High power bills, poor houses accentuate poverty


Heating bill help

A typical residential household spends an average 3.3 percent of its annual income on electric and natural gas bills. For low-income households, that cost averages 14.2 percent but can be as high as 17 percent.

Georgia Power offers a $14 monthly senior citizen discount and $6 monthly credit to those 65 years and older whose annual gross income is $22,980 or less. Information on bill-payment assistance is available online, in billing inserts or on posters at customer-service centers.

It also offers rebates for special compact fluorescent light bulbs and certain LED light bulbs; recycling an old refrigerator; and making improvements under its home-energy improvement program.

The utility started a new online program, My Power Usage, to help consumers keep track of their daily energy use.

Natural gas marketers offer programs including budget billing or guaranteed price plans that have a consistent amount every month.

Atlanta Gas Light offers a monthly discount up to $14 to customers 65 or older with an annual combined household income of $14,355 or less

LIHEAP: The federal Low-Income Energy Assistance Program funnels money to each state to help consumers pay heating bills. In Georgia, 212,000 households received LIHEAP aid in fiscal 2011. The deadline for early applicants for LIHEAP — seniors and people with disabilities — is Nov. 1. Others can apply after that if money is available, but the funds usually run out.

Project SHARE, a longtime Salvation Army program to help people pay utility bills, gets its money from donations by the natural gas marketers and Georgia Power. Part of Georgia Power’s share comes from consumer contributions.

Resource Service Ministries helps with weatherization and furnace and appliance repairs.

Society of St. Vincent De Paul in Atlanta provides emergency bill-payment assistance.

United Way: Dial 2-1-1

Sources: Atlanta Gas Light; Georgia Environmental Finance Authority; Fulton Atlanta Community Action Authority: Gas South; Georgia Natural Gas; Georgia Power; Georgia Watch; Southern Alliance for Clean Energy; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Georgia Power’s African American Women’s Networking Group – an employee-sponsored community group — is offering energy-efficiency workshops:

Oct. 26

Lowe’s: 5375 Fairington Road, Lithonia

5 p.m. – 8 p.m.

Oct. 26

Hallelujah Day Festival

World Changes Church International: 2500 Burdett Road, College Park

12 p.m. – 3 p.m.

Source: Georgia Power

How to save energy in your home.

* remove window air conditioners during the winter or cover and seal with plastic

* caulk or use spray foam around ceiling lights, exhaust fans and ducts

* turn the hot-water heater temperature down to 120 degrees

* open blinds during the day to let in sunlight

* change furnace filters

*turn off lights and unplug electronics when you are not using them

* air-dry your clothes

* run your washing machine only when it has a full load of laundry

* cover bare floors with carpet or rugs

* lower your thermostat to 60-65 degrees when you are not at home and then set it between 65-68 when you are home.

Sources: Georgia Natural Gas; Gas South; Georgia Watch; Southface

Weatherizing homes

More than 7 million homes have been weatherized since 1976 through the federal weatherization-assistance program, or WAP, the nation’s largest energy-efficiency program to help low-income residents. More than 38 million households are eligible, however.

Georgia will receive $5.05 million in federal funds for the 2013-2014 program year. That’s down from $7.5 million the state received for 2012-2013, when 1,919 homes were weatherized. Residents saved an estimated $58,530 total on their utility bills.

The program serves more than 100,000 homes nationally every year. The services are expected to reduce average annual energy costs by $437 per household, based on current energy prices.

In Georgia, the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority contracts with a statewide network of 16 Community Action Agencies, one local government and one private nonprofit organization to provide weatherization services.

Source: Georgia Environmental Finance Authority

Georgia Power’s African American Women’s Networking Group – an employee-sponsored community group — is offering energy-efficiency workshops:

Oct. 26

Lowe’s: 5375 Fairington Road, Lithonia

5 p.m. – 8 p.m.

Oct. 26

Hallelujah Day Festival

World Changes Church International: 2500 Burdett Road, College Park

12 p.m. – 3 p.m.

Source: Georgia Power

How to save energy in your home.

* remove window air conditioners during the winter or cover and seal with plastic

* caulk or use spray foam around ceiling lights, exhaust fans and ducts

* turn the hot-water heater temperature down to 120 degrees

* open blinds during the day to let in sunlight

* change furnace filters

*turn off lights and unplug electronics when you are not using them

* air-dry your clothes

* run your washing machine only when it has a full load of laundry

* cover bare floors with carpet or rugs

* lower your thermostat to 60-65 degrees when you are not at home and then set it between 65-68 when you are home.

Sources: Georgia Natural Gas; Gas South; Georgia Watch; Southface

Weatherizing homes

More than 7 million homes have been weatherized since 1976 through the federal weatherization-assistance program, or WAP, the nation’s largest energy-efficiency program to help low-income residents. More than 38 million households are eligible, however.

Georgia will receive $5.05 million in federal funds for the 2013-2014 program year. That’s down from $7.5 million the state received for 2012-2013, when 1,919 homes were weatherized. Residents saved an estimated $58,530 total on their utility bills.

The program serves more than 100,000 homes nationally every year. The services are expected to reduce average annual energy costs by $437 per household, based on current energy prices.

In Georgia, the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority contracts with a statewide network of 16 Community Action Agencies, one local government and one private nonprofit organization to provide weatherization services.

Source: Georgia Environmental Finance Authority

Homes in Atlanta’s Dixie Hills neighborhood, such as the one where Brittany Cofield lives, are a modest 900 square feet, smaller than many apartments. But there is nothing modest about their energy consumption.

Cofield said she frequently hears her mother complain about their electric bill, which averages $300 a month. One month it was $1,000, said Cofield, 22. The family often turns off the thermostat to the upstairs of the rented house when they are downstairs, to help manage their utility bills.

“It’s not comfortable, especially in the summer,” said Cofield, who is looking at apartments as a way to save money. “In the winter it gets very cold.”

Cofield and her mom put a face on a trend affecting the region’s poorer residents: Georgia’s historically low energy costs are rising, while programs to make older homes more energy efficient are lagging.

As utility bills aggravate poverty, ripple effects on public health, the economy and quality of life affect everyone, environmental and community advocates say. And, according to the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, bad debt from nonpayments drives up bills for all consumers.

“The real key to the region being competitive and sustainable relies on us supporting our weakest link as well as our strongest,” said Nathaniel Smith, founder, chief equity officer, Partnership for Southern Equity, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that focuses on the metro 10-county region.

“The South is poor, it got poorer during the recession, it’s staying poorer … and yet utility bills are going up. People have less money to spend on buying their kids good food and other things that matter if you want a healthy set of kids and a stable family life,” said Mandy Mahoney, president for the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Government officials say the state’s poorest residents — 18.7 percent, or 1.83 million Georgians in 2011, according to 2011 U.S. Census data — can pay as much as 17 cents of every dollar, compared to an average 3 cents for most households, to keep the lights on and to heat and cool their home.

Since 2008, average utility bills in Georgia have shot up 17 percent, including rate increases that started in 2011 in part because of environmental compliance costs and in part to pay for Georgia Power’s nuclear expansion at Plant Vogtle.

Though natural gas prices have remained low, Atlanta Gas Light had a net increase of 90 cents for its portion of a typical monthly bill starting in 2011 and a 48-cent increase starting this fall.

The poor often pay more because of the condition of their dwellings: older, non-insulated homes where the heat seeps out through doors, windows and roofs.

The Hyacinth Avenue houses in Dixie Hills, many of which are boarded up or need repair, have window air-conditioning units. Bobby Green, Cofield’s former next-door neighbor, said the easiest way to cool them in the summer is to turn on the air-conditioner, usually bought at a pawn shop, then open the front and back doors to let air circulate through.

“The main issue we’re dealing with here is quality of life,” said Green, founder of the nonprofit CHEC Pro, whose goal is to revitalize low-income communities. “I cannot be comfortable in my own home because I’m worried about my energy bill. People are either freezing or sweating.”

In Atlanta, a host of energy and community nonprofits have formed an “energy equity coalition” to help low-income residents understand how to save energy and to encourage the utilities to do more. Local energy-consulting business Ygrene is working with Clean Energy Atlanta to start a $500 million capital fund to make commercial buildings and multi-family units more energy efficient.

For its part, Georgia Power offers rebates for energy-efficient appliances and recycling old refrigerators. It quietly started a “My Power Usage” program so residents can view online how much electricity they used daily to help manage costs.

“We don’t want our customers to waste electricity,” is the basic message, said Michele Wagner, Georgia Power’s energy efficiency director. The utility tweaks that message to drive home the part about saving money when talking to low-income residents.

For bill-payment assistance, such as the Salvation Army’s Project Share, Georgia Power matches dollar-for-dollar what customers contribute. Last year that amount was $2.3 million. AGL gives $1 million a year to United Way’s utility-assistance programs. Natural gas marketers also contribute to state programs and have opportunities for their consumers to do the same.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy says Georgia Power’s programs are good but could be expanded. It says Georgia Power lags in energy-efficiency programs compared with 11 major other utilities in the Southeast, including some in Florida, North and South Carolina and Tennessee.

“They need to scale up, doubling, at a minimum,” on helping low-income residents with energy efficiency, said Marilyn Brown, Georgia Tech public policy professor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. “Their goals for energy efficiency are much more modest compared with other states.”

Georgia Power’s new energy-efficiency goal is to reduce consumption each year between 2014 and 2016 by .4 percent. Brown said the number is meaningful but noted many states are trying for reductions five times that amount, or 2 percent.

Wagner said Georgia Power’s efficiency programs are evolving. She touts a group started in 2008 that includes Georgia Power, staff from the Georgia Public Service Commission, large industrial and commercial customers and environmental groups, which looks for ways to reduce energy consumption.

In Florida and North Carolina, Duke Energy and Progress Energy offer “neighbor energy saver” programs for poor communities. Volunteers go door to door to install weatherstripping, compact fluorescent light bulbs and hot water heater wraps.

Other states with aggressive energy-efficiency programs include Arkansas, which spent $50 million on energy efficiency programs last year, Brown said.

By contrast, Georgia spent $7.5 million in weatherization programs last year. This money came from the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as well as a $2 million grant from Georgia Power, according to the utility and Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, which said the money helped weatherize 1,919 homes.

Georgia Power’s most robust energy-efficiency program is offering in-home energy audits, available to all consumers. A team of energy-service representatives reviews a house from top to bottom to see where energy may be wasted.

Decatur resident Brad Kaegi called Georgia Power for an energy audit when his utility bills were at least $100 more than the home’s previous owner had been paying. An hour-long review indicated sealed windows and doors but showed an older air conditioning unit that isn’t running as efficiently.

“When there’s a 30 percent increase in bills, that’s why we called Georgia Power,” he said.

Ratepayers’ awareness of how their own home energy costs can make a difference.

“People don’t realize, ‘OK, I’m wasting $50 a month,’ well, gosh, that’s $600 a year,” said Dennis Creech, executive director at Southface, which offers a weatherization training program to help people better insulate their homes to lower their bills. “If you would come to people and say, ‘Give me a check for $600,’ they’d go ballistic. Well, that’s really what you’re doing if you don’t make your house energy-efficient.”

In Georgia, the break between turning air conditioners off and furnaces on is often short or nonexistent as hot summer suddenly becomes cold winter. This climate makes it difficult to make homes and buildings more energy-efficient, Creech said.

Southface’s Southeast Weatherization and Energy Efficiency Training Center has trained several thousand contractors to seal ducts, install insulation and take other steps to tighten air gaps.

“If we have an aggressive weatherization program in this state, it is not just about helping the homeowners,” Creech said. “It’s about helping the economy of this state. It’s about helping the environment of the state.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Business

Hartsfield-Jackson moves forward with recycling, composting facility
Hartsfield-Jackson moves forward with recycling, composting facility

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has selected a firm to develop a recycling and composting facility on airport grounds, moving forward on a project in the works for years. The Atlanta airport has chosen Green Energy and Development Inc. to develop the facility it calls Green Acres on 30 acres of property on the south side of the airport...
Atlanta has stiff competition as Amazon fields 238 proposals for HQ2
Atlanta has stiff competition as Amazon fields 238 proposals for HQ2

Amazon wanted a bidding war, and its 50,000-job second headquarters project got quite the response. The e-commerce giant said Monday the company received “238 proposals from cities and regions in 54 states, provinces, districts and territories across North America.” It appears proposals came from every state in the U.S., except Arkansas...
Delta hiring 1,000 flight attendants
Delta hiring 1,000 flight attendants

Delta Air Lines is hiring more than 1,000 flight attendants. The average entry-level flight attendant at Delta earns about $25,000 a year, “with an opportunity to earn more depending upon schedule,” according to the airline. Atlanta-based Delta said applicants must have a high school degree or GED, be at least 21 years old, be...
5 surefire ways to get to retire earlier than you thought
5 surefire ways to get to retire earlier than you thought

Retirement can seem like a difficult goal to reach, so the thought of achieving it early may seem downright impossible. But getting to retirement quicker doesn't require genius-level investing knowledge or extreme deprivation. With a plan, hard work and discipline, you may be able to get there sooner rather than later. Consumer adviser Clark Howard ...
Like your workplace, tell us about it

You say you work for a great company with an encouraging and inclusive atmosphere. You say you have good benefits. You say your bosses are fair, sympathetic, understanding. Then why not share the good news? And, there’s still time to do it because the nomination deadline has been extended to Nov. 17. In March, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution...
More Stories