Monday, May 20

As utility bills rise, low-income Americans struggle to access clean energy

Cindy Camp is one of many Americans facing rising utility costs. Ms. Camp, who lives in Baltimore with three family members, said her gas and electricity bills kept “going up and up” — reaching $900 a month. Her family has tried to use less hot water by doing fewer loads of laundry, and now she eats more fast food to save on grocery bills.

Ms. Camp would like to save on energy bills by switching to more energy-efficient appliances such as a heat pump and solar panels. But she simply can’t afford it.

“It’s hard for me to even keep food down,” Ms. Camp said.

Electric bills have increased nationwide, and in Baltimore, electric rates have increased nearly 30 percent over the past decade, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While clean energy systems and more efficient appliances could help low-income families mitigate some of these increases, many face barriers trying to access such products.

Low-income households have been slower to adopt clean energy because they often don’t have enough savings or have low credit scores, which can hinder their ability to finance projects. Some have also found it difficult to navigate federal and state programs that would make installations more affordable, and many are renters who can’t make upgrades on their own.

Energy costs have traditionally been a larger burden for low-income families, who typically spend a much larger percentage of their gross income on utility bills than higher-income families. according to the Department of Energy. Many also live in older, less efficient homes, which can lead to more expensive utility bills. According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2020, 34 million U.S. households, or 27% of all households, reported difficulty paying energy bills or kept their homes at an unsafe temperature due to cost concerns energy.

The Biden administration has implemented a number of programs to try to increase access to clean energy and reduce household bills. The efforts are part of a broader push to reduce carbon emissions in response to climate change, which often disproportionately affects disadvantaged communities.

This includes rebates for energy-efficient appliances and tax credits for the purchase of solar panels and electric cars. In recent months, administration officials have awarded funding for energy efficiency improvements in federally subsidized residential properties. The federal government will also offer bonus tax credits for clean energy investments in low-income areas and provide billions to increase access to residential solar.

Commenting on the administration’s efforts to make energy more affordable on Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said the policies could help “immediately” reduce energy bills for low- and middle-income families. She said they are also strengthening domestic clean energy production, which would reduce costs over time.

“This will make clean energy even more affordable for American consumers,” Yellen said at a community college in Boston.

However, some advocates say it would be a challenge for the administration’s investments to reach low-income communities.

“To me the problems for people in Baltimore and inner cities everywhere are identical: ‘We’re struggling to pay our bills now,’” said Kristal Hartsfield, CEO of the National Alliance for Equity in Energy and Infrastructure, which connects communities and companies on issues related to changes in the energy sector. “We can’t switch to clean energy tomorrow.”

Although White House officials said they were providing technical assistance to help people access new programs, many of those who want to take advantage of federal and state programs said they often face a major obstacle: paperwork.

Ms. Camp, 56, lives in a single-family home in a neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore where she has never seen a solar panel on a home or residents with electric vehicles. However, she would like solar power and a heat pump, if she can navigate through the depths of the application process.

“It’s really disheartening,” said Ms. Camp, an AmeriCorps member. “The bureaucracy is so thick.”

Patricia Johnson, 68, a retired utility worker who lives with her husband in East Baltimore, said the heat in her home was more than 20 years old and needed repairs, but she couldn’t afford to pay $10,000 to $15,000 for it. replace the system.

Ms. Johnson said she found it difficult to figure out which assistance programs she qualified for, so she went to a nearby community center run by GEDCO, a local nonprofit. Ms. Johnson later learned she was eligible for a state program that funds energy efficiency improvements, but she still found it difficult to navigate the paperwork and she wouldn’t apply without guidance.

Laurel Peltier, president of the Maryland Energy Advocates Coalition and a volunteer at GEDCO who worked with Ms. Johnson, said most of the people she served didn’t have computers or printers, which made it harder for them to apply and learn the information programs available.

“Government agencies have a lot of work to do to effectively distribute programs to low-income people,” Peltier said.

The nation’s largest municipal utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power; the National Laboratory for Renewable Energy; and the University of California, Los Angeles, recently published the first comprehensive study on some of the impacts of the energy transition on low-income consumers. The study highlighted growing disparities in Los Angeles between those who can afford clean energy upgrades and those who cannot.

Part of the reality, as recognized by Los Angeles in its study and as supported by some energy experts, is that it is necessary to educate the public on energy issues, how to transition to clean energy technologies and find available incentives.

Experts at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory say the energy transition will require broad participation from utilities and energy providers, as well as lower-income and wealthier Americans. This means that more will need to be done to include those who can least afford it.

While many of the new rebates are generous, they still may not cover the full price of clean energy products, said Diana Hernandez, associate professor of sociomedical sciences and co-director of the Energy Opportunity Lab at the Columbia Center on Global Energy. Politics. The cost of heat pumps, which can heat and cool homes more efficiently than typical furnaces and air conditioners, varies, but an average installation costs $16,000. The new rebates, which are not yet available, would only shave up to $8,000 off such systems.

Tax credits can cover 30% of the cost of installing solar panels. But many people with low incomes don’t have to pay enough in taxes to get the most benefit, and the average cost of a residential solar system is about $25,000, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Low-income families are less likely to make such improvements if they are already struggling to pay necessary expenses, and many are also renters who will find it more difficult to benefit from the new programs because landlords may not have an incentive to make improvements in terms of efficiency, said the lady. Hernandez said.

He noted, however, that people could subscribe to some of the power generated by “community solar” projects, which are off-site solar systems, or rent panels.

After conducting the study, Los Angeles increased rebates for used electric vehicles to $4,000 from a maximum of $2,500 for qualified consumers. And the city said it will build and operate its own fast-charging network in low-income communities.

Without such efforts, experts argue that the energy transition will only work against those who can least afford to participate in it.

“We’re still trying to understand this energy transition,” said Stephanie Pincetl, a professor at UCLA’s Institute for the Environment and Sustainability and director of the university’s California Center for Sustainable Communities who participated in the Los Angeles study project. Angeles. “We have to get it right, otherwise it will only exacerbate inequality.”