How Knoxville is slashing energy bills for residents

Name: Erin Gill

Title: Director of Sustainability

City: Knoxville, Tenn.

Project: Weatherizing homes for low-income residents

In Knoxville each year, thousands of families living on low incomes are forced to choose between paying their energy bills or the rent. The city spends about $6 million a year to help people pay those energy bills. But Erin Gill calls that a Band-Aid approach that doesn’t address the underlying problem: that many people are living in older homes that waste a lot of energy.

Gill built an ambitious and successful strategy for weatherizing these homes that now has upgraded more than 1,300 residences with insulation, new heat pumps, and other energy-efficiency improvements. On average, residents who have had the work done are saving about $500 per year on their energy bills.

Gill has only two full-time staff, including herself, plus a volunteer and interns. So she leans heavily on partnerships with organizations outside City Hall, assembled through a local collaboration focused on energy efficiency known as the Smarter Cities Partnership. That coalition recently wrapped up a two-year project called the Knoxville Extreme Energy Makeover, or KEEM, funded primarily through a $15 million grant from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Bloomberg Cities spoke with Gill to find out more about how Knoxville has leveraged partnerships and data to make an impact on an issue that not only matters to residents’ pocketbooks but also contributes to the fight against climate change.

Bloomberg Cities: What’s the scale of the energy-efficiency problem in Knoxville?

Erin Gill: We estimated back in 2013 that there were close to 10,000 families who routinely, on a yearly basis, had to ask for help to pay their utility bill. That was one starting number. We also knew that, when you add up federal funds plus donations, that we were spending an estimated $6 million a year to help families pay their utility bills.

This was a Band-Aid. We would write someone a check to cover their utility bills for one month, and the next month we would have to write another because the home was inefficient. We were setting up a cycle of dependency, rather than trying to work toward a solution that empowers residents to avoid the need for assistance in the future.

So where did you start?

We started doing a lot of research to try to understand where our oldest homes were located, and where, geographically, they overlay with high utility-usage areas, low-income areas, and disproportionate areas of people of color. We wanted to make sure the dollars we have are reaching those who need it most.

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Through the Smarter Cities Partnership, we had close to 20 different organizations who were committed to thinking through and sharing with us their data about where they’re working, who they’re working with, what types of services they’re providing, how those services are used, when they’re used, how many people are using them, what they cost, all of that. And trying to bring that information together so that we could see the broader arc of what’s going on in the communities.

Who are some of your partners?

Let me start with the obvious ones. We have the utilities, like the Knoxville Utilities Board that covers electric, gas, and water all under one bill. They’re municipally owned. Then we have the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which is the regional utility that generates all of that power, and traditionally has been the entity that designs and implements energy-efficiency programming.

Then we also had the Knoxville — Knox County Community Action Committee, or CAC. They are the local quasi-governmental entity that implements federal programs aimed at weatherization assistance and another one that helps people pay their utility bills. They were really the core project manager and oversaw making sure that the energy audits got done, the retrofits got handled, and the customers were happy.

Another partner is a group called Home Source which does a lot of building homes for low- income families. We partnered with a group called the Compassion Coalition, which is a coordinating agency of churches. We partnered with a local community college that does technical training for the building trades. We also involved Shelton Group, which is an organization that focuses on sustainability marketing, and gave us perspective on how to market, and bring in behavioral economics concepts into the programs we were designing. We also had representation from our local United Way chapter.

We tried to cover the realm of partners who were working with the people that we needed to serve, and who had goals that — even if they weren’t specific to energy — were aligned with this idea of working to empower people by improving their homes.

The program really took off in 2015 with the TVA grant. How did that happen?

While we were working out what our program would look like, TVA was looking for communities to roll out low-income energy-efficiency direct home improvement programs. And what was very unique about the program that we put forth was that we truly built a program rooted in local partnerships. We were going to be doing what some national corporate players do, but with local capacity, so that when the funding goes away there are still people left to continue the work in Knoxville.

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We were able to put this proposal together that was rooted in Knoxville, by Knoxville, for Knoxville. I’m really proud of this fact. We put in a proposal for about $4 million, which is big money. I mean, we were like, “Oh my God, $4 million, this would be incredible. What a game changer.” And TVA came back to us and asked us how much money we could actually spend on this. We ultimately came down with a proposal for $15 million.

I think it goes to show, the fact that we had had a conversation and built a relationship with the TVA, on top of already having access to the data that we needed, set us apart when they were evaluating where they were going to put their money. They were able to say, “Look, Knoxville is shovel-ready; they’re ready to go.”

How has data informed your efforts?

We had a lot of great data that we collected from the Census and from electricity records from the Knoxville Utilities Board, and we put it all into a map. This way, we were able to target neighborhoods for outreach.

Knoxville’s efforts to educate residents about how to make energy-efficiency upgrades in their homes have reached nearly 2,000 people.

One of our partners, who works with at-risk young adults on green-job training, actually went and did a lot of targeted outreach in the neighborhoods that we identified as high-priority areas. They went door to door. They talked to neighborhood groups, churches, and businesses with the goal of getting folks in the community to a workshop where then they could learn not only about no-cost things that they could do to save energy, but then also learn about this program and how they could enroll.

Everyone was required to participate in that education workshop. They’re designed to make sure that these families feel they are truly a partner in this effort.

And we’ve been able to track the successes of this program because we have access to families’ utility bills both before and after the retrofit. So we can see if the actual intervention made an impact. And the answer is yes. We have that data.

And you’re also looking at health benefits of these upgrades as well?

We are working with an entity called Three Cubed. They are surveying families before and after they have retrofits done to assess emergency room visits, especially for those who have asthma. And they’re finding these families are having fewer asthma flare-ups as a result of their home having better indoor air quality because of the improved air sealing and insulation.

The idea is that we now have a really robust and valid dataset of how families are being assisted through energy efficiency in ways that might be of interest to the healthcare industry. Now the question is how we can bring those healthcare partners to the table so that they are also investing in this type of work because they are going to benefit from it as well. Because, hopefully, the more entities we have seeing value in this work, the more funding we’ll be able to secure to sustain it.

Let’s go back to the partnership behind all of this. How is it structured?

One of the key factors was that Mayor Madeline Rogero was the Chair of our Smarter City Partnership. She was very visibly a leader in this. So when we had meetings, they were open to the public and open to the media, and Mayor Rogero was at every single one. That’s a key element: Having that high-level support.

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But then you also have to have a quarterback, which was my role. I send out the meeting invites, and make sure people are there, and that we have agendas. We really take pride in thinking through the agenda and who we need to talk about specific things. Without that type of quarterback role, sometimes these partnerships fizzle. Because people just don’t have time to waste.

What are some of the lessons Knoxville has for other cities?

It all goes back to partnerships. It really benefited us to build on our local capacity.

But, at the same time, you have to be honest about where your gaps are. We’ve tried to acknowledge what we didn’t do well, like education, which is why we brought in the Alliance to Save Energy, which does education really well.

The program design element is really critical. There is often a lot of impatience around seeing work get done on the ground. But by taking the time to think through our processes, and think through our systems, we’ve positioned ourselves to be faster in the end. You have to get it right because you’re going into someone’s home. You don’t want to have a messy process.

We also baked in iterative opportunities to improve. We had an advisory committee, which had a variety of folks who were maybe part of the city’s partnership but weren’t directly involved in implementation. We met with them quarterly to report on how the project was going and to get feedback from objective eyes and ears.

What’s next now that the big TVA grant is done?

We have built a machine that can run as fast or as slow as the community has resources for. And we’re continuing to find resources. When the TVA launched their Home Uplift pilot, we were able to add it to our mix, and secure another $1 million in funding over a year, for two years. We’ve also been able to participate in program that rounds utility bills up to the nearest dollar and brings in around $700,000 a year.

The real success in our program is that this wasn’t done by an outside company: We have the people, we have the processes, we have the reputation. We know the system, so that we can keep this type of work going. It’s also easier to get money, when you’ve got a program already. And again, having even $1 million a year was unheard of when we started this effort back in 2013, so it’s been a huge success.

The hard part is that the need is still so great. There are still so many homes that need this work done. We know that the road ahead is long.