When it’s cold outside, it doesn’t have to be cold inside

Louisiana needs higher efficiency standards and more efficient homes

Temperatures remained below freezing for most of Louisiana this week, driving up energy usage. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry / Louisiana Illuminator)

Our country seems to love nothing so much as a distracting and ill-timed debate, and so it was that during this week’s dangerously cold weather, a new battle in the energy culture war was heating up. Specifically, Big Oil partisans were claiming — incorrectly — that the week’s failures of the power grid proved the unreliability of cleaner forms of energy.

As they were arguing, people were suffering from exposure from inside their homes.

“It is a sin and a crime,” Logan Atkinson-Burke said Thursday, “that we are hearing that this is about a fight between different kinds of energy market designs, or even the fight between renewables and fossil fuels when the first part needs to be about how people are being affected in their homes.” Burke is the executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a Louisiana advocacy group that pushes for “fair, affordable, and environmentally responsible energy policy” for the state.

The most “human-centered” course of action now, she said, “is to winterize and weatherize our homes to be prepared not only for extreme cold, but — as you know, we’re getting hotter and more humid summers.” Burke said that not only would such a path forward focus on people, but making houses across the state more energy efficient is “the cheapest” and “the fastest” thing we could do.

In normal times, Burke said, Louisianians use “30 percent more electricity than the average American household. We are the highest electricity user in the country.”  We’re the highest, she said, even when you subtract industrial and commercial users.

If we use that much more power in normal times, one can imagine the tremendous load put on the power grid during this week’s bitter cold. On Tuesday, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator ordered regional utilities — including those who service Louisiana — to intermittently shut off customers to prevent a complete failure of the system.

The state’s utility companies — Entergy, CLECO, SWEPCO — asked their consumers to reduce their power consumption ahead of those rolling blackouts, but that’s harder to do with homes that are leaky and drafty.

“When we get these calls for conservation that Entergy sends out, that’s obviously because we’re using a lot more electricity because we’re cold at home,” Burke said. “When your home is more prepared, is better insulated, is better, weatherized, you are able to be more comfortable with less energy use. That puts less strain on the grid. It makes you healthier in your home.”

Many places across the state have an old housing stock. Some of those homes are charming and drafty. Some of them are less charming and drafty. Some are in every way substandard, which means they’re drafty.

Why are leaky houses so common? Because, Burke said, “You could build a house in Louisiana up till 2006 and not put a lick of insulation in it.”  

But that doesn’t mean they can’t be insulated now. 

“I live in a house that was built originally in 1841,” Burke said. “I love my house. And we made that sucker tight. I barely had to keep my heat on during even these crazy cold temperatures because my house acts like a thermos.”

As for solutions to the state’s problems, Burke said, the Louisiana Legislature should address the state’s outdated building codes, the Louisiana Public Service Commission should “finalize an energy efficiency rule that will require utilities to reduce energy waste across the footprint” and the federal government, which pushed weatherization programs as a form of economic stimulus after the Great Recession, should “reinvest some dollars into those kinds of programs,” and do it this time with longevity — and not just a one-time economic stimulus in mind.

Those improvements would put less of a burden on the region’s power infrastructure, but just as importantly if not so, those improvements would mean less of a burden on individual utility customers.

The economic slowdown caused by the pandemic means that many people are still struggling to pay rent or their mortgage.

And now on top of that, sky high electricity bills have come, and are yet coming. Entergy customers paid 8 to-10 percent more this January than last for the same amount of power, Burke said, and now this month they’re using way more power.

The good news, Burke said, is that the CARES Act provided funds for people struggling with utility costs and there are community agencies across the state who have money to distribute.

And if the U.S. Senate signs onto a new coronavirus relief bill that the House has already passed, Burke said, “We’re going to be in a great position to help people with their energy bills.”