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Virginia weatherization groups seek alternatives as Youngkin undercuts funding source

When 27 low-income apartments housed in a historic red brick school in Giles County needed $660,000 worth of upgrades, it would’ve been a no-brainer for its owner to dip into millions of energy efficiency dollars newly set aside by the Virginia legislature.

But knowing that the funding stream from the state’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative could be in jeopardy prompted Community Housing Partners to pursue a more secure route.

Enter Sol Systems of neighboring Washington, D.C. 

The mission-driven solar company had announced in February that it was investing a total of $1.2 million with CHP and four other organizations in Virginia and Maryland dedicated to environmental justice, workforce training and climate resiliency.

Connecting with Sol Systems is a reflection of how scrappy nonprofits continue to doggedly diversify as state and federal financial resources targeted for home weatherization and repairs have seesawed over the last five decades.

A potential “divorce” from RGGI in Virginia is only the latest wave of uncertainty.

“We’re a gritty bunch,” said Chase Counts, senior director of operations for CHP’s Energy Solutions division. “We’ve fought for these programs to be established and we want to preserve them.”

That link with Sol Systems turned out to be prescient for CHP when the state Air Pollution Control Board voted 4-3 this month to repeal Virginia’s participation in the regional carbon market that caps emissions of heat-trapping gases from fossil fuel power plants. 

The four “yea” votes came from appointees of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who pledged to withdraw from the 11-state East Coast compact before he was elected in November 2021.

Environmental organizations have vowed to beat back that repeal. Leaders doubt the board’s vote will survive legal scrutiny because they maintain that only legislative action can undo Virginia’s enrollment.

The General Assembly passed one law in 2020 to join RGGI and a subsequent one that split millions in auction allowances between initiatives to boost energy efficiency for lower-income residents and mitigate flooding.

Of course, the $350,000 that CHP received from Sol Systems for renovations that include new roofing, windows and exterior doors at the S.A. Robinson Apartments in Southwest Virginia is nowhere near the scale of RGGI’s millions.

But it’s a start as CHP navigates a politicized predicament. 

“This need for weatherization and repairs for low-income Virginians isn’t going away,” Counts said. “We will continue to pursue other avenues of funding.” 

‘Make money while doing the right thing’

Adaora Ifebigh, senior director of impact at Sol Systems, said her company’s decision to aid CHP had nothing to do with the squabbling over RGGI.

“This is about relieving energy burdens and being sure communities aren’t left behind during the clean energy transition,” said Ifebigh, who traveled to the apartments in Giles County to grasp what CHP had in mind. “Our holistic view is that doing repairs in Pembroke will maximize energy efficiency.”

Sol Systems began lifting up local communities disproportionately affected by environmental issues three years ago to reflect the passion for climate solutions it shares with one of its customers, the software behemoth Microsoft. The framework of Microsoft’s power purchase agreement for a 500-megawatt solar project is designed to eventually generate $50 million. 

The first $200,000 was handed out to five organizations last year.

“We’re trying to create a unique model that will last,” Ifebigh said. “It’s not the easiest thing to do, but we believe you can make money while doing the right thing. You don’t have to make tradeoffs.”

She and her colleagues will keep tweaking the program as they absorb more information constantly.

“Our goal is to show that this is even possible,” Ifebigh said. “It involves a lot of trust-building. We don’t presume to know what the community needs.”

CHP has owned and operated the S.A. Robinson Apartments in the town of Pembroke since 1986, when the two-story building became the Christiansburg-based nonprofit’s initial multifamily development. The development was the earliest example of such adapted reuse in the state. 

“Now we’re coming full circle and making energy improvements,” CHP spokesman Michael Sutphin said about the all-electric apartments. 

Funding from Sol Systems will cover more than half of those upgrades. Money for much of the rest is coming from a weatherization program at Appalachian Power, Virginia’s second-largest investor owned utility. 

When CHP surveyed residents about needs for the 85-year-old structure, the No. 1 request was new windows.

“We wanted to engage community members and listen to residents,” Sutphin said. “That’s far better than having a corporate entity come in to identify problems.”

When the first phase of renovations is completed later this year, residents can expect to save 4% to 6% on energy consumption.

“That might not sound like a lot,” Sutphin said, “but it translates to lower (utility) bills.”

Queue for home repairs keeps growing

With RGGI membership in limbo, the Community Housing Partners Energy Solutions program is not the only weatherization provider seeking alternate funding. Another 13 — soon to be 14 when a Virginia Beach provider comes aboard — serve the rest of the state.

RGGI, in existence since 2008, curbs emissions of heat-trapping gases by auctioning carbon dioxide allowances. Power plants are assigned an emissions cap and they must purchase allowances for any pollution above that threshold. Each member state decides independently how to spend that revenue.

Through March, Virginia records show that auctions have yielded $283 million toward a range of energy efficiency programs since the RGGI’s start date in March 2021. Of that, $45.1 million has been designated for deferred home repairs — such as leaky roofs, mold, lead paint and electrical and plumbing issues — that stand in the way of more routine energy efficiency improvements for lower-income Virginians. The funds are administered by the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

While the agency is the clearinghouse tracking how CHP and the other weatherization nonprofits are spending RGGI money, those collective figures are not available. However, each nonprofit records its individual statistics.

CHP is the largest weatherization provider serving Virginia. Since July 2021, the organization has spent $2.8 million serving 507 single- and multi-family households in need of RGGI pre-weatherization repairs.

Another 567 households remain in the queue, which Counts estimates will cost another $4.2 million to address. The nonprofit’s energy auditors submit roughly 15 new requests each week.

Before RGGI money began flowing, he said the statewide network of providers had to defer work for roughly one of every five households that had applied for weatherization assistance through a federal program.

With or without RGGI dollars, the pipeline of poor Virginians requesting help is expected to grow because recent federal laws, including the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, have spotlighted energy efficiency’s crucial role in slowing the climate crisis.

“These new applicants will have the same need for repairs before we can safely and effectively weatherize their homes,” Counts said. “We need weatherization deferral and repair money through RGGI to keep up with that demand.”

Biodiversity and energy efficiency are linked

Last fall, Virginians submitted 1,853 written comments against pulling out of RGGI and 599 in favor, according to state figures.

Youngkin, who initially tried to exit RGGI via an executive order, and his administration has long insisted that RGGI burdens consumers financially while offering nothing in return.

That puzzles clean energy advocates such as Peter Anderson, Virginia policy director of Appalachian Voices, who said RGGI has been an enormous boon for vulnerable communities.

“Rather than acknowledging that Virginia’s participation… is required by law and is working as designed, this administration has pushed forward with an ideological battle,” he said.

Anderson’s point about RGGI aiding at-risk Virginians is spelled out in a 63-page report, “Investing in Virginia Through Energy Efficiency,” released in January by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University.

By remaining in RGGI through 2030, Virginia would take in between $125 million and $165 million annually for a range of low-income energy efficiency programs, the five co-authors wrote. That revenue, they added, exceeds total targeted funding available via existing state and federal programs.

If that $165 million upgraded 130,000 homes, the investment would reduce annual electricity use by 590,000 megawatt hours and cut bills by $89 million per year. On average, that would save each household $676 annually.

Funding energy efficiency can play a significant role in addressing the “energy burdens” carried by low-income Virginians, the report stated. Households spending more than 6% of their budget on heating, cooling and other energy costs carry what is classified as a high energy burden, while 10% or more is considered severe.

A map of census tracts in the report reveals that many rural parts of the state — especially Southwest, Southside, the Northern Neck and the Eastern Shore — are at or above the 10% threshold classified as severe.

The study, led by Damian Pitt, an associate professor at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, was funded by The Nature Conservancy.

While the conservancy’s key mission is protecting biodiversity globally, leaders are cognizant that sufficient gains will be impossible if the climate crisis isn’t abated.

Part of that is helping to break the cycle of perpetual poverty by investing in energy efficiency enhancements for overlooked households, said Lena Lewis, the energy and climate program manager for the conservancy’s Virginia chapter.

“We’re always looking for climate and clean energy solutions that work for the planet and people,” Lewis said. “We love energy efficiency because it’s a win for nature, for energy bills, and it employs a lot of people.”

Lewis also noted that exponential growth of large-scale solar farms has escalated anxiety in Virginia and elsewhere over the use of forested and prime agricultural land for renewable energy. The conservancy is focusing on adding solar arrays to dormant coal minelands in Central Appalachia. “That tension can be reduced by maximizing energy efficiency,” she added. 

The conservancy funded Pitt’s study to quantify the value of RGGI in relieving energy burdens.

“Yes, we’re a science-based organization, but numbers about people matter too,” Lewis said. 

That message about human beings resonates with Counts at Community Housing Partners, which confidently beefed up its Energy Solutions teams with new hires when Virginia finally joined RGGI.

However, the June 7 extraction vote by the air board — which coincidentally occurred on the same day as the latest allowance auction — has the nonprofit re-evaluating staffing targets.

“That’s upsetting because it will likely mean delays in services for clients,” Counts said. “We will continue seeking less politically fraught funding sources to meet the needs of under-resourced Virginians.”

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