replacement program.  

As reflected in the state budget adopted last month, the 2021 federal bipartisan infrastructure law will increase the state’s yearly funding for weatherization assistance by about $18 million, almost doubling the amount of grants available each year.  

The newly signed Inflation Reduction Act will offer even more assistance. Nationwide, $1 billion is allotted for energy efficiency improvements in affordable housing. Billions more will be distributed to states for weatherization, said Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Elizabeth Biser.

“We’re still awaiting guidance for how this funding is going to come down and what we’re able to do with it specifically,” Biser said at a news conference this month. But, she said, “we’re anticipating additional funding from the IRA to help us expand [the state weatherization program] and help additional households.”

‘Not something that registers as a thing they can change’ 

But the experiences of PowerUp and other nonprofits involved in the program show that the program faces challenges not easily solved by money alone. 

One hurdle: many who face high energy burdens don’t realize they have an alternative or a means to change it. Dan Sargent, who runs Rebuilding Together of the Triangle, a nonprofit that performs a range of services for low-income families, says perspectives also vary on what’s considered affordable.  

“I’ll meet someone who has a $70-a-month electric bill, and they can’t stop telling me how impossible it is that the bill would cost so much,” he said. “And then I’ll have someone who I’ll go through a whole home assessment, and they won’t say anything about it, and I’ll ask them at the end what their energy bill is like, and they’ll say ‘oh, $450.’ They don’t like it but it’s not something that registers as a thing they could change.” 

There’s no wholesale effort on the part of Duke Energy, the state’s major monopoly utility, or the state itself to advertise the program. That leaves the 20 agencies and who disperse the funds and their partners to do their own outreach — often through painstaking retail means. 

In Winston-Salem, for instance, PowerUp has spent years in Easton, sponsoring community meetings, going door to door to poll residents about their concerns, and organizing to achieve non-energy related goals. 

Hughes first got involved to stop speeding in the neighborhood. “At the time, people was going up and down the street like they were at the stadium, racing,” she recalled. The PowerUp canvasser, she said, “had the paperwork to get everybody to sign for the speed bumps.” 

Some two years after that first interaction, Hughes got a phone call about the chance for weatherization assistance. “It’s a slow process but it is worth it,” said PowerUp’s Jones. “Every year we make sure that we get the word out there.” 

Carson also wouldn’t have sought to replace her furnace without PowerUp’s outreach. “I started going to the meetings and learning stuff,” Carson said. “They was talking about weatherizing the house and I said, ‘well, my house stay cold all the time.’” 

Even where nonprofits are deeply rooted in the communities they serve, they can still face suspicion from people who worry that the program isn’t truly free or will come with some other catch. 

“Has there been some pushback?” said Robert Leak, regional field organizer for the group, who’s also a pastor in Winston. “There has, because for so long Black and Brown people have been burned by the system.” 

From left: Robert Leak, Vanessa Carson, Dorothy Hughes, Yvette Jones, and Crystal Barnes at PowerUp NC’s Winston-Salem office. Credit: Elizabeth Ouzts

A surprise boost in urgent repair funding 

Still, by far, the most common complaint about the program is that it disqualifies homes in need of major repairs. Carson, for instance, was initially deferred because her home contained friable asbestos. PowerUp worked with her to access another pot of money to address it. “We stepped in and helped to get that resolved,” Jones said. 

Barnes spread the word of the weatherization program to her friends and family, and while her aunt qualified, another relative was deferred. “Mold was a big issue. I know it is for a lot of other families, as well,” she said. “It’s really something that needs to be addressed, because it’s too great of a program for people to be missing out on.” 

Weatherization organizations and partnering nonprofits are well accustomed to combining an array of funding sources to repair homes to remove them from the deferral list. 

The North Carolina Community Action Association, the network of community action agencies that perform the bulk of weatherization services in the state, administers two repair programs financed by Blue Cross Blue Shield and Duke Energy. (Regulators ordered Duke to allot $6 million to the Helping Home Fund during the company’s last rate case.) 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also offers loans and grants to some rural and semi-rural areas in the state, and some counties have their own program, said Sargent. “But it’s very hit or miss and based on what the individual community is doing to help this effort,” he said. 

Finally, there’s the state’s Housing Finance Agency, which has two pots of money that are typically accessed for home repairs: the Essential Single Family Rehabilitation Program and the Urgent Repair Program. The latter has served 17,000 households since its inception, according to the agency’s website. In the last two years, more than 650 low-income homeowners were expected to benefit from $6.6 million allocated to the program. The agency got a one-time $10 million boost in the state’s most recent budget.  

Officials at the agency and advocates alike were surprised by the line item, which emerged from an opaque budget-writing process at the GOP-led legislature. But in his proposed budget, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, had proposed an extra $15 million go to his Department of Environmental Quality to complement existing weatherization funds. Republicans behind the nonprofit Conservatives for Clean Energy had also taken up the cause of weatherization. 

The nonprofit was “happy to help spur conversation among conservatives on weatherization and urgent repairs,” said Carson Butts, North Carolina state director, in an email. “We appreciate the leadership of Senator Brent Jackson, Representative Jason Saine, Representative Kyle Hall, Representative Larry Strickland, and other conservative legislators who helped make this happen.” 

Still, exactly how the extra funding will be allocated won’t be determined until at least September, when the board of directors at the Housing Finance Agency holds its next meeting. Thus, the question remains, said Al Ripley, director of the North Carolina Justice Center’s Consumer, Housing and Energy project: “Are we going to have enough unrestricted urgent repair funds to facilitate the rapid deployment of weatherization funds?” 

‘On the side of every other challenge is an opportunity’ 

Sargent also cautions that maximizing weatherization dollars isn’t simply a matter of increasing funding streams elsewhere. 

“We’re not going to be able to coordinate and leverage other programs to get to where we need to go,” he said. “We’re exerting a lot of energy to find a few, while ignoring the many because they don’t fit the program, instead of saying, ‘we need to modify the lens we’re using here.’” 

Sargent’s vision is a more holistic approach. “That’s my big dream, that there’s an effort being made to make discerning investments to improve efficiency, and improve safety, and improve health, and look for places where these things overlap,” he said. But: “sometimes they won’t overlap, and we need to do things that will help all three.” 

There’s also the challenge of recruiting, training, and retaining workers in today’s economy. 

“Weatherization service providers have experienced the same challenges as every business owner on Main Street, USA, when it comes to staffing,” said Sharon Goodson, executive director of the North Carolina Community Action Association. “We are all continuously adapting to new ways of managing work and life as we navigate the ‘Great Resignation,’ and the supply chain issues that have impacted our state and nation.”  

At the annual North Carolina State Energy conference this spring, Maye Hickman, the weatherization program manager with the Department of Environmental Quality, said they were moving to raise salaries as one solution. 

“Workforce development is our biggest challenge,” she said. But at the end of the day, she said, “we’re so happy for this extra funding to be able to help more people.” 

Goodson, too, focuses on the bright side. 

“On the other side of every challenge is an opportunity,” she said over email. “This opportunity will allow us to substantially increase North Carolina’s energy efficient housing stock by making more homes safe, while reducing the heavy energy burden costs low-income families experience. These savings matter to the families we serve.” 

Back in Winston-Salem, Dorothy Hughes has been promised a new system like Vanessa Carson’s so she can “chill out” after all. It won’t be installed until ventilation repairs are complete.

Elizabeth Ouzts

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.