Smart lessons from California on energy equity

Energy costs for low-income renters and affordable housing owners are disproportionately high. While there are programs to help them, they often can't help enough to make a difference — or help all of the people who need assistance. As cities work to become more livable, sustainable and inclusive while meeting the needs of growing populations, paying attention to how energy costs affect low-income renters and affordable housing owners (and the availability of safe, affordable housing) is an essential part of the smart city mission.

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a Smart Cities Council Advisor, was involved in advocating for a number of energy efficiency and clean energy funding programs that were created or expanded over the past year to help California's low-income renters and their building owners. The story below is based on an NRDC blog post and summarizes the programs. For cities and states committed to providing a clean energy future for all of their citizens, these programs could be among the tools they consider adapting and using to meet their needs. — Doug Peeples


About 43.1 million people, 13.5% of Americans, live below the federal poverty level. In California, that number is more like 20%. The state's energy costs are on the low end compared to other states, but it's still a fixed cost that's harder to pay for on a low income.

That's why the Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA) coalition advocated for a variety of energy and energy efficiency programs specifically for low-income renters and affordable housing owners, programs that were enacted or expanded in 2017. The NRDC, the California Environmental Justice Alliance, the Association for Energy Affordability, Build it Green, the California Housing Partnership Corporation and others contributed to the advocacy effort.

NRDC blog authors Maria Stamas, project attorney for energy and climate programs, and Isaac Sevier, sustainable energy advocate and energy and transportation programs, outlined five programs and developments that they said will make clean energy more accessible for more people and which in turn will provide "… lower bills, more housing security, and a cleaner, healthier environment for more Californians."

Money for low-income weatherization
The Low-Income Weatherization Program (LIWP), created to provide entire building energy retrofits and very popular with affordable housing owners, was in danger of losing its funding. An infusion of cash from the California legislature in September, largely as a result of EEFA's advocacy and support, means the program will continue although additional funding is needed to meet current demand.

A new solar roofs program for multifamily housing
The Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing Program was authorized by the California Public Utilities Commission in December to cover the costs of installing 300 MW of new solar power for more than 2,000 affordable housing units. The properties will receive utility bill credits for the solar power they generate, reducing their energy costs.

An expanded Energy Savings Assistance Program (ESAP)
The ESAP program, which pays for multifamily housing weatherization and other improvements, will help guarantee continuing affordability of housing for low-income renters. It's also a solid example of citizen engagement. ESAP's first public multi-family working group was formed in 2017 to help guide program design and improve its performance and will begin work during the first quarter of 2018.

Utility data sharing for affordable housing owners
As part of the decision that approved ESAP program improvements, affordable housing owners can ask their utilities for energy usage data building-wide for buildings with five or more units. The information will help owners understand their buildings' energy use and where savings could be realized.

Low-income and disadvantaged community advisory forums
The California PUC also announced the development of the Disadvantaged Communities Advisory Group, a citizens group that will advise both the CPUC and the California Energy Commission on clean energy and pollution and how state energy programs could be improved.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.