Utility rate increase highlights Memphis energy burden issues

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Environmental and civil rights advocates held a day-long conference in Memphis on Thursday, worried about how much people in the Bluff City are paying for power. The major concern is over the energy efficiency of Memphis homes.

"I've seen people come in, senior citizens come in to the branch, having a $700 pension and a $350 utility bill," said Sandra Upchurch.

That's why Sandra Upchurch said she organized the energy burden conference in the medical district Thursday morning, held by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), and the NAACP Memphis Branch.

Memphis is tops in the nation when it comes to energy burden. That's the percentage of someone's income that they spend on utility bills. The figures are getting the eye of national NAACP leaders.

"Here, it's especially troubling given in Memphis, the higher percentage of people of color, as well as the high poverty rate," said Kathy Egland, on the NAACP national board.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said the average household pays 3-5 percent of their income for energy. In Memphis, the figure is 15 to 25 percent.

"MLGW is taking some steps. The share the pennies program is a start, but it's not going to be enough. And so we've got to have a bigger stronger movement to get the problem addressed," said Stephen Smith, Executive Director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Thursday's conference comes as MLGW's electric, gas, and water rates are about to increase, pending another vote later in the month by the city council.

"The rates are going up in Memphis, and we've got to be sure these investments are done," said Smith.

Leaders at the conference said the high energy burden can be fixed by a greater focus in the community on ensuring energy efficiency in Memphis homes.

MLGW recently expanded its Share The Pennies bill rounding program to provide weatherization gr ants.

The city of Memphis has obtained federal gr ant money as well, and TVA gave MLGW one million dollars in March to begin weatherization efforts.

But advocates want to see more done.

"We need to invest more money in energy efficiency and education," said Upchurch.

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