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Austin Energy touts its weatherization program for limited-income customers

Tuesday, January 19, 2021 by Seth Smalley

Sarah Chatterjee, the new director of energy efficiency services for Austin Energy, presented the utility’s new weatherization programs for low-income customers before the Electric Utility Commission on Jan. 11.

The program is aimed at providing weatherproofing modifications, optimizing energy efficiencies and reducing energy use at little to no cost to customers. The program is available both to owners and renters as long as the homes are valued at less than $300,000 and are under 2,500 square feet.

“When the weatherization program first started, we really only had one measure: attic insulation,” Chatterjee said. “Over the years, as program design has changed, as improvements have been seen and new technology has become available, we have added new measures to the program.”

Such measures include solar screens, AC tuneups, smart thermostat installations, home envelope sealing, energy assessments, Energy Star appliances, and duct sealing and replacements.

Unfortunately, she noted, weatherizations have hit a roadblock with Covid, as Austin Energy has been unable to weatherize home interiors for four months.

“Because of the pandemic, in essence, we had to be out of the market for approximately a third of the year. The middle of March when the shelter-in-place orders were put into effect by the government and city, our programs also had to shut down. In the early days we did not have access to personal protective equipment, which meant our employees weren’t protected, our contractors weren’t protected, and our customers were not protected,” Chatterjee said.

Austin Energy has had weatherization programs for almost 40 years, a rarity in the utility industry, according to Chatterjee. Over that period, the city utility has weatherized about 20,000 homes and 12,000 apartments at no cost to the customers. Separate from the program, AE has weatherized an additional 137,000 apartments over the same time frame. The fiscal year budget for the program was just under $2 million.

However, AE did not achieve all of this in a vacuum; it has partnered with Neighborhood Housing, the Home Repair Coalition, Family Eldercare and other social service agencies in order to carry out the weatherization program.

Terry Moore, an energy efficiency services manager, told the commission that one of the improvements they are making, based on community feedback, is shortening the length of the application to one page, because the former multi-page application “was too long, confusing and maybe a bit daunting.” Moore added that customers would also no longer be required to submit W-2 forms, check stubs, tax returns and other income documents as part of their applications.

Many of the questions from the commission seemed to focus on the means-testing process, making sure that those receiving the improvements are actually in need.

Commissioner Cyrus Reed asked, “What’s the check to make sure that I’m not getting free weatherization? I shouldn’t get free weatherization. How are you going to make sure that people that really shouldn’t be getting these programs that are specifically designed to help working people who couldn’t afford to pay?”

“We work with our data analytics group, internally, that runs residential customers through filters, appraisal district data, market segmentation data, census-tract data and prior participation data from our system,” Moore explained. After running the filters, the utility selectively invites the families they believe would qualify, and the customers then attest to their own qualifications in the application.

Photo by Jack Amick made available through a Creative Commons license.

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