Op-Ed: Governor’s Energy Plan a Threat to Low-Income Communities

Rev. Dr. Johnnie Green | March 2, 2020 | Opinion
Urging governor, legislators to consider potential economic harm to those who can least afford to pay for the cost of the new Energy Master Plan
Rev. Dr. Johnnie Green

The township of Irvington and the families who live here aren’t the kind of people with money to burn. Not dissimilar from other struggling communities across New Jersey, for many, each and every day requires forgoing basic needs just to make ends meet for their families.

But when decision-makers in Trenton announce new policies that will drive up residential costs like last month’s Energy Master Plan, it’s clear that despite the campaign rhetoric and lip service about a “fairer” New Jersey, the reality is something far different.

As the proprietor of Agape Children’s Academy in Irvington, our goal is to provide families, namely single working moms, with a positive learning environment and high-quality daycare facility for their pre-Kindergarten aged children. The key to our collective success, beyond our caring staff, is affordability.

Our students and their families are reflective of Irvington as a whole: About a third of children live below the poverty line, over half are raised by single moms, and the median household income of $39,000 per year is nearly half that of the average New Jersey resident. It’s not easy.

Unfortunately, Gov. Murphy’s plan to end natural gas, with an early emphasis on commercial buildings like the one I own, will likely require tens of thousands of dollars in new appliances, electric box upgrades, retrofitting of our building, and new energy-efficiency requirements, just to meet the same standards we have today. That’s before the higher monthly utility bills I expect to receive to switch from the most affordable energy source, to the most expensive. 

A Rutgers professor recently called the governor’s plan “expensive and regressive,” while the chair of the Board of Public Utilities added, “it’s expensive, and we know it’s expensive.” The president of PSE&G added the plan is “silly” and can even be bad for the environment. One estimate found removing natural gas to electrify residential homes will cost the average family $859 more per year. Others put the bill even higher, nearing $2,000 per year.

A commonsense test

I think about the higher daycare costs that will occur, and whether the parents of our students could even afford to stay with us as a result of policies that sound good in talking points, but fail a simple commonsense test: Can we even afford it?

Beyond the Academy’s costs to run an affordable daycare facility for low-income families, what will these new energy requirements mean to Irvington parents as they make decisions around their kitchen tables? 

Many are already making tough decisions today, choosing between clothes, medicine, groceries — and the energy bills they already have and are struggling to pay. Today, 82% of Irvington residents rely on natural gas service. What will it mean to the already difficult job of attracting new business and affordable housing investments to communities like Irvington, if costs become even more burdensome?

Adding to our overall financial burden, particularly for those on fixed incomes, just isn’t practical.

California study last year found low-income families would be “hit hard” and have no escape from higher costs under policies that end natural gas even if they opted to keep the energy systems they have. As wealthier neighbors and businesses are financially incentivized under this plan and can afford to convert away from the natural gas system, the “average costs for remaining customers increase.”

As a pastor in Harlem and the founder of MPAC, a civil rights and faith-based organization to ensure justice and equality, I hear concerns about affordability first-hand, from fellow ministers, congregants, friends and loved ones. The refrain hasn’t changed, and other leaders from our community have been vocal in raising concerns about these costs.

Our state should make a transition to a cleaner energy future, but not with drastic policies that upend the lives of people across the state. Trenton lawmakers should recognize affordable natural gas as a bridge that gets us there, just as President Barack Obama said.

I urge the governor and our legislators to give serious thought to the economic harm that will be caused not just in communities of color — but to all businesses, families and seniors — who can least afford to pay these regressive and expensive bills put forward in the Energy Master Plan.