Broad Coalition Backs Enhancements to Energy-Saving Program

A diverse coalition of 19 groups is supporting a proposal to significantly enhance California’s Energy Savings Assistance program, a move that could serve as a national model for easing the energy burden of low-income households, cutting energy waste and reducing harmful pollution.

Consumer, health, environmental, housing and faith groups are urging the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to give the go ahead to changes in the Energy Savings Assistance (ESA) program to provide more energy efficiency opportunities for low-income households—especially underserved residents of multi-family housing.

The changes proposed by PUC Commissioner Catherine J.K. Sandoval would help the state meet its goals of doubling energy efficiency savings by 2030 and reducing climate-altering carbon pollution to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030—all without substantially increasing the program’s budget.

They also would help put California in the forefront of promoting climate equity, ensuring that low-income residents—who already pay a disproportionate share of their income for energy—do not bear a greater burden during California’s transition to cleaner power sources.

The groups endorsed Commissioner Sandoval’s proposed changes—and recommended further enhancements to the program—in a letter to the PUC. Among the signatories:  NRDC, Consumers Union, the American Lung Association, and the California Housing Partnership Corp., reflecting the broad support for the enhancements.

The commission could vote as early as October 27th on the proposed changes.

The nearly $400-million-a-year assistance program provides energy-saving improvements such as insulation and more efficient lighting at no cost to low-income customers of the state’s large investor-owned utilities, including Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas Co., and San Diego Gas & Electric.

Recommended changes

The program historically has focused on cutting energy waste in single-family homes.

A key change, backed by the coalition of groups, would promote energy savings in multi-family units, long underserved by energy efficiency programs despite accounting for at least one third of the eligible population.

Extending the program to more low-income multifamily residents will lower their utility bills—making available more money for other expenses, such as food and medicine—and provide a healthier and more comfortable living environment. For example, improved insulation and furnace repairs or replacements result in reductions in unsafe indoor air particles.

Other changes would require utilities to meet modest and achievable energy-savings goals, expand the assistance program to cover common areas and central systems in multifamily buildings, eliminate rules that limit assistance, and establish new efficiency measures, such as requiring LED lighting.

As the commission prepares to act, it should keep in mind a recent study showing that California’s low-income residents spend more of their income on energy bills than other households.

Low-income households in the Los Angeles, Riverside, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose areas paid more, on average, than median-income households in the same city, according to the study, "Lifting the High Energy Burdens in America’s Largest Cities: How Energy Efficiency Can Improve Low-Income and Underserved Communities."

In addition to the changes proposed by Commissioner Sandoval, the assistance program should be further improved to take advantage of even more opportunities to cut energy waste and lower the utility bills of low income households.

Among further enhancements advocated by the letter to the PUC:

  • Revise the interim energy-savings goals to ensure they are greater than what utilities expected to achieve under existing program policies;
  • Require energy audits to determine in-unit and whole-building energy-saving measures in multifamily properties;
  • Give utilities flexibility to offer new energy-saving measures so long as they don’t lower the overall program’s cost-effectiveness; and
  • Establish a committee to facilitate stakeholder collaboration on further improvements to the program.

The changes will benefit not only a vulnerable population, but all of us.

Smarter energy use, the fastest and cheapest way to reduce carbon pollution by avoiding energy generation from fossil fuel sources, has become more urgent with climate change, which threatens to bring us stronger storms, harsher droughts and rising temperatures, health problems, and damage to our communities and economy.

Increased investment in energy efficiency also strengthens the reliability of the grid, generates jobs such as employment installing insulation, and makes available the energy cost savings for other spending in the local economy.

Let’s seize these additional opportunities to further cut energy waste, ease the energy burden on low-income households, and reduce the health, environmental, and economic threats to all of us from devastating climate change.

About the Authors

Maria Stamas

Western Director, Energy Affordability

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.