In our last blog post, we discussed the California families currently priced out of homes due to unnecessary methane infrastructure, and how efficiency, electrification and a shift toward renewable energy can make housing much more affordable by eliminating the infrastructure and associated costs of methane.
In this post we explain why, aside from affordability, eliminating fossil fuels use in buildings is one of the most important social justice issues facing California and the nation. Low-income populations have both the most to gain from a successful transition to a low-carbon economy and the most to lose if we fail.
Energy affordability is critical for low income families
High and rising costs of monthly energy bills puts an enormous burden on low-income communities. Across the United States, lower income households suffer from an "energy affordability gap" in which they must spend more than 10 percent of their monthly income on energy. People living below 50 percent of the poverty level often spend 35 percent of their monthly income or more on lighting, heating and cooling. Seasonal variation adds even more difficulty, as high energy bills in hot summer months and cold winter months can overwhelm monthly budgets and make paying for other essentials impossible, causing defaults, skimping on necessities and can even lead to eviction. Utility bills are the number one reason people resort to payday loans to cover their expenses. No family should have to choose between living in a comfortable temperature or eating.
According to a 2016 report from the ACEEE and the Energy Efficiency for All coalition, it's not just the percentage of income spent that's a problem; the actual per-square-foot cost of heating and cooling low-income households is three times as expensive as it is for those in other income brackets. There are likely various reasons for this, including lack of access to energy efficiency programs and the fact that low-income renters may have little control over the heating and cooling appliances in their homes.
On the other hand, programs that provide support to help these populations move to more affordable clean, electric appliances have significant positive impacts. Habitat for Humanity of San Joaquin County has a program to build zero net energy homes. George Koertzen, a construction superintendent for the project, described how one low-income family spent only $300 on electricity for the entire year after moving into a super-efficient, solar-powered home.
The injustice of pollution
Even as they pay more for energy on both a relative and absolute basis, the poor are also more likely to suffer negative health impacts from being exposed to its pollution.
The burning of fossil fuels produces toxic pollutants that both contribute to global climate change and cause acute risks to human health.
Non-white and low-income households are more likely to live near sites of industrial pollution and heavy traffic areas, forcing them to breathe in toxic, dirty air, leading to health impacts - including asthma, heart disease, and stroke, among many others. California is home to eight of the ten most polluted cities in the nation, and cities like Los Angeles and Fresno both have dangerously dirty air, which disproportionately impacts large communities of poor residents.
The environmental dangers that these populations face don't stop a the front door, however. Indoor air quality is worse in low-socioeconomic status households as well. Combustion byproducts from gas-powered stoves and heating, which include carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, are major culprits.
The major indoor combustion pollutants are carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), fine and ultrafine particles, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and formaldehyde. At elevated levels, carbon monoxide causes headaches, fatigue, queasiness, and at very high levels, brain and heart damage and death. Other combustion pollutants can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, and serious lung disease, including cancer and other health impacts. Additionally, cooking emissions, especially from gas stoves, have been associated with increased respiratory disease. Young children, people with asthma, and people with heart or lung disease are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of combustion pollutants.
There is a reason we require carbon monoxide monitors in homes in California now: so our burning of gas in our homes doesn’t poison us. We’re grateful for California's Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention Act of 2010 - but instead of having alarms that tell us we have dangerous levels of chemicals in our homes shouldn't we just remove the source of the chemicals?
Renewable energy and electrification helps communities that need it the most
Transitioning buildings toward renewable energy, efficiency and electrification has the potential to alleviate a number of energy and environmental hardships that low-income citizens face at once.
Most directly, making low-income housing more efficient will reduce the disproportionate energy cost burden that vulnerable populations face while improving quality of life, allowing families to live in comfortable temperatures all year round. Beyond efficiency, home performance upgrade programs are designed to identify and address common health and safety issues from old appliances such as elevated carbon monoxide levels. Electrification of home appliances takes these upgrades further by entirely eliminating fossil-fuel use in homes and its associated air quality impacts.
Moving toward a zero-emissions economy is a win-win proposition that can benefit vulnerable communities first and foremost. Governor Newsom should continue and accelerate California's ambitious climate goals, knowing that the gains will extend to everyone.
Panama Bartholomy is the Director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition.