Cutting bills while conserving energy: How a new efficiency program hopes to help

CHARLOTTE — In the winter, Monica Dunlap’s home was always too cold. In the summer, it was too warm. Meanwhile, her heating and cooling bills were always too high.

According to Duke Energy, Dunlap’s house was a high energy user, despite her family’s discomfort.

“It was a little drafty,” Monique Turner, her daughter, said. “You got your heat up high, and it was still cold in some areas.”

Drafty areas or parts of the home that are always too hot or too cold are a red flag that your home isn’t properly weatherized. If outside air can get in, that means your air conditioner or heat is getting out.

When an assessor from Duke Energy came out to Dunlap’s home, that’s exactly what they found; a lot of her power was going to waste.

“There was a good bit of insulation as well air sealing and duct sealing work that we had to do,” Lacey O’Neil, a program manager for Duke Energy, said.

According to the Department of Energy, weatherization upgrades often cost around $5,000 per household. Low-income households, the most likely to struggle with that upfront cost, also pay a much higher portion of their income on energy than the average household.

To help reduce that burden, there are a number of programs focused on helping low-income households weatherize their homes, including a new pilot program Duke Energy has launched in Mecklenburg County.

The program sets aside $4 million to help roughly 1,000 homes in Mecklenburg County, weatherize, replace inefficient appliances, and hopefully save hundreds on their energy bills every year. The City of Charlotte is also collaborating with the program to provide $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to improve health and safety conditions in some of these homes by installing carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, improving plumbing, and making home repairs.

Dunlap’s home was the first in the county to get some of these improvements. Her doors and ducts were resealed, her attic and walls got improved insulation and Duke Energy replaced her hot water heater with a new, more efficient hybrid heat pump water heater, all at no cost to her.

“That helps out a lot,” she said. “The hot water stays a lot longer.”

On top of serving customers, Duke Energy said programs like this also help reduce peak energy demand at the height of summer and the coldest days of winter, because these more efficient homes don’t need as much power to serve customers.

“The less energy we’re using, the less we need to make,” O’Neil said.

Dunlap won’t know how much energy she’s saved until she hits the one-year mark on her upgrades, but she said she is looking forward to seeing how well her air conditioning lasts through the summer. So far, despite a few spring days in the 80s, she said she hasn’t had to crank the AC yet.

“74 is cold,” she said. “We have to put it on 75.”

While this program is specifically serving low-income customers, Duke Energy believes any homeowner could benefit from a weatherization assessment, especially if they’re seeing higher than usual bills. The utility offers free home assessments for any Duke Energy customers who own and have lived in their homes for at least four months. While the assessors won’t provide free upgrades, they will offer advice on how to improve efficiency in your house, point to places where the home may need to resealed and offer a free efficiency starter kit.

The Department of Energy is also offering tax credits for homeowners who make energy efficiency upgrades through 2032.

(WATCH BELOW: Clean energy is stuck with backlogs. A Charlotte factory hopes to be part of the solution:)

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.

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