Background Information

Knoxville is the third-largest city in Tennessee, with a population of 190,000 and counting; people continue to flock to the area, in part due to its low cost of living. The Knoxville metropolitan region is home to Tennessee’s flagship state university and a number of smaller educational institutions. The region also hosts one of the nation’s strongest research and technology corridors. Another of the area’s defining characteristics is its wealth of natural and recreational assets, including part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Despite its assets, the region is challenged by economic and social disparities and physical issues relating to growth. Many residents live in poverty, and may have limited employment prospects. Incidences of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity are on the rise for children and adults. Many streams and lakes are polluted, and poor air quality is affecting the region’s health and environmental assets. Some rural areas lack infrastructure that would improve the lives of residents, and the majority of the region’s households are spending large portions of monthly income on transportation—not just due to rising gas prices, but because many homes are located far from employment and commercial centers.

Team Summary

The team focuses on creating social enterprises to provide outreach, education, and marketing to low- and moderate-income residents from low- and moderate-income residents. Their fee-for-services contracts implement high-touch community engagement campaigns that utilize trusted information channels and networks in communities that are often not easily understood or accessed by outside entities. This helps to raise awareness of, and participation in, sustainability practices and programs.

Promising Practices

  • Research by the University of Tennessee’s Green Economy Initiative (UTGI) provided evidence for the effectiveness of Socially Equal Energy Efficient Development’s (SEEED) grassroots mobilization and education to maximize energy efficiency gains through behavioral change in low-­income communities. The findings also identified a need for community-­based coalitions and energy­ sector institutions to co-create policies that give voice to Knoxville’s low-­income communities and most climate­-vulnerable populations.
  • UTGI also conducted the evaluation research for Knoxville Extreme Energy Makeover (KEEM)—including surveys, observations, focus groups, and interviews—and identified SEEED as the most effective organization for getting low-­income residents’ participation in KEEM workshops, which were mandatory for eligibility of KEEM services. Knox County Community Action Committee, which administers the KEEM program, collects energy and service metrics on the program.

Key Challenges

  • Identifying how to leverage the financial and political capital required to take energy resilience to the next level in Knoxville—and all of Tennessee—in a sustainable manner.
  • Establishing sustained leadership from the communities most directly and deeply affected by low-income energy burdens in order to ensure the Smarter Cities Partnership—formed three years ago by the Knoxville Office of Sustainability to address these burdens—remains a meaningful, comprehensive, and sustainable program.
  • Designing and implementing a local, sustainable, whole-systems approach to energy efficiency and clean energy financing, workforce and economic development, and community education for all.