Behind-the-scenes: How Cincinnati is Improving Energy Equity

May 18, 2021
Carla Walker
Carla Walker

The City of Cincinnati identified a high level of energy burden among its residents compared to peer cities, and wanted an equitable way to reduce energy costs. As part of the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge (Climate Challenge), the City developed a suite of programs called WarmUp Cincy that offers financial incentives to support for both tenants and building owners to make energy efficiency improvements and learn energy saving best practices. In January 2021, with support from the Climate Challenge, the City engaged IMT to support the development of an education program for building owners. Using lessons learned from the Green Lease Leader program, IMT helped the City by providing one-on-one technical assistance to owners and strategic guidance that will help the program become more effective. Recently, IMT interviewed Carla Walker, Climate Advisor to the City of Cincinnati for the Natural Resources Defense Council about the work.

Can you talk a little bit about the WarmUp Cincy program and why it is important to engage both those who own and those who live or work in buildings?

In 2016, a report from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy ranked the City of Cincinnati as having the 8th highest energy burden for low-income residents and renters, and the 9th for African American residents. To address this inequity, the City’s 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan included a goal to reduce household energy burden by 10% by 2023 with strategies focused on low income renters.  As a participant and with partners of the American Cities Climate Challenge, the City created the WarmUp Cincy program.

When we created WarmUp, most of Cincinnati’s existing energy efficiency programs, offered through the utility, provided services for owners of single-family homes, which created a gap in offerings for low-income renters. As renters, utility bills often relate to both their in-unit and common space electrical costs. Generally, improving efficiency in the multifamily building sector is challenging because of the “split incentive” in which the benefits of reduced energy costs are not delivered to the party that makes the investment. Because of those hurdles, we felt it was critical to directly address individual units as well as whole buildings—attack both sides of the equation. Basic energy efficiency upgrades in units, such as improving light bulbs and simple air sealing, achieves 15% savings on electrical bills for renters, on average. More extensive building upgrades, such as whole-building approaches, can give multi-family renters between 30% and 50% savings. That can significantly reduce our energy burden in this sector.

Can you talk about the Small Grants Program and IMT’s role?

WarmUp consists of three elements: a financial incentive, education and upgrades. One of the programs is a Small Grants Program that is specifically targeted to building owners of smaller multifamily properties. If awarded, owners receive up to $5,000 in matching grant money for suggested capital upgrades that are shown to reduce electricity costs for renters. The buildings must have tenants at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level and the tenant must be responsible for their Duke Energy electricity bill. Working with IMT provided our Small Grants Program with the critical element of an education program. Until then, we did not have a good handle on how to help owners understand the importance of energy efficiency. The way IMT’s program is structured is so much more than education. It really helps owners see the value of investing in capital efficiency improvements and provides much needed guidance and resources for those owners who may not have the time to navigate through how best to incorporate upgrades that will deepen savings for them and for their tenant.

When we began working with the team at IMT, the Green Lease Leader program had just announced that it would expand eligibility to multifamily structures. We suggested a pilot with our selected Small Grant recipients to test the program in the affordable housing space. IMT participated in a workshop session for our grant recipients to inform them about Green Lease Leaders, surveyed these building owners to determine their needs, and used that information to seed a locally-specific resource toolkit for apartment building owners whose tenants are income restricted.

What are your lessons learned so far from doing the Small Grants Program?

We launched the first round of grants in November of 2020 and we are just now closing out the last of those projects. As a matter of fact, we have just opened the grant cycle for Round two. We’ve learned so much from this process and will continue to make improvements to the program. One lesson learned is to expand the timeline. We are still operating under a pandemic economy and that has an impact on supply chains. We found that our building owners needed more time to work with their contractors and to get the needed materials in hand to complete the projects.

Another lesson learned was that we could explore layering our WarmUp programs for more impact.  By that I mean, we could have leveraged the owner-tenant relationship to have grant recipients encourage their tenants to participate in the in-unit program. It provides basic in-unit upgrades along with an opportunity for families to receive a credit of up to $500 on their electricity bill. Finally, and I think one of the biggest lessons we learned was that building owners appreciate and need the kind of support given by the Green Lease Leaders program. Those who participated expressed how it helped them with their specific concerns as a building owner and it provided the additional expertise and staff capacity that the city could not.

The second round of small grants is active but what other programming is on the horizon for WarmUp?

The last capital program in the WarmUp Cincy suite is a larger grant program—up to $200,000—targeted at larger multifamily building structures. It is called our Flagship Program and the Request for Proposals (RFP) was released by the City Purchasing Division last month. We hope to select a project before mid June. That RFP includes criteria that call for the vendor to participate in the Green Lease Leader program.

Lastly, we are working with IMT to provide a Green Lease Leader workshop for multifamily building owners in the Greater Cincinnati region specifically members of the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Apartment Association. We are doing this as a result of seeing the success of and response by building owners in the pilot with our WarmUp Small Grants program. The pilot demonstrated to us that there is a need and appreciation for the information and guidance provided by the Green Lease Leader program. Sharing that information to as many multifamily building owners as possible can only drive energy efficiency across our region.

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