- Oregon officials have unveiled a 10-year plan to reduce the "energy burden" and improve energy efficiency for low income residents, with a particular focus on rural areas where the issue is most pronounced.
- Households spending more than 6% of their income on energy-related costs are considered energy-burdened. Research has shown they are concentrated in rural areas where population density is low.
- Oregon's plan calls for initiatives that could impact residents in manufactured housing and rental properties — two of the groups most vulnerable to energy burden, say experts. For example, the plan could involve funding efficiency and renewables programs to improve weatherization for rental properties and lead to a replacement pilot for more energy-friendly manufactured housing.
Oregon will turn to energy efficiency to address the disparity in energy burden and affordability for low-income residents, but officials say efficiency alone will not be enough — the task will require collaboration among multiple agencies, funding streams and stakeholders.
The state's 10-year plan was announced last week by the Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS), the Oregon Department of Energy and the Oregon Public Utility Commission.
OHCS and the Portland-based non-profit Energy Trust of Oregon have identified more than $113 million in potential energy cost savings annually through low-income energy efficiency projects across the state. The majority of energy-burdened households in the state are in rural areas, particularly Eastern Oregon.
"The energy affordability gap of low-income Oregonians is extensive — nearly $350 million per year," according to Oregon's plan. "Energy efficiency can significantly reduce that energy burden ... However, while energy efficiency can alleviate a substantial portion of the energy burden, it cannot solve the energy burden problem alone.
The state's findings mirror research completed by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) last year, which found the share of income rural households spend on energy is significantly higher than in non-rural areas.
"Low income households get the short end of the stick here, just as everywhere else," Angus Duncan, president of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, told Utility Dive. "And if you are low income and rural, the stick gets even shorter."
The Bonneville Environmental Foundation is a nonprofit providing green energy products to public utilities.
Housing in rural areas is more dispersed than in urban environments. In some regions, more than 20% of rural households live in manufactured housing and about a quarter of all rural households are renters, according to ACEEE.
Oregon's plan calls for funding efficiency programs to reach these groups, including:
- Expanding the Oregon Multifamily Energy Program, which offers incentives for energy efficiency measures to eligible new construction and existing building projects;
- Creating a fuel-blind Multifamily Energy Program, as the current iteration only serves projects with electric heat;
- Expanding funding offers in Oregon's Green Energy Path program, which works with multifamily affordable housing projects; and
- Developing a pilot manufactured home replacement program.
One challenge is that lower-income rural customers are often served by consumer-owned utilities, "which are not big enough or prosperous to have an energy efficiency outreach program," Duncan said.
In those instances, he said the smaller public utilities could look to partner with the Oregon Energy Trust to advance efficiency in their service area, or work with the Bonneville Power Administration. And there may be additional regulation needed in order to address rental properties, where owners are not inclined to make efficiency improvements if the renters pay the energy bills, Duncan said.
"The only way to get back at those split incentives is to make sure there is a steady ratcheting of energy efficiency building codes," he said. "It's pretty much the only way you get landlords to invest in weatherization if the landlords aren't paying the energy bills."