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Dorothy Carter pined to remain in her Elkton, Virginia, home, but that possibility seemed less and less likely as health and safety issues mounted.
Sewage from broken pipes leaked into the basement. Rain poured in through holes in the roof. And blown fuses were a constant headache when she bypassed a balky oil furnace to warm rooms with space heaters.
But where would the 61-year-old go? And how would she gather the resources to move?
Fortunately, relief from that anguish began arriving in mid-August when a crew spent several days scrubbing away the sewage. That deep cleaning laid the groundwork for a phalanx of other contractors that are part of a now-at-risk Virginia program dedicated to tackling deferred home repairs that stand in the way of energy efficiency improvements.
Carter was again beaming on Sept. 13 as an electrician and several other contractors darted in and out of her rural Rockingham County house replacing her water heater and breaker panel. Within the next few weeks, she will gain a new roof, heat pump and water pipes.
“It will be so much nicer here when I come home from work,” said Carter, who has a job at nearby Friendship Industries, which employs people with disabilities. “They’re putting in stuff I can’t afford to buy.”
Carter is relieved the electric heat pump will end the $700 payments to fill her oil furnace.
“Now I’m going to call and tell them I don’t need it no more,” she said. “I’ve been here for about 43 years. There have been challenges, but I’m going to keep on living here.”
Carter is far from the only Virginian to benefit from the new statewide initiative for low- and moderate-income residents designed to pair out-of-reach repairs with energy efficiency overhauls.
However, she could be one of the last if Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin succeeds in his quest to extract his state from an East Coast carbon cap-and-invest enterprise Virginia joined in 2020. Virginia targeted a share of its Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative dollars to lift up Carter and other homeowners struggling to modernize basic infrastructure that keeps houses ticking.
Briefly, what’s known as RGGI curbs the emissions of heat-trapping gases from fossil fuel power plants by auctioning carbon dioxide allowances. Facilities are assigned a cap on how much carbon dioxide they can emit, and they must purchase allowances for any pollution above that threshold. The 11 member states decide independently how to spend the revenue.
Virginia’s General Assembly opted to direct roughly half of the annual auction proceeds to a range of energy efficiency programs for lower-income households. Programs are administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development.
Through June, records show the state agency has distributed $189 million in RGGI funds toward energy efficiency from its start date in March 2021.
Sara Hayes, a health and environment specialist with the research nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, praised Virginia for directing a RGGI allotment toward big-ticket home repairs that aren’t covered by traditional weatherization programs funded by utilities and the federal government.
“I have huge kudos for the people in Virginia who made that happen,” Hayes said about a front where other states are lagging. “That kind of coordination rarely happens.
“Virginia created a program that outshines everybody. Why would you wake up one day and say you’re going to get rid of a wildly successful framework?”
Everett Brubaker asks the same question.
As a Harrisonburg-based business development specialist with the energy solutions division of Community Housing Partners, he’s been an eyewitness to the impact of the RGGI cash infusion. His employer is the largest of 15 nonprofits statewide qualified to perform weatherization services. It’s also coordinating the repairs at Carter’s house.
In years past, these nonprofits couldn’t undertake more run-of-the-mill weatherization until health and safety threats such as mold and leaky roofs were tackled. Cases placed on what’s known as the deferred list lingered because local charities were often too strapped to step up.
“I don’t think people realize that many of their neighbors are living in these conditions,” said Brubaker, who visited Carter’s house with work crews. “It’s not like she’s an exception.”
Advocates: Legislators control RGGI’s destiny
Youngkin’s administration has targeted RGGI withdrawal as a priority since Virginians elected the Republican governor last November. In January, he issued an executive order calling for an exit.
Then, in late August, at a regular meeting of the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board, acting Natural Resources Secretary Travis Voyles announced the administration’s intention to file the paperwork to extract the state from RGGI by the end of 2023.
Environmental advocates have vowed to beat back that repeal.
Conservation attorneys claim withdrawal is an act of overreach by the governor and regulators.
“The lawmakers who do have that authority in the General Assembly know RGGI is already delivering real resources to Virginians on the frontlines of climate change,” said Nate Benforado, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It would be a colossal mistake to pull out of a program that is … helping Virginians solve real problems they often can’t afford to tackle alone.”
Sixty-one Democratic state legislators echoed that perspective in a September letter, stating that, “only a change in the law that passes both chambers of the General Assembly and is signed by the Governor can remove Virginia’s participation. No proposed regulation, emergency regulation, regulatory act, or any subsequent administrative process can do so.”
Virginia’s journey to becoming the first southern state to RGGI has been circuitous and twisted. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, whose four-year term ended in January, backed membership.
After years of obstruction, the General Assembly finally voted to join the 2008 initiative in 2020. With House Bill 981, legislators tasked the Department of Environmental Quality with establishing parameters for the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act. The RGGI money is split between flood mitigation projects and energy efficiency.
The state is funding two other non-weatherization housing initiatives. 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, not yet rolled out, is a grant program for housing innovation partnerships.
During this year’s legislative session, the Republican-majority House of Delegates voted to halt RGGI participation. But the Senate, where Democrats have a slim lead, thwarted that effort by deep-sixing a similar bill in its conservation committee.
Chelsea Harnish, executive director of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council, is urging Virginians to voice support for RGGI by submitting comments to the state Department of Environmental Quality during the Sept. 26-Oct. 26 window.
“This money has been instrumental in moving homeowners in the most dire need of help off the deferral list,” Harnish said. “Before, providers were having to walk away from those in need. With RGGI funding, they don’t have to do that anymore.”
She emphasized that the pot of money RGGI provides is far greater than all other energy efficiency and weatherization programs combined at the federal and utility level.
Harnish pointed to how Project: HOMES deployed a portion of its $16 million from RGGI to fix up 12 Eastern Shore homes initially tagged for the deferral list. The nonprofit hired 30 local subcontractors to address roof, mold, insulation, and heat and cooling issues before engaging in more routine weatherization. Homeowners’ utility bills have dropped by about 20%.
The state Department of Housing and Community Development did not respond to requests for comment about RGGI funding potentially being in jeopardy. While the agency is the clearinghouse tracking how the 15 nonprofits are spending RGGI money, those collective figures are not available. However, each nonprofit is recording its individual statistics.
For instance, since July 2021, Community Housing Partners has spent $1.2 million serving 226 households in need of RGGI pre-weatherization repairs.
Another 325 households remain in the repair queue. Currently the nonprofit has $1.3 million on hand to address those needs.
While Virginia will certainly benefit from clean energy provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, Harnish said that federal law is no substitute for RGGI money that provides weatherization deferral repairs.
“It’s comparing apples and oranges,” she said. “While IRA money coming to the states is historic, it isn’t going to help fix roof or mold problems.”
In a nutshell, the IRA offers multiple rebates and tax credits for electric appliances and overall energy savings.
For instance, states will administer the IRA rebate program “and we don’t know what that will look like yet,” Harnish said.
She was pleased that Hayes, with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, had lauded Virginia for acting boldly with its RGGI funding.
“It’s wonderful to hear a national nonprofit referring to us as a model,” Harnish said. “And now our governor wants to take away that money.”
RGGI money gives Virginia a boost
Virginia ranked a respectable 19th in an overarching state energy efficiency scorecard that Hayes and three other ACEEE researchers released in mid-August. Overall, the authors discovered that no state is knocking it out of the park with efforts to support healthy, affordable and decarbonized homes.
Maryland, Virginia’s neighbor to the north, was the top finisher with 54.5 out of a possible 100 points. Virginia tallied 29 points.
In the 119-page “Pathways to Healthy, Affordable, Decarbonized Housing,” ACEEE evaluated each state across 33 possible actions that could reduce pollution and housing costs for residents through energy efficiency, electrification and renewable energy investments.
Detailed categories covered energy utilities, weatherization and bill assistance, affordable housing, healthy homes and communities, and cross-agency coordination.
While Virginia’s list of shortcomings is lengthy, it earned points for funneling RGGI dollars into its unique weatherization repair deferral program that benefitted Carter and hundreds of others.
“Usually, these programs happen because they have champions who develop relationships with people in other agencies,” Hayes said. “That takes time and effort.
“Virginia is reaching the neediest by building a mechanism where money can help people being harmed in their homes.”
Hayes and her colleagues opted to undertake this first-of-its-kind report because people’s homes are linked to their health and their economic circumstances. That became even more apparent during the pandemic.
“We wanted to come at it holistically and we didn’t want to advocate policies that don’t take people into account,” said Hayes, a 20-year energy policy veteran. “As the climate changes, how do we make sure those hit the hardest can survive?”
Lower-income people not only have higher energy burdens because their inefficient homes consume more energy per square foot, Hayes said, but they also pay higher utility bills because of gaping problems with mold, roofs and windows.
Rhode Island, California and Vermont, which ranked two, three and four, were the only states with marks of 50 or higher. She also noted that five of the 10 bottom-ranking states lead the nation in poverty rates.
The report provides a potential roadmap for ambitious states.
“But they have to get into the weeds,” Hayes said. “We’ve done the work of saying, ‘Here is the body of things you need to address.’ To take action, states have to look at what they do have and don’t have.”
A brighter Christmas
Carter is grateful her home, built in 1962, will be buttoned down before cool weather envelopes the Shenandoah Valley.
She began falling behind on upkeep when her husband, Chester, died 26 years ago. They had moved into the family home after marrying in 1979.
Carter is so enamored with the upgrades Community Housing Partners is coordinating that she is serving as an informal ambassador for the program. She’s puzzled why Youngkin seems so intent on dismantling it.
“I’ve talked to family members, neighbors and coworkers about how it can help,” she said. “I don’t know why [the governor] can’t just leave it alone and let it keep going. There are a lot of people out there who can’t afford what it provides.”
With some of her savings on utility bills, Carter plans to purchase a washer and dryer — and also splurge a bit during the holiday season.
“A friend asked me why I didn’t decorate at Christmas. I told her I ain’t got time to blow no fuses.”
Later this year, the two women will string dazzling arrays of lights.
With my new electrical box,” Carter said, “I can put out a lot of Christmas stuff.”