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Exploring how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

Southeast overlooks energy efficiency as a climate tool, report finds

Commodore apartments
David Boraks
Replacing windows in older buildings can save energy and lower monthly bills.

This story appeared first in WFAE reporter David Boraks' weekly newsletter. Subscribe today to get Climate News straight to your email inbox each week.

As North Carolina addresses the causes of climate change, much of the focus has been on switching from fossil-fuel power plants to renewable energy, such as wind and solar. We hear less about another important tactic — energy efficiency. That means installing more efficient heating and cooling systems and home appliances, weatherproofing and other measures.

A report out this week from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy says the Southeast lags behind the rest of the country on energy efficiency performance of utilities. It's a practice that not only reduces demand for new power sources in the long run, but also saves customers money on their monthly electric bills.

"Energy efficiency is the least-cost energy resource. And increasing energy efficiency basically reduces the total investments that the utilities have to make, making it the cheapest way to meet energy needs for customers," Stephen Smith, executive director of SACE, said as the report was unveiled this week.

"From an environmental perspective, we always talk about the electron that you do not use is the greenest electron," he added.

The report, "Energy Efficiency in the Southeast," argues utilities and regulators have historically "underinvested and deprioritized" energy efficiency, which pushes up electricity usage and customers' bills.

(Source: 2023 Energy Efficiency in the Southeast/Southern Alliance for Clean Energy)

SACE gathered data from utilities that serve the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and parts of Mississippi and Kentucky. They ranked the region against other parts of the country by calculating the amount of energy efficiency spending as a percentage of total retail electricity sales. The South and Southeast scored lowest, well below the national average of 0.68% (see chart) in 2021, the latest data available.

"Of all of the regions, only the South and, as a subset of that, the Southeast are below the national average. All other regions are above the national average," said SACE Energy Efficiency Director Forest Bradley-Wright, who wrote the report.

The South actually pulls down the rest of the country, he noted. But there are also differences within the region, he said: "All (southeastern) states are below the national average. South Carolina and North Carolina bring the regional average up."

Duke Energy's two Carolinas' subsidiaries have some of the highest energy efficiency ratios in the region, but the data shows the numbers slipping over the past two years.

"You actually saw low-income programs at Duke across all of its operating companies declined by 75% and more in 2020 and 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels. But fortunately, there are new programs that Duke has proposed and recently gotten approval for that would provide deep efficiency for customers in the Carolinas," Bradley-Wright said.

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Duke and other utilities do have energy efficiency programs. For example, you can request free energy-efficient light bulbs or home energy-efficiency checkups. In some cases, there are rebates for installing energy-efficient appliances or insulation.

But more needs to be done, SACE says. And federal help is on the way.

Congress approved billions of dollars in investments in energy efficiency, through elements in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. These include tax credits and deductions for homeowners, builders and owners of commercial properties through the IRA. The Southeast is in line for $1.8 billion in direct aid, according to SACE.

Read the 2023 "Energy Efficiency in the Southeast" report here.

Connecting climate change and health

A statewide group called Carolina Advocates for Climate Health & Equity (CACHE) will hold its first statewide virtual conference next month, focusing on health care's role in protecting communities from climate change and air pollution.

Health care providers are a critical part of communicating the threats of climate change to their communities, said Kathleen Shapley-Quinn, the executive director of CACHE.

"A lot of people are not aware that health, our current health, is already impacted by climate in many, many ways," Shapley Quinn-said. "Health providers bring an important message to the table when we're talking about climate. People who otherwise might not be moved to make changes in their lives or institutions, when they recognize the connections with themselves, the community and globally, they do things differently."

The Embracing Health & Equity online symposium is Friday, April 21, from 12:30 to 5 p.m. The keynote speaker is Dr. Gaurab Basu, a Massachusetts physician, Harvard University instructor and co-director of the Cambridge Health Alliance Center for Health Equity Education and Advocacy.

Shapley-Quinn said the free event is aimed at those in health care professions as well as community and health-equity organizations. This year's conference offers free continuing medical education credits.

Click here for more information or to register.

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.