Many CA Low-Income Renters Still Waiting for Clean Energy

We know how to slash energy bills and reduce climate pollution for low-income housing in California. A new report shows that more than 10,000 low-income renter households have already or will soon be upgraded with a combination of energy efficiency, solar energy, and low-emission electric heating equipment. But almost twice that many are still waiting.

In fact, the state has no plan for serving the thousands of other low-income households that could benefit from such improvements—18,000 low-income renter households in over 1,000 multifamily buildings are on a waitlist for these upgrades, and thousands more are eligible.

A Strong Start for Improving Affordable Housing

According to the report from the California Housing Partnership and the Association for Energy Affordability, the state Low Income Weatherization Program (LIWP) for multifamily buildings has committed $54.4 million in cap-and-trade funds since 2016 to invest in 10,000 low-income renter households in disadvantaged and farmworker communities across the state. These improvements have slashed climate emissions while reducing energy bills by 30 percent.

This is incredible success in a market segment that is often considered “hard to reach”—and it is exactly the kind of work that should be prioritized to equitably reach our climate goals.

The program taps into a limited amount of cap-and-trade funding to deploy a combination of clean technologies in one package, rather than offering a patchwork of incentives and deployment programs by technology type that are impossible to combine effectively.

Combining Efficiency and Clean Electricity for Greater Impact

The projects include energy efficiency upgrades like insulation and lighting that improve comfort and reduce energy use. On top of this, about 70 percent of the projects include replacing old and polluting gas combustion appliances with super-efficient electric equipment to provide space and water heating without the pollution. Finally, the projects add on-site solar generation to power this equipment and to further reduce bills.

In addition to making this housing more affordable by reducing energy cost burdens, the upgrades also improve health, safety, and comfort for residents. For example, removing gas combustion from many of these buildings improves both the indoor and outdoor air quality by avoiding the production of nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide, and other combustion by-products that have serious human health impacts.

Nitrogen oxide exposure exacerbates both asthma and smog. In California we burn about the same amount of gas in buildings as in gas power plants, but the NOx from buildings is six times greater than from power plants because our gas appliances don’t have the pollution controls that we’ve required for power plants.

Credit: California Department of Community Services and Development (CSD)

Will California Make Good on its Climate Equity Promises?

Meanwhile, California has no shortage of opportunities to meet the clean energy and affordability needs of the 18,000 rental households in disadvantaged communities on the waitlist (and the thousands more who are eligible).

At a time when the elements and enthusiasm of the Green New Deal are gaining traction across the nation, California has a clear and implementable opportunity to invest in disadvantaged communities and slash air pollution emissions, while also creating jobs and reducing bills for residents most burdened by energy costs. The question is whether these critical needs will rise to the attention of California decision-makers.

Here are three ways California could rise to the challenge:

  1. The Legislature could allocate enough funding to meet the shortfall in its annual allocation of funds to the Low-Income Weatherization Program. Unfortunately, the governor’s current budget proposes only $10 million. Hopefully, the Legislature will step in before it’s too late, including by taking a hard look at the opportunities provided by AB 1232—the LIWP Healthy Homes Act, which would provide multi-year funding to LIWP, leverage health and safety funds, and add tenant protections to ensure renters aren’t displaced from their homes.
  2. The Public Utilities Commission could direct some of the $200 million in funds from SB 1477 allocated to clean space and water heating technologies to fund a portion of these projects. The Building Decarbonization proceeding at the PUC is off to a strong start, but funds are unlikely to be on the street for a year; this effort could be a “quick start” opportunity that could inform the larger building decarbonization program at the Commission.
  3. The Energy Savings Assistance Program, an efficiency program run by the investor-owned utilities and overseen by the Public Utilities Commission, has now accrued over $580 million in unspent funds. These funds could be directed to the Low-Income Weatherization Program to provide an immediate boost for low-income residents.

We have the resources to fund this critical work that benefits all Californians—let’s make it happen now. Our most vulnerable residents are ready and waiting.