The New York Times recently ran an article about the challenges ahead for grid operators as older, more polluting coal power plants are retired. Looking at the recent cold snap and its impact on heating demand, the article warns that energy costs may rise considerably if a similarly cold winter were to hit us next year.
As the writer demonstrates, such price rises could hit the poor the hardest:
As the end of the harshest winter in recent memory approaches, the bill is coming due for millions of consumers who are not only using more electricity and natural gas but also paying more for whatever they use. And there might not be relief in future winters, as the coal-fired power plants that utilities have relied on to meet the surge in demand are shuttered for environmental reasons. The sticker shock has been particularly acute in the Northeast, where natural gas supplies have been constrained. But it has spread to other regions of the country, including the Midwest, where utilities have had to draw on more expensive reserves to meet the demand.
But we don't measure our well-being based on how much energy we consume — but rather how much it costs us to stay warm/cool, to power our appliances, and to get about town and live our daily lives. And as energy prices rise, it provides an incentive for individuals, businesses and the public sector alike to conserve resources, use energy more efficiently, and to support technology that can significantly cut our energy costs. (Don't even get me started on the real costs of fossil fuels.)
Nevertheless, the environmental movement can't, and shouldn't, ignore the impact of its advocacy on the nation's poor. Here are a few ideas for greening our energy supply and fighting fuel poverty at the same time.
For more than 33 years, the Department of Energy's Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) has provided funding to states, U.S. overseas territories, and Indian tribal governments. These governments then fund a network of local community action agencies, nonprofit organizations, and local governments that work in communities to weatherize the homes of low-income citizens. According to the DOE website, families who receive these services save an average of $437 a year. The program received a boost in recent years, with over 1 million homes getting weatherized as a result of stimulus funding. Over 6.4 million low-income homes have been weatherized during the course of the WAP program.
In another promising sign for efficiency advocates, the bipartisan energy-efficiency bill recently passed by the House, and its companion bill in Congress, includes provisions for efficiency retrofits on public housing units and schools, both of which should help low income communities thrive.
Stricter energy-efficiency standards
While a few vocal critics have complained about the "banning of the incandescent bulb," new energy efficiency lighting standards will result in a significant win for low-income families: the pricing of LED bulbs will drop dramatically. Indeed, this is already happening. Just a few years ago, LED bulbs cost $50 or more; now they retail for significantly less than $20 and prices are coming down all the time. (Walmart is marketing an LED for under $10, although reviews have been mixed.) Given that these bulbs can last 20 years or more, and use less than 20 percent of the energy of an incandescent, they have the potential to save households a significant sum of money.
Supporting public transport
It's not just the electricity bill that puts a squeeze on poor families — it's the cost of getting around in a car-centric society. For all the focus on fancy electric cars, or improving fuel efficiency standards, it's worth remembering that many of the poorest Americans either live without a car, or have to get about with only one car per household. But in an increasingly urbanized America, that's getting more common among more affluent families too. With American public transit seeing record ridership last year, and technological innovations making transit more convenient and efficient, there's reason to hope that local and national policy makers in the U.S. will start investing in and prioritizing transit projects that can benefit everyone in the community.
Vouchers for efficient vehicles
Peak car may be upon us, but in many communities it's still hard to get by without a car. For poor families, buying a car often means settling for whatever they can afford, even if it is an inefficient clunker. Given that wealthy consumers are benefiting from electric vehicle subsidies, the California Air Resource Board is proposing a voucher scheme to help low-income families to purchase greener, more fuel efficient vehicles. Here's how Cleantechnica reported on the proposal:
Hybrid and electric cars can make a huge difference in reducing local air quality, and can help their owners save money while staying more insulated against the volatility of fossil fuel prices. Unfortunately, most plug-in electric cars cost more than the used cars that lower-income families and communities — the people who could most benefit from EV fuel savings, in other words — can typically afford. It doesn’t have to be that way, however, and California’s Air Resource Board (CARB) is working to help low-income families get access to EVs by proposing vouchers for such families starting at $2500.
Solar panels have typically been seen as a play thing for the rich, yet research shows that it's actually the middle class driving the growth of solar sales. Still, because of a lack of upfront capital and a lower likelihood they own their own home, low-income families may struggle to install solar and other renewables — even though they stand to gain the most. A number of nonprofits and community groups are seeking to remedy that situation.