Low-Income Program Assessment
Historically marked by high poverty rates, the Southeast continues to advance in its pursuit of comprehensive, programmatic offerings to effectively serve low-income ratepayers. In recent years, many southeastern utility regulators have established specific policy directives to support this goal, and investment in energy efficiency programming targeted at low-income customers has grown substantially. SEEA produced a landscape assessment, released in July 2016, to provide a snapshot of current state and identify clear trends and opportunities as the region moves forward in expanding these programs.
Generally, SEEA’s findings indicate that low-income energy efficiency in the Southeast has a strong foundation in current efforts. Continuous incorporation of lessons learned, coupled with piloting of new concepts and strategies, can establish the momentum to help these programs scale up in the long term.
SEEA’s analysis identified 28 electric, utility-administered low-income energy efficiency programs in the Southeast reported to state utility regulators.
Program Coverage and Design
The majority of the region’s largest utilities offer such programs, and the majority of the Southeast’s largest metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) are served by at least one of these programs. Of the southeastern MSAs having the largest percent of residents earning below the federal poverty level, about half are served by low-income programs. Data on programmatic coverage for rural communities is less readily available.
- Southeastern utilities largely qualify participants eligible for these programs based on a reference to either federal poverty guidelines or state agency criteria, while a few rely on other qualification criteria.
- The majority of these programs have been launched within the past decade, although a handful have a much longer track record.
- Investment caps for homes targeted through low-income weatherization programs range from $1,105 to $4,000, with a median value of $2,000.
- Most programs rely on a direct-install approach, and the most common measures offered are typical direct-install measures, such as light bulbs and low-flow showerheads.
- Roughly half of southeastern public service commissions do not require low-income programs to pass cost-effectiveness tests, although in some cases, there is a lack of clarity regarding these requirements.
- Utilities’ experiences with marketing and outreach approaches differ substantially. For instance, some identified partnerships with community action agencies as critical, while others saw them as a potential administrative roadblock. Frequently cited success factors include constant communication with partners and allies, as well as the flexibility to evolve these approaches over time.
- Southeastern programs invest slightly less in low-income programs as a share of their residential portfolios than do their national peers, with a median value of 10 percent of residential expenditures, compared to 18 percent nationally.
- Southeastern low-income programs are typically more expensive relative to the energy savings they achieve than other residential programs. However, taken as a whole, southeastern low-income programs are less expensive than those run elsewhere in the country, with a median levelized value of $0.09, versus $0.13 nationally.
- While the level of participation achieved relative to as-filed values ranges substantially, the programs analyzed achieved a median value of 69 percent of as-filed participation goals and 76 percent of as-filed savings.
Recommendations for Future Research
SEEA considers this assessment a “first step” in better understanding the opportunities to advance energy savings for low-income residents and hopes that it will build momentum for future research in this area. In this paper, SEEA provides a number of recommendations for future research to further the collective understanding of the Southeast’s low-income energy efficiency programs.