Spotlight Shines on Extreme Energy Burdens in Memphis

Guest Blog | October 21, 2016 | Energy Efficiency, Energy Justice, Energy Policy
ACEEE Presenting at Memphis City Council Memphis Light Gas and Water Subcommittee Meeting (Ariel Drehobl, ACEEE, seated (table) far left; Angela Garrone, SACE, seated (back wall) far left)

This past week, national experts from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) traveled from Washington, D.C. to Memphis, TN to help shine a spotlight on the extreme energy burdens many Memphians are struggling under on a daily basis. As previously reported in a SACE blog, ACEEE identified Memphis as the most energy burdened major metropolitan area in our country in its “Lifting the High Energy Burden in America’s Largest Cities: How Energy Efficiency Can Help Improve Low-Income and Underserved Communities.”

Ariel Drehobl, primary author of the ACEEE report, spent two days in Memphis meeting with city leaders, city agencies, community advocates and local power company staff discussing the report’s findings and how best to help ease costs for Memphis’ most vulnerable citizens. Ms. Drehobl presented findings of the report to the City Council Memphis Light Gas and Water (MLGW) subcommittee, where City Council members asked what residents could do in the near-term to help lower electricity bills, among other questions. (Local media coverage of ACEEE’s City Council presentation can be found here – Memphis tops nation with greatest energy burden among low-income residents and Some Memphians pay double the national average on utilities.)

Academics working in energy analysis agree that paying over 6% of your total annual income for utilities in any given year constitutes a high energy burden. On average, Americans living in metropolitan households in the U.S. pay around 3.5% of their income on utility costs, annually. Low-income households’ energy costs, however, are more than three times higher than a non-low income household’s energy costs, on average.

In Memphis, the burdens are even more extreme. Memphis had the highest median energy burden out of all of the metropolitan areas analyzed in ACEEE’s report – with Memphians paying an average of 6.2% of their income for electricity. The disparity is even more glaring, however, when you dig deeper into the findings, as low-income and minority communities suffer a disproportionate burden. Memphis ranked highest in median energy burdens for all demographic categories (as shown in the following two images below). The median low-income household in Memphis spent 13.2% of its income on home energy bills, with over a quarter of low-income families spending over a quarter of their income on home energy.


ACEEE presentation slide comparing energy burdens in Memphis to national averages.

Older housing stock, lack of personal capital due to widespread poverty, behavioral patterns, climate as well as a lack of significant investment in weatherization programs, are all contributing factors to these energy burdens.  Although Memphis’ local power company, MLGW, offers weatherization grant programs, like it’s Project Care program, to-date these measures have lacked adequate funding that would allow the program to make a significant impact in lowering overall energy burdens. Although the Tennessee Valley Authority, Memphis’ wholesale power provider, has recently invested significantly in other cities across the Tennessee Valley to provide whole-home weatherization projects for up to $10,000 per house, Memphis was not a beneficiary of that program and remains in need of significant weatherization investments.

Sandra Upchurch, SACE Energy Organizer (standing, far right), presenting takeaways from group discussions around the SPARCC initiative.

SACE, with its Just Energy Memphis partners (Memphis NAACP Branch and Sierra Club), has been working to highlight these energy burdens and advocate for both short- and long-term solutions to reduce energy burdens across the city. SACE Energy Research Attorney Angela Garrone (that’s me!) and SACE Memphis Energy Organizer, Sandra Upchurch, both appeared with Calvin Burton, MLGW Neighborhood Advisory Committee Member, on the local City Council TV program, Neighbortalk, to talk about causes of high energy burdens and why Memphians need to get involved in the conversations around how they can help take control of these costs. Councilwoman Patrice Robinson, the current host of Neighbortalk, is also the Chair of the City Council MLGW Subcommittee and has spoken out publicly about the need to address Memphis’ extreme energy burdens.

Most recently, SACE has been involved in conversations around securing funding through the Strong Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge initiative that could help address health, racial equity and climate resilience through home weatherization improvements in the North Memphis area. SACE staff continue to engage with both MLGW and its Neighborhood Advisory Council as well as with TVA through its Energy Efficiency Information Exchange working group, to push for near term solutions to reduce these unnecessarily high utility bills.

SACE will continue to work towards long-term sustainable energy efficiency solutions that can help Memphis, TVA’ s largest customer, address these extreme energy burdens.

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