Op-Ed: Energy Efficiencies Should Benefit All New Jerseyans, Not Just the More Affluent

Vivian Cox Fraser, Mary Barber | March 27, 2020 | Opinion
We need a clear strategy to share the benefits of lower energy bills, reduced pollution with all residents
Vivian Cox Fraser, left, and Mary Barber

In these challenging times, we cannot help but think about the impact of this pandemic on those who already struggle to make ends meet. Those who had challenges paying their utilities bills will struggle further as those bills will likely increase beyond their means due to the governor’s appropriate stay-at-home order. And though we hope there are relief programs in place to help these families, we also recognize that for low-income households, these programs do not address the need to bring down their utility bills in the long term. We must work to reduce energy consumption in low and moderate-income households and develop programs such as training for green jobs that address long-term systemic issues. The new clean energy plan needs to address these issues.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s Energy Master Plan is a road map to making the Clean Energy Act of 2018 a reality and shows a renewed commitment to making the Garden State a national clean energy leader. It’s critical that the governor maximize the potential of energy efficiency to reduce energy demand, lower energy bills for vulnerable customers, and spread the cleaner energy — and its economic benefits — to all New Jerseyans.

We have to level the playing field by ensuring that any large-scale energy efficiency effort in New Jersey includes serious, effective and wide-ranging programs to help low- and moderate-income households participate in the state’s clean energy transformation. This includes homeowners, and renters, who include the great majority of low-income households, all of whom would benefit from cost savings and energy savings and from the comfort, convenience and safety improvements that energy-efficient upgrades provide.

Almost 33% of Americans, and many more people of color and low-income residents, face energy insecurity, according to the Department of Energy. Researchers at Columbia University found low-income households spend as much as 10% of their income on energy, compared to affluent families who spend about 3% of their income. Energy efficiency measures, like more efficient appliances, new heating or cooling systems or additional insulation can make meaningful dents in energy spending. But the poorer you are, the less money you have to take advantage of these measures that require an upfront investment. The governor’s plan should include ways for these customers to participate in these energy- and cost-saving activities.

The plan should ensure that economically challenged communities benefit from the economic development and jobs that large-scale investment in energy efficiency will create. Energy efficiency jobs are local jobs that are hard to outsource or replace with automation. This is a large and growing industry, and it could provide a much-needed boost to local workers. Workers in clean energy earn higher and more equitable wages when compared to all workers nationally. Mean hourly wages exceed national averages by 8% to 19%. Clean-energy economy wages are also more equitable; workers at lower ends of the income spectrum can earn $5 to $10 more per hour than other jobs.

Job training programs and prioritizing small businesses can ensure that the economic benefits of energy efficiency stay local and flow to vulnerable communities and workers.

Targeted job training

Specifically, New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities and Department of Labor must ensure that energy efficiency job-training opportunities are targeted at unemployed or underemployed low- and middle-income residents. The state can begin the process of ensuring that everyone benefits from energy efficiency and the clean energy future that New Jersey is building.

It’s time to get started if New Jersey is to reach the Clean Energy Act’s aggressive energy efficiency savings targets. It has been nearly two years since Gov. Murphy signed the act with new, aggressive energy efficiency goals. Every day of delay for the new energy efficiency program costs low-income residents money, not just on their energy bills, but in new jobs and economic development that a renewed emphasis on energy efficiency would bring. The longer we wait, the greater these impacts will be.

Utilities have a directive to reduce energy demand under the state’s Clean Energy Act, so it would be in New Jersey’s best interest to have them play a significant role in developing and implementing energy efficiency programs to achieve maximum effectiveness and give all of their customers, including low- and moderate-income residents, the greatest opportunity to participate.

A fundamental inequality exists when it comes to the cost of being an American energy consumer. People who can least afford the benefits of our energy system pay a disproportionate share of its costs — both financially and in terms of their higher exposure to pollution from power generation and higher rates of pollution-related illnesses, such as asthma. Energy efficiency is a strategy that not only reduces energy use and the pollution it creates, but can provide an economic boost through lower energy bills and better jobs.

Our voices must be heard to ensure that new jobs and economic development from clean energy benefit low and moderate income communities.