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 electric bills kept “going up and up,” reaching as much as $900 a month. Her family has tried using less hot water by doing less laundry, and she now eats more fast food to save on grocery bills.

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

“It’s a real struggle for me just to keep my food down,” Ms. Camp said.

Electricity bills have increased nationallyand in Baltimore, electricity rates increased by almost 30 percent over the past decade, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although clean energy systems and more efficient appliances could help low-income households mitigate some of these increases, many face barriers to accessing these products.

Low-income households were slower to adopt clean energy because they often lack of sufficient savings or have low credit scores, which may prevent them from ability to finance projects. Some have also struggled to navigate federal and state programs that would make facilities more affordable, and many are renters who cannot make the improvements themselves.

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

The Biden administration has rolled out a series of programs to try to increase access to clean energy and reduce household utility bills. These efforts are part of a broader initiative to reduce carbon emissions in response to climate change, which is often disproportionately affects disadvantaged communities.

This includes discounts for energy-efficient appliances and tax credits for purchasing solar panels and electric cars. In recent months, administration officials have awarded financing for energy efficiency improvements in federally subsidized housing. 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.

In a speech Wednesday on the administration’s efforts to make energy more affordable, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said such policies could help “immediately” reduce energy bills for low-income families. and means. She said they also boost domestic clean energy production, which will reduce costs over time.

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

Still, some advocates said it would be difficult for the administration’s investments to reach low-income communities.

“To me, the problems of people in Baltimore and inner cities around the world are the same: ‘We’re having trouble paying our bills now,’” said Kristal Hartsfield, executive director of the National Alliance for Equity in energy and infrastructure, which connects communities and businesses on issues related to developments in the energy sector. “We can’t move to clean energy tomorrow.”

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

Ms. Camp, 56, lives in a single-family home in a northeast Baltimore neighborhood where she has never seen a solar panel on a house or residents with electric vehicles. Still, she wants solar and a heat pump — if she could navigate 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 machine operator who lives with her husband in East Baltimore, said the heating in her home was more than two decades old and needed repair, but she couldn’t get by. allow you to pay between $10,000 and $15,000 to replace the system.

Ms. Johnson said she had trouble determining which aid programs she qualified for, so she went to a nearby community center run by GEDCO, a local nonprofit. Ms. Johnson later learned that she was eligible for a state program that funds energy efficiency improvements, but the paperwork was still difficult to navigate and she would not have applied without advice.

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 helped did not have computers or printers, making it difficult for them to apply and to find out about the programs.

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

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

Part of the reality, as Los Angeles acknowledged in its study and as some energy experts have argued, is that there is a need to educate the public about energy issues as well as 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 electricity providers as well as wealthier and lower-income Americans. This means that more must be done to include those who can least afford it.

Even though most of the new rebates are generous, they might 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. Policy. The cost of heat pumps, which can heat and cool homes more efficiently than conventional furnaces and air conditioners, varies, but an installation costs an average of $16,000. The new rebates, which are not yet available, would only save up to $8,000 on these systems.

Tax credits can cover 30 percent of the cost of installing solar panels. But many low-income people don’t owe enough taxes to take full advantage, and the average cost of a residential solar system is about $25,000according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

According to Ms. Hernández said.

She noted, however, that people can subscribe to a portion of the energy generated by “community solar” projects, which are off-site solar systems, or rent panels.

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

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

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