Education, trust and data combine to help Empower Chattanooga lower power bills for low-income families

Their mission is simple: teaching low-income residents low- and no-cost ways to reduce their power bills, something that has a direct impact on quality of life. Since launching in April 2015, the Empower Chattanooga program has helped 800 participants take control of their energy costs and achieve meaningful relief from their month-to-month financial strain.

Empower Chattanooga is a flagship project for local sustainability non-profit green|spaces, which is also active in promoting broader low-income energy efficiency solutions across the Tennessee Valley. At a recent meeting of TVA’s Energy Efficiency Information Exchange (EEIX) working group, Empower Chattanooga program coordinator Sam Fulbright presented some of the program’s results and keys to success.

How large are the savings? An early figure provided to green|spaces estimates that families are saving an average of $400 per year, although results vary significantly from family to family. While it is possible that some are making additional upgrades beyond the $10 kit the program provides for free, that is still an impressive early result.

By combining informative community workshops with low-cost free energy savings kits, Empower Chattanooga has shown that community members can make a little investment go a long way when it comes to energy efficiency. But the critical first step for any program is building trust in the communities being served.

“Building trust with the neighborhoods we work with is a critical part of the program,” Fulbright notes. “We prioritize building relationships in terms of how we can help work with a community, not for a community, and that sometimes means energy efficiency isn’t front and center in our work. We work with a wide range of groups and residents to do community-led events that bring people together and strengthen bonds – from outdoor movie nights to park clean ups and cookouts. With that strong foundation, we’re able to work energy issues into the conversation and let the community know they’re dealing with an excessive energy burden and that there are easy things to do to start to take control of their utility bills.”

Another key to Empower Chattanooga’s success is in utilizing technology and data to precisely identify the greatest energy-waste challenges in their hometown, and accurately tracking the results of their efforts. Armed with detailed utility system data provided by the local Chattanooga Electric Power Board (EPB), which has deployed one of the most advanced smart grid infrastructures in the country, Empower Chattanooga is able to efficiently deploy its limited resources to specific neighborhoods, provide education and basic tools tailored to local needs, and fine-tune its approach into a replicable model for energy efficiency programs far beyond its municipal borders.

“As a public power company, EPB appreciates all efforts to improve quality of life for the customers we serve. We’re proud to support the work Empower does to help some of our most vulnerable customers with energy efficiency,” said Elizabeth Hammitt, Chattanooga EPB’s director of community and environmental stewardship.

While it is also essential to provide access to more comprehensive home energy retrofits – something that green|spaces, SACE and other members of TVA’s EEIX stakeholder group hope to achieve over the next two years – the Empower Chattanooga model shows that building community trust through energy efficiency education can have an immediate impact on people’s lives and lay the groundwork for greater success in future energy-saving programs.

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