Fifth Ward is a historic community near downtown Houston. Almost half the residents are Black and almost half are Hispanic.WhisperToMe, CC0 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When the power went out during last year’s catastrophic winter storm, Delores McGruder knew that however cold it got inside her house, it would have been worse if she’d still been in the old apartment building she’d lived in for decades in Houston’s Fifth Ward, a historically Black community near downtown.

In that building, her home till 1999, McGruder would often keep the heating off on the coldest days of winter, and the air conditioner– a window unit – off on the hottest days of the summer.

“I was paying $450 a month on the light bill,” she says. “It was probably $75 a month for gas. You’d be wondering why the bills wouldn’t go down, even though you follow every word they said about lowering your bill.” With her job that paid minimum wage, she couldn’t afford to keep paying bills like that.

A few years ago, McGruder was able to buy her own home in Fifth Ward. It’s a newer build, and thanks to better insulation in the walls and attic and more energy efficient appliances, McGruder’s energy bills almost never top $80 a month these days.

“I bought the house because I thought it was beautiful,” she says. “I didn’t understand about materials and products, the pros and cons of living in an energy efficient house.”

After the disastrous winter storm that struck Texas in February 2021, McGruder would hear the tales of neighbors, many of them elderly, who were afraid of freezing to death in the shotgun houses and apartments nearby. They ran gas stoves all day to keep warm and wore five or six layers of clothing, as they waited for the ice to start melting.

McGruder is a climate ambassador with the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience in Houston, a collaborative comprising 28 nonprofits that advocates for healthier communities. She’s been part of a push to persuade Houston officials to include home weatherization programs in the city’s climate plans, in order to keep households in the Fifth Ward safer during the next extreme weather event that might knock out the power.

In Texas, millions of residents live in homes that weren’t built to stay comfortable in the extreme temperatures that climate change is already bringing to the state – heat waves as well as, potentially, more extreme cold fronts. Across the South, state legislatures haven’t implemented strict building codes that regulate how homes are built and insulated. For example, researchers recently estimated that 20% of homes in the region have “poorly insulated” attics that make it harder to keep a house cool in the summer or warm in the winter.

“There’s a huge number of homes out there that cannot hold a [set temperature] for even a minute – if the AC shuts off, that house is getting hot,” says Doug Lewin, an energy efficiency expert and consultant in Austin.

Essentially, all the air that’s pumped in and cooled by an air conditioner will quickly leak out through gaps around windows and doors, or uninsulated walls and roofs. Solutions like installing insulation around attics, sealing cracks around windows and doors, and upgrading old furnaces and air conditioners can result in lower energy usage and hundreds of dollars in savings for households.

A poorly insulated home will be more costly to heat or cool, since an air conditioner or furnace will have to run longer to keep a consistent indoor temperature. According to a 2021 report by the Texas Energy Poverty Research Institute and Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, the South (defined as the region stretching from Delaware to Texas) has some of the nation’s lowest per kilowatt hour prices for electricity, but consumers have the highest bills in the country. One in three Southerners has struggled to pay a monthly electric bill. Low-income residents in the South face a higher “energy burden” than other residents, meaning that they pay a higher percentage of their salary towards energy bills.

In some parts of the region, households may pay up to 20% of their income in utility bills. (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development set a threshold of 6% as affordable; anything above that is unaffordable.) Research has also found that Black and Latino households face higher energy burdens than white households.

A lack of proper weatherization of a dwelling can quickly become deadly during extreme weather. A 2016 investigation by the Austin American Statesman found that in the previous ten years, 100 Texans died in their own homes from heat-related deaths; many of them had kept their air conditioning off in an attempt to avoid running up high electric bills during heat waves.

A Houston Chronicle investigation found that Winter Storm Uri’s power outages for millions in February 2021 made for one of the deadliest weeks in Texas history, producing “a spike in deaths…unlike any other in the past six decades.” People died in their own homes due to hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning as they relied on gas stoves and generators to keep warm, among other cold-related cases.

And while residents can’t afford high bills for leaky houses, the grid can’t always handle the high demand that’s caused by them either. Brutal Texas summers can drive up energy demand. During extreme winter storms, that demand is even higher because it takes two to four times more energy to heat a home to a comfortable temperature, Lewin says. That’s one reason that during Winter Storm Uri, ERCOT, which manages most of the state’s electric grid, reported a record peak demand of nearly 77,000 megawatts. Some independent researchers have put the estimate even higher, at 82,000 megawatts. This summer, the grid operator is preparing for a peak demand of 78,000 megawatts.

Texas power lines during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021. More than two-thirds (69%) of Texans lost power during the week-long event and water service was disrupted for nearly half (49%), according to a University of Houston survey. Andy Jacobsohn / Deep Indigo Collective for Texas Climate News

Those projections could be brought down significantly through a more aggressive state-wide energy efficiency standard. Texas’ standard, first implemented in 1999, is now one of the weakest ones in the nation, only requiring utilities to reduce consumer demand by 0.2% annually. Other states, like Massachusetts, require 2.5% savings per year. Yet in the political debate about fixing the state’s utility infrastructure, little attention has been paid to reducing consumer demand as a strategy for preventing future widespread blackouts – and keeping Texans safer during extreme weather.

“Our state leaders haven’t touched those programs in 10 years,” Lewin says. “We haven’t increased them one iota. If the state does not put a focus on this, it’ll continue to be a major problem. We’re seeing high demand in peak periods – that causes our grid to be unreliable and more expensive than it needs to be.”

A study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy found that if utilities funded programs to reduce consumer demand, the cost of retrofitting 9 million homes in Texas over the next five years would cost about $5 billion – and it would eliminate up to 11,400 megawatts of energy demand. Consumers would see the benefits of those improvements – replacing old air conditioning units and furnaces, installing attic insulation and smart thermostats – for decades in lower energy bills and more comfortable houses, says Jennifer Amann, a lead author of the study.

By comparison, it could cost about $8 billion to build 10 new power plants to meet ERCOT’s projected peak demand in the coming years without those energy savings. Berkshire Hathaway, a holding company, has pitched that plan to ERCOT. Those plants would mostly operate as backup plants for extreme weather events, or in the case of outages at other sources – and they’d be funded by charges on consumers’ bills.

“There’s always a tendency to say, ‘Can we just throw money at something and build something?’” Amann says. On the other hand, it’s harder to coordinate the small, individual-level changes that energy efficiency requires. “The plants are more of a stopgap, and that doesn’t benefit people 365 days of the year,” she says.

With efficiency programs, by contrast, “people would benefit when it’s 80 degrees and they’re running the air conditioner, as well as the days when it’s over 100. They would benefit when it’s 40 degrees and they have the heat on, as well as when it freakishly drops below 20 degrees.” The investments that utility companies make would go directly back to customers instead of the companies building, operating and maintaining idle power plants.

Properly weatherizing a home can be expensive: Replacing an old heating or cooling system with a more efficient heat pump, for example, can cost more than $3,000 upfront. In some states, utility companies are mandated to offset those costs or provide incentives for residential and industrial consumers.

But in Texas, large-scale, energy-intensive companies are prohibited from receiving financial support for efficiency improvements – and don’t contribute to the funds that pay for them, which are collected through energy bills. Much of the energy efficiency work that utilities, like Oncor or Centerpoint, do pay for is also carried out by independent contractors instead of the utility itself. Residential consumers might be getting flyers or phone calls from third-party companies for energy audits or weatherization, instead of information directly from their utility company, which can lead to confusion.

“If you look at the difference between portions of Texas serviced by investor-owned utilities, the participation rates are lower than we see in large cities with municipal utilities, such as Austin or San Antonio,” Amann says.

The Public Utility Commission provides very little oversight of the program, according to the ACEEE, and there are no mandates that the money spent goes towards low-income households.

Last year, the federal government shored up its Weatherization Assistance Program, which provides financial assistance for low-income households to make repairs and improvements to reduce their energy burden. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill will provide the program with an additional $3.5 billion in funding, and additional funding for retrofit programs could make energy-saving solutions more affordable for low income households that typically see the biggest benefits from weatherization and other retrofitting.

In San Angelo, the Concho Valley Community Action Agency (CVCAA) distributes federal weatherization aid to households in 14 surrounding rural communities in West Texas. Last month, a cold snap hit the state, much milder than Uri a year before but still plunging overnight lows into the 20s. It prompted an uptick in the number of people seeking help from the agency, says Sarah Eckel, its housing and development director.

“One of the things we saw was that people were scared of turning on space heaters, because they didn’t know if their house could handle it. We also see people who don’t turn up the heat because they are afraid of the bills.”

Clients of the agency also came in afraid that a power outage would cause burst pipes and more damage to their houses, which they simply wouldn’t have the money to fix for a second year in a row.

The increase in federal funding could help CVCAA scale up their operations, which are needed year-round, Eckel says. “We get [an increase in applicants] during our peak in the summer, as well – people are trying to cram into one room in a house and run one window unit or something like that.”

CVCAA has helped households reduce their energy bills by over $300 a month, giving families peace of mind that they’ll be able to feel comfortable in their homes without worrying about the cost of heating and cooling.

The program’s design, however, does mean that renters often fall through the cracks – low-income tenants qualify, but a landlord has to agree to participate in the program for all units in a building, and agree to future restrictions on increasing rents. And sometimes, organizations like CVCAA have to turn clients away because their houses are so dilapidated, the cost of fixes would far exceed the per-household allotment.

“I’m not saying that weatherization is the silver bullet that is going to save the world,” Eckel says. “But it’s a long standing, tried-and-true piece of making our communities more equitable.”

Amal Ahmed is a journalist covering climate change and environmental justice in Texas. Her work has appeared in publications including Texas Monthly, Texas Observer, Popular Science, City Lab and Southerly. She is a contributing editor of Texas Climate News.

Deep Indigo Collective is a visual storytelling resource supporting news outlets reporting on the local impacts of environmental threats and the climate crisis. As a 501(c)(3) organization, Deep Indigo is proud to produce original visual journalism on behalf of our editorial partners across the United States.