Op-Ed: Repower NJ’s ‘sacrifice zones’

Nancy Griffeth | December 10, 2020 | Opinion
New Jersey’s ‘sacrifice zones,’ where our poorest citizens live, should be beneficiaries of renewable-energy and energy efficiency programs not dumping grounds for anything harmful
Nancy Griffeth

We are all seeing and feeling the terrible effects of climate change, from frequent flooding in our shore communities, to a multitude of severe storms in the summer and fall, to wildfires in the West. While many of us can recover fairly quickly, the most damaging and long-lasting effects hit the poorest neighborhoods. For many years, those neighborhoods have been treated as “sacrifice zones,” places to cheaply dispose of anything harmful that industry and commerce produce.

It’s well known that New Jersey has a multitude of places where toxic substances poison the air and water of the people who live and work there. Our state has done some good work to address this. In particular, Gov. Phil Murphy recently signed a law to protect these “overburdened communities” — largely low-income communities and communities of color — from additional pollutants.

However, it’s not enough to stop the increase. We must actually decrease both greenhouse-gas emissions and other pollution to protect our planet and our lives. There’s a bill before the Legislature right now that will help, the Clean Energy Equity Act. This bill would create and fund an agency within the Board of Public Utilities whose goal would be to make energy efficiency and renewable energy programs more accessible and more beneficial to households in overburdened communities. The bill does not increase the current funding for these programs. Instead, it directs more of the BPU’s existing funds to these communities.

Since 1999, New Jersey has supported programs that fight climate change and address pollution with a societal benefits charge that supports a fund used for “socially beneficial purposes.” The BPU website lists a number of socially beneficial purposes. They include low-income programs, nuclear decommissioning and funding for energy efficiency and renewable-energy programs.

The societal benefits charge sounds like a good thing, but sad to say, it’s an extremely regressive tax on income, with the poorest people paying the highest share of their income.  The charge is levied as a flat percentage of a household’s energy bills, and a low-income household typically pays a much larger percentage of its income for energy than higher-income households — an average of over 7%, compared to 2% – 3% for higher-income households.

While paying this disproportionate share of the societal benefits charge, low-income households have not received much benefit from energy efficiency and renewable-energy programs.  Their benefits have come primarily through rate-assistance programs. In 2014, little more than 300,000 low-income households received an average of $540 eachthrough these programs.

That sounds good, but according to the United Way’s study of the working poor, 11% of New Jersey households were in poverty in 2014 and another 27% were classified as ALICE — asset-limited, income-constrained, employed — for a total of 38% or about 1.2 million households. Thus, there were as many as 900,000 low-income households paying into the societal benefits fund that were not benefiting from the low-income programs.

How about the energy efficiency and renewable-energy programs? These not only benefit a homeowner, but also address climate change directly. However, renewable energy and energy efficiency require large up-front investments, although they actually lower operating costs and lifetime costs. In spite of the long-term savings, the initial costs make them inaccessible to most households in overburdened communities.

More importantly, low-income households are not usually homeowners, they are renters, and only the owners can install rooftop solar and many other energy efficiency measures. Further, even when a low-income household owns a house, it may need extensive, expensive renovations before the BPU’s approved energy efficiency measures could be applied. Other proposals, like those to fund electric-vehicle rebates and vehicle charging, are also not helpful to members of overburdened communities who are not buying electric vehicles.

This Clean Energy Equity Act is important to support because it would help not only to reduce the impact of climate change, but also to secure equal rights and equal opportunity for all. It would also support basic human needs by promoting self-sufficiency for individuals and reducing poverty. The bill has already passed the state Senate. Please urge your state Assemblymen and Assemblywomen to advance this bill.