Latest polar vortex should prompt leaders to push for energy efficiency overhaul

Mirella Vitale
March 4, 2019

The recent cold rush doesn’t just bring colder weather, it brings serious health and economic challenges for tens of millions of Americans who are living in old, energy inefficient homes.

This article was originally published on on 3 March 2019

For much of the United States, this winter has brought a phenomenon with a formidable name that has become more recognizable in recent years – “the polar vortex.” The polar vortex typically hovers around the Arctic region. But as Andrew Freeman of Axios and others point out, when the polar vortex is disrupted by warm air at higher altitudes, it “can wobble like a spinning top and send cold air to the south.”

It’s likely that the increasingly southern reach of the polar vortex during recent winters is being driven by global climate change. Regardless, it’s abundantly clear that when this cold air rushes south into the U.S. – it doesn’t just bring colder weather – it brings serious health and economic challenges for tens of millions of Americans who are living in old, energy inefficient homes.

Perhaps building materials and energy efficiency are not the most exciting topics to discuss, but it’s time for policy makers to focus on the actual walls that surround us so we can lower barriers to progress on climate change – and create healthier, safer communities at the same time.

The nation’s aging housing stock has been called by some experts “America’s silent housing crisis.” It is estimated that 40% of U.S. homes were built before 1970. In fact, American businesses and households wind up losing $130 billion worth of energy a year due to inefficiencies and outdated infrastructure. Beyond the wasted money, extra energy use stemming from inefficiencies generates a tremendous amount of carbon pollution that’s making the climate more unstable.

Older homes that were built with inefficient insulation and inadequate heating appliances struggle to keep homeowners warm during cold weather stretches. According to The Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology, 90% of an average person’s day is spent indoors. It should go without saying, if their homes are inefficient and uncomfortable, that’s problematic.

By putting a bigger emphasis on energy efficiency for homes and business, U.S. leaders wouldn’t just tackle one of the biggest culprits of carbon pollution – they’d also tackle the economic, health and well-being issues that result from energy inefficient homes and buildings. The millions of American families who live in older, inefficient homes typically experience the most damaging effects of dangerously low temperatures. Events like last month’s polar vortex can cause negative indoor environmental health impacts on people’s respiratory and circulatory functions as well as exacerbate people’s existing health conditions such as diabetes and arthritis.

Families living in inefficient homes often need to continuously run heaters and spend significantly more on heating as a result. This forces many families who live in old, cold homes to face what’s known as the “heat-or-eat dilemma,” meaning they have to choose between paying higher utility bills to stay warm or put that money toward food. It’s disconcerting but not surprising that these households also experience higher levels of anxiety and depression.

It’s time that real estate developers, big businesses, local and national lawmakers take a close look at what Americans are up against. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has already taken a positive step by proposing the creation of a home energy efficiency scorecard, so buyers and renters can make energy efficiency a critical part of their purchasing decision. This is a great model that should be replicated elsewhere. Leaders are coming to recognize that energy efficiency measures over their lifetime payback more than the initial investment. But the scale of this problem goes beyond one state. And, the imminent nature of this problem requires more to be done. The introduction of a national energy efficiency overhaul in the Green New Deal speaks to this challenge. Leaders must work to incentivize energy efficiency measures, make energy efficiency financing easier and establish bold energy efficiency plans.

This year’s return of the polar vortex should serve as a reminder to leaders across the country that they should do what they can to increase the rate of energy efficiency renovations. Renovating existing housing and buildings is one of the most economical ways to reduce carbon pollution and it will also result in positive health and economic benefits such as cleaner air, more jobs, more comfortable homes, and lower utility bills. If policy makers take steps right now, not only will it help Americans get through the toughest stretches of winter, it’ll help the fight against the global climate crisis while creating healthier communities for all Americans to live in.