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September 2, 2015

Do we have the energy for low-income energy policy?

September 2, 2015

Major happenings colluded to make this a summer for the record books—and I don’t just mean the hotter-than-usual temperatures. Energy programs, policies, and research—especially those focused on low-income households—dominated the news:

  • In mid-June, Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Sí, where he calls for “… every ecological approach [needing] to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged.” The Pope has framed discussions with mayors in July and his upcoming September visit to the US Congress with this issue in mind.
  • In July, President Obama unveiled new incentives for solar panel installation among the nation’s federally subsidized housing stock. This announcement was a precursor to the really big event: the EPA’s August release of the final Clean Power Plan rule, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions among the most egregious electricity-producing sources and has significant economic and health outcomes for all households—low-income and working families in particular.
  • Last week, the White House announced new (and not-so-new) initiatives in support of climate change mitigation to counter the limitations that plagued the growth of some energy-efficiency programs, like the Home Energy Score and FHA’s restrictions on Property Assessed Clean Energy programs.

The AC’s been on all summer

These events have pushed energy efficiency to the front pages of newspapers, but how these programs and policies actually help working families is still not so black-and-white.

In late June, the release of a cost-benefit study on over 30,000 Michigan households involved in the federal weatherization program from 2011 to 2014 got a lot of heat.

Produced by the E2e Project, it was the first evaluation of any energy-efficiency subsidy or service program to use a randomized controlled trial and measure the costs of recruiting households, of retrofitting homes, and all of the operations associated therein against the actual energy savings and greenhouse gas reduction benefits.

The study’s finding that the costs were twice the energy savings (and that estimates of energy savings were overstated by two and half times actual savings) led to massive backlash among energy-efficiency advocates. The main objection was that other benefits to the health and safety of recipients and the employment of local workers were not monetized. Including those areas, advocates estimate benefits to be four times the costs.

Similar debates took place earlier in the year between the energy-efficiency advocacy and scholarly community, beginning with studies on adopting and measuring the outcomes from more stringent building codes for energy. But this summer heated up these controversies, from studies looking at the disparate effects on behaviors of rich and poor households from state energy conservation rebates, to less rigorous estimates of the effects of increasing renewable and efficiency requirements on “energy poverty.”

Critics of the Michigan weatherization study are right to question whether these findings can be generalized, along with the limited focus on only a few of the benefits that the intervention produces, and the study’s authors acknowledge that. But these controversies point to clear problems in how we measure energy savings, how we bring households at all income levels into energy-efficiency programs, how the programs are structured and operate, and what we know about how people use (and hopefully conserve) energy.

Keeping the poor in the dark

Anyone who’s ever even just switched out light fixtures—let alone windows and walls—knows that home improvements are difficult and costly decisions. Advocates for programs that spur these decisions along often underestimate how time-intensive and complicated the process of implementation is for residents, as well as the costs of verification and compliance (especially when accountability for federal funds is involved).

In the background of these studies have been concerted attempts to convince low-income communities that they will be hurt by higher energy bills from any energy-related policy or action (which is partially true in some cases), that reductions in energy will come only from pricing and not from energy efficiency actions, or that poor and underprivileged racial groups are in favor of climate actions for both mitigation and adaptation (which is wholly true according to recent surveys)—though the latter don’t necessarily provide any specific tools to act upon that sentiment.

What is it that these communities actually get from energy-efficiency programs and policies—or the lack of program and policy action?

Leaving the (right) lights on

The Clean Power Plan rule leaves the definition of “low-income communities” for later clarification. While the hope is that specific geographic locations and demographic households (including renters) are included, the ultimate challenge will lie more in how the proposed energy-efficiency programs overcome the huge gaps in knowledge regarding how these families will become aware of, participate in, and ultimately benefit from them. That is where the light should be shining.

This information will be critical for making efficient programs that actually produce energy savings along with other implicit benefits for the environment, and are effective vehicles for improving these families’ life outcomes.

As the summer ends (and presidential candidate season starts to heat up in its place), we’ll be keeping a few lights on—LED bulbs, of course.

The Paisano Green Community in El Paso is a subsidized apartment complex that has 73 units for seniors and is one of the most cutting-edge green projects in the nation. (AP Photo/Betsy Blaney)

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