Helping Houstonians beat the heat
Anyone who has endured a Houston summer knows the inevitability of electricity bills that soar with the heat and humidity. Low- to moderate-income households can soften the financial hit through the Residential Energy Efficiency Program (REEP), a free, city-sponsored effort to weatherize homes and lower energy consumption — but only 36 percent of qualified Houston households have signed up since the program started in 2006. Recently, a group of Energy Forum interns and students involved with Rice University's Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) decided to find out why.
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Working under the supervision of Robert Stein, Lena Gohlman Fox Professor of Political Science; Stephanie Post, executive director of the CCE; and Amy Myers Jaffe, Baker Institute Wallace S. Wilson Fellow in Energy Studies, the students drafted a telephone survey conducted between May 18 and June 1, 2010. Five hundred households in Houston's ethnically diverse Sharpstown area were targeted because of the large number of residents who potentially met the income requirements for REEP.
The survey questions were designed to gauge the residents' level of concern about their energy bills. In addition, residents were asked about their efforts to save energy, trust in city government to do the right thing, and whether a neighbor's decision to participate in REEP would influence their own.
The students found that concern about energy bills and the promise of lower bills are key to an individual's willingness to participate in REEP. Interestingly, the residents' attitudes toward government, the environment or conservation did not influence their decision to sign up — but they were more likely to join if their neighbors did. In light of the survey results, the students, pictured above, distributed leaflets and spoke directly to Sharpstown homeowners to help the city of Houston get the word out about REEP.
In addition, the students, pictured above, who last spring took Jaffe's course, Integrated Approaches to Sustainable Development, assisted in weatherizing a house to understand the energy-saving improvements available. Homes are pressurized to detect heating or cooling leaks, then attic insulation, weather stripping, window caulking, energy saving light bulbs and a water heater blanket are installed. These simple measures translate to savings of up to 20 percent on monthly electric bills, according to the city of Houston. "It absolutely surprised me that the city was offering this great program and for some reason people weren't accepting it, even though they got a lot of free improvements," said rising senior Noemie Levy, an Energy Forum intern.
The students recommended in their report "Participation in the City of Houston's Residential Energy Efficiency Program" that the city distribute promotional materials for REEP that emphasize the potential reduction of monthly energy bills and increased resale value of a home. Advertising should target singles, women and people of African-American descent — the groups that expressed the most concern about their energy bills, according to the survey research. The Rice report also recommended that homes undergoing weatherization post lawn signs advertising REEP to encourage neighbors to sign up, and that the city provide more information about the program on the Internet.
It's too soon to know what effect the students' findings will have. The study has been forwarded to REEP administrators, who have been tracking the students' progress from day one, Levy said. "This study addresses what it is about energy efficiency programs that isn't working, who we can target and how. My hope is that our work will help increase the number of people who weatherize their homes because the program has been shown not only to reduce individual energy bills but also to improve the environment."
Support for this study was generously provided by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, the Center for Civic Engagement at Rice University, and the Environmental Defense Fund.
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The James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy is a nonpartisan public policy think tank located on the campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas. The institute's distinguished fellows and scholars research and collaborate with experts from academia, government, the media, business and private organizations on domestic and foreign policy issues with the goal of bridging the gap between the theory and practice of public policy.