The following is a viewpoint by Maria Stamas, Western Director of Energy Affordability with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Andrew McAllister, a Commissioner of the California Energy Commission.
Many of us don't spend much time thinking about how energy efficiency helps ensure our appliances aren't wasting energy and that keeping our showers warm doesn't cause our energy bills to soar. Modern technology ensures we usually don't have to think about these things. However, many families feel the pinch once the monthly utility bills arrive, and one in five households reduce or forego other necessities such as food and medicine to afford those energy payments.
These facts are especially pertinent in October, which also is known as Energy Awareness Month.
In a state that continues to face a housing affordability crisis, with a fast-rising homelessness population, energy efficiency is a frequently-overlooked strategy to help California families stay on top of their bills. Deep energy efficiency savings — on the order of an easily achievable 20 to 30 percent per property — also help maintain and preserve affordable rental homes for low-income Californians.
For example, nonprofits that manage affordable housing must operate their properties close to the margin to maintain affordability, so rising energy and water costs can lead to deferred maintenance. Left unchecked, rising energy costs can compromise the quality and long-term affordability of rental homes for low-income Californians and can even lead to health risks for these families.
Enormous potential benefits
According to a new report from Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA), these deep energy savings are also cost-effective. If the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approves funding for all cost-effective energy efficiency opportunities focused on low-income, multifamily homes — like apartments and townhomes — the potential benefits are enormous, amounting to 4 times as much savings per household than current program performance. From now through 2030, Californians' utility bill savings would add up to as much as $200 million. For low-income families juggling rent payments alongside energy costs, these savings can make a world of difference.
For years, many of California's energy efficiency programs have been geared toward commercial, government and institutional buildings, and to Californians in single-family homes. These programs have often excluded residents in multifamily housing, where at least one in three eligible Californians resides.
Before and during his recent Global Climate Action Summit, Governor Jerry Brown signed numerous bills into law which, together, will extend California's leadership in the fight against climate change by reducing emissions from our buildings and transforming our energy supply systems to be fully renewable. Yet as we continue to lead, we need to guarantee that every single Californian can benefit from the clean energy economy.
The new EEFA research reveals the imperative of empowering all low-income families to participate in the clean energy economy. If we miss this opportunity to ensure that all Californians can make energy-saving upgrades to modernize their homes and save money, we simply won't be able to decarbonize our economy fully.
Fighting climate change, pollution
A recent poll commissioned by EEFA revealed robust support for these ideas. California voters care about efficiency for numerous reasons, most notably to fight climate change and reduce the health impacts of pollution in our neighborhoods. Respondents voiced strong commitment to ensuring that renters and low-income Californians get the same energy efficiency program support as homeowners.
The majority of those polled said they would be willing to tack on an extra 50 cents or one dollar to each monthly power bill to help low-income and working-class families make their homes more efficient. This open-minded, forward-thinking mentality is part of what makes Californians who we are.
Energy efficiency creates a diverse array of solid, non-exportable jobs. The energy efficiency industry already employs 310,000 Californians, more than double those in the fossil fuel industry. Redoubling our efforts on low-income multifamily buildings would create an additional 84,000 year-long jobs or 6,000 long-term jobs. Imagine the benefits of having skilled workers from low-income areas improving the buildings in those same communities.
As we push to slash the energy use of our existing buildings by "decarbonizing" them — along with everything else in our economy — we cannot overlook low-income families. With slimmer energy expenses, Californians can save money that can be dedicated toward housing and other essentials. This October, as we recognize the often-forgotten role energy plays in the California Dream, let's also think big about how we can forge a clean economy that is inclusive enough to help us reach our most ambitious goals.