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Data-Layering Could Help Low Income Households Lower Energy Costs

power lines
Chad Cooper
Flickr, Creative Commons,

Low income households face a dual challenge when paying energy bills. Older homes tend to be less efficient, and energy costs eat up a greater percentage of the household's income.

A coalition of researchers spent two years looking at ways to combine publicly available mapping data with confidential information from utilities and government agencies to better identify households in need of assistance.

Anne Tazewell is the special project program manager with the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center and one of the Powering Energy Efficiency and Impacts Framework project leaders.  She said this layering of information can help improve how energy efficiency services are offered to low income households.

"Everybody has mapping, and partnering with your local agencies that are providing this federal assistance is a way to connect the dots between different many levels of our government," she said.

The study focused on five counties in northeastern North Carolina where 23 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line.

There are multiple programs available to help low income families pay utility bills, weatherize older homes, or increase energy efficiency, but often each program operates in its own silo, said Tazewell.

"While there are a number of interested parties doing the same sorts of thing that have a fair amount of overlap, there's not very much communication between them," she said. "This project really provided an opportunity to reach out to a number of state agencies and utilities to try to make progress breaking down those silos."

The layering of data also offered a rare opportunity to study the long-term benefits of improving a household's energy efficiency. By comparing data from three electricity companies with weather data, researchers were able to quantify how much weatherization projects can reduce energy costs over time.

"What was unique and special about our study was we brought together utility data from the three utilities with the data that was provided by the two state agencies we were working with to be able to get a more robust picture of the potential energy savings," Tazewell said.

Moving forward, Tazewell would like to expand the study and see this mapping tool used by local governments to highlight those most in need of energy efficiency upgrades and assistance.

Elizabeth Friend grew up in North Carolina listening to public radio in the backseat of the family station wagon. She has been reporting and producing at WUNC since 2016, covering everything from Army history to armadillos. She's also the co-founder of the beloved summer event series Audio Under The Stars. In her spare time she enjoys exploring the outside world with her family, dabbling in esoteric crafts, and cheese.
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