Discussing Energy Equity in Columbus

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Before we know it, summer will be in full swing. For many families in Georgia trying to cool their homes, summer heat means high energy bills and tough choices. Families with low-to-moderate incomes living in energy inefficient homes may find themselves forced to choose between buying groceries and keeping the house cool, while some families will likely turn to high risk loans to pay their energy bills. Others may put their own health at risk by cutting back on necessary cooling in an effort to reduce their energy bills. Because low-income households face a much higher energy burden than their higher income counterparts, energy is a pressing equity issue across the state of Georgia.

On May 5, Energy Efficiency for All-Georgia and partners brought together members of the community and advocates in Columbus to discuss energy equity and learn ways to save money on energy bills and participate in energy assistance programs.

Last week’s half-day forum hosted at the River Valley Regional Commission drew participants from a wide range of backgrounds and sparked engaging conversations about energy equity and access in the Columbus area. Participants included leaders from Georgia Power, community action agency advocates from the region, community leaders, policymakers, residents of Columbus, as well as consumer and clean energy advocates from Atlanta and outside the state. Participants learned about energy efficiency benefits for low-income households, such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), and Georgia Power’s Energy Assessment & Solutions Program. An afternoon panel discussed community resilience, particularly the need to explore solar energy opportunities in the Columbus area and encourage civic engagement in the upcoming Public Service Commission elections.

Berneta L. Haynes, Director of Equity and Access at Georgia Watch, led the planning of the event along with Southface, Enrichment Services Program, United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley, River Valley Regional Commission, Sierra Club, and National Housing Trust, among others. Speakers included Candace Poole (United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley), Alex Trachtenberg (Southface), Jamie Austin (Enrichment Services), Eric Arnold (Georgia Power), Jennette Gayer (Environment Georgia), Jonelle Minefee (Solar Tyme), and Stephen Stetson (Sierra Club).

The forum opened with a lively discussion about how high energy bills disproportionately impact low-income families, who often live in drafty, energy inefficient homes. Some participants spoke candidly about their high energy bills, with one Columbus resident explaining that she sometimes had to rely on help from friends to pay her energy bills. Throughout the day, utility leaders described some of their program offerings, including free energy audits and low-income energy efficiency programs for families hoping to reduce their energy bills. During the resilience discussion later in the day, a Columbus resident spoke about her desire to not only lower her energy bills but to become the first person in her community to put solar panels on her home.

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The forum served not only as a conversation-starter about the high energy burden families face in Georgia, but also provided helpful information and resources to enable families to take control over their energy use. For example, participants received free LED light bulbs to replace their old, inefficient bulbs. Raffle winners even received powerstrips at the close of the day so that they can “unplug” multiple appliances with one switch when they’re not in use.

Building upon the Energy Equity Forum we organized in Camilla in 2017, the Columbus Forum is the second in a series that will take place across the state. Coming in the fall of 2018, our next Energy Equity Forum is planned for the Augusta area.

Georgia Watch and our partners are looking forward to keeping this energy equity conversation going in the Columbus area and throughout the state. “We’ve made some wonderful connections in Columbus and can’t thank our local partners enough. We plan to continue our engagement in the area and grow the relationships we’ve seeded there over the last few months,” said Haynes.

If you would like to learn more about how to lower your energy bills, please see 10 Easy Ways to Save Money on Your Utility Bills or contact Berneta L. Haynes at bhaynes@georgiawatch.org to find out how to host or participate in a “How to Save Money on Your Utility Bills” workshop.