Energy-insecure households in the U.S. pay 27% more for electricity than others
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows that households that are considered energy insecure, or those that have the inability to adequately meet basic household energy costs, are paying more for electricity than their wealthier counterparts.
On average in the United States in 2020, households were billed about $1.04 per square foot for all energy sources. For homes that did not report energy insecurity, that average was $0.98 per square foot, while homes with energy insecurity issues paid an average of $1.24 per square foot for energy. This means that U.S. residents that need the most support on their energy bills are stuck with costs 27% higher than their neighbors on square-foot-basis.
EIA said energy-insecure households have reduced or forgone basic necessities to pay energy bills, kept their houses at unsafe temperatures because of energy cost concerns, or been unable to repair heating or cooling equipment because of cost.
In 2020, households with income less than $10,000 a year were billed an average of $1.31 per square foot for energy, while households making $100,000 or more were billed an average of $0.96 per square foot, said EIA. Renters paid considerably more ($1.28 per square foot) than owners ($0.98 per square foot). There were also considerable differences between regions, ethnic groups and races, and insulation levels, as seen below.
The energy transition toward renewables like solar has offered price stability, but thus far energy-insecure communities have relatively been left behind. A recent Berkeley Lab report, Residential Solar-Adopter Income and Demographic Trends, indicates that even though the rate of solar adoption among low-income residents is increasing (from 5% in 2010 to 11% in 2021), that segment of energy consumers remains under-represented among solar adopters, relative to its share of the population.
Community solar efforts
As such, the United States is targeting communities most impacted by energy costs that have not benefitted from the transition, highlighting “Energy Communities” that are eligible for an additional 10% tax credit through funds made possible by the Inflation Reduction Act.
Additionally, a push for community solar development is taking place nationwide to extend access to affordable solar energy to renters and other residents that aren’t able to leverage finances to invest in predictable, low-cost solar. The Biden Administration set a goal this year to sign up 5 million community solar households, achieving $1 billion in bill savings by 2025. The community solar model only represents about 8% of the total distributed solar capacity in the nation. This target would entail a jump from 3 GW installed capacity to 20 GW by the target year. The Department of Energy estimates community solar subscribers save an average of 20% on their bills.
California this year passed AB 2316, the Community Renewable Energy Act takes aim at four acute problems in the state’s power market: reliability, rates, climate and equity. The law creates a community renewable energy program, including community solar-plus-storage, to overcome access barriers for nearly half of Californians who rent or have low incomes. Community solar typically involves customers subscribing to an off-site solar facility, receiving a utility bill credit for the power it generates.
“Community renewable energy is a proven powerful tool to help close California’s clean energy gap, bringing much needed relief to millions struggling with high housing costs and utility debt,” said Alexis Sutterman, energy equity program manager at the California Environmental Justice Alliance.
The program has energy equity baked into its structure, working to make sure Californians of all income levels participate in the benefits of the energy transition. Not only does it open solar access to renters, the law ensures that at least 51% of subscribers are low-income customers, which is expected to make projects eligible for a 10% tax credit adder under the IRA.
“The money’s on the table now,” said Jeff Cramer, president and chief executive of the Coalition for Community Solar Access. “While there are groups pushing for solar access for all, and states with strong legislation, there are other pockets of interest in surprising places in the United States. For example, Louisiana has no policy for community solar or support for low-income residents going solar but the city of New Orleans has its own utility commission with a community solar program. In Nebraska, forward-looking co-operatives have created community solar projects.
Community solar markets are active in 22 states, with more expected to come online in the future. However, the market is expected to require strong community outreach efforts to foster trust and gain subscribers.
“There is a distrust of community solar initially in LMI communities as many have been burned before by retail energy false promises,” said Eric LaMora, executive director, community solar, Nautilus Solar on a panel at the Solar Energy Industries Association Finance, Tax, and Buyers seminar. “People are suspicious but there really are no hooks with community solar.”
LMI residents are leery to provide tax records or much documents at all in order to sign up for community solar, LaMora said. “We were surprised to see less of a default rate with LMI residents. We attribute this to the fact that they see significant savings on their electric bill, making it easier to pay each month,” he said.
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