Economic inequality is a growing challenge in the U.S., without much being done to counter it. California, however, is taking steps to reverse this disparity, at least in the energy arena. One program, the Low-Income Weatherization Program (LIWP), begun in 2016, has helped participants in low-income, multifamily rental properties reduce energy use by an average of 44 percent. Funding comes from far-reaching state laws that require 35 percent of California’s cap-and-trade proceeds ($6.5 billion to date) to be spent on clean-energy projects in disadvantaged, low-income neighborhoods. These monies are covering installing energy-efficient heat-pump water heaters, low-e windows, photovoltaic panels, and interior and exterior LED lighting; sealing ductwork; and replacing old refrigerators and faucets in marginal housing.
A 2016 study by the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that low-income households, especially minority ones, pay more for utilities per square foot than average families — sometimes triple the rate. These are often the same households that suffer from high rates of respiratory disease and asthma caused by the moisture, mold, mildew, and variety of pests generated from poorly functioning heating, cooling and ventilation systems.
The LIWP program is also attempting to address structural barriers that people living in poverty face: low home-ownership rates, limited disposable income, and shoddy housing that wastes energy.
Another California program approved by the state’s Public Utilities Commission, due to start in a few months, will provide $100 million in annual rebates — adding up to a billion dollars over 10 years — on solar systems installed on apartments to benefit low-income tenants.
The state’s energy justice programs are also trying to make hybrid and electric vehicles accessible to low-income people. Californians who buy new zero-emission vehicles are eligible for up to a $7,000 rebate through the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project. The problem is that one must be able to afford a car in the first place. The California Air Resources Board has made $5 million available for a pilot project run by the Oakland-based Beneficial State Foundation to help people earning less than four times the poverty level to purchase hybrids or electric vehicles. Rebates up to $5,000 are being offered and can even apply to clean used vehicles with fewer than 75,000 miles. Grants are also available for installing charging stations in low-income housing. Again, the funding comes from the cap-and-trade program. Expanding this program beyond the pilot phase is in the works.
These California initiatives are designed to democratize clean-energy policies and their attendant health and cost benefits while being crucial in helping the state reach its ambitious reduction goals for greenhouse-gas emissions.