California should restore investments to decarbonize low-income communities

Image by Olivier Le Moal via Shutterstock

OPINION – California is just beginning to emerge from a long, wet winter that led to an energy crisis for people across the state. Some Californians, particularly low-income households and those on a fixed income, are still struggling to pay off gas heating bills that spiked by 100% or more in parts of the state. While the rain may have subsided, the whiplash of intense storms and extreme heat makes it very clear that we need climate-resilient homes.

To address energy affordability and create climate-ready homes and communities, California needs to transition rapidly to clean energy. In 2022, the State committed nearly $1 billion over multiple years for Equitable Building Decarbonization to support low-income households in accessing zero-emission appliances and home retrofits for energy-efficient heating and cooling. But this month, Governor Newsom maintained the cuts and delays from his January proposal in response to a budget deficit. This was in contrast to the Senate’s plan, which not only maintained the full original funding but expanded it.

Now is not the time to shrink investments to support our most vulnerable communities. Lawmakers must work together to commit the funding and ensure that low-income communities are not left out of the state’s clean energy transition.

The Equitable Building Decarbonization program directly supports low-income and working class households with installations of highly efficient electric appliances like heat pumps, which provide cooling and heating within a single system. Three to four times more efficient than gas furnaces and old A.C. units, heat pumps can save households money on utility bills. They also provide air filtration for pollution and wildfire smoke. And because heat pumps don’t rely on fossil fuels, they don’t generate greenhouse gas emissions. Along with maintaining this program funding, the state should prioritize tenant protections so that as properties are upgraded, renters aren’t displaced or burdened with rent increases.

Lawmakers must work together to commit the funding and ensure that low-income communities are not left out of the state’s clean energy transition.

In addition to making investments in our homes, we must build resilience at the community level. This means advancing holistic community-led and community-scale solutions that simultaneously deliver climate, health, economic, and resilience benefits.

The Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) program is a best-in-class model for how to make bottom-up community resilience investments. It is the gold standard being copied at the federal level. Rather than shifting this funding to a potential bond measure, as the Governor is currently proposing to do, the State should restore this funding in the General Fund to advance neighborhood-scale climate projects in urban and rural communities that are most impacted by pollution.

Similarly, the State should restore the $160 million for Community Resilience Centers (CRC) in the General Fund and not an uncertain bond measure. This program would enable the construction and rehabilitation of neighborhood-based community facilities such as health clinics, community centers, libraries, schools, and other buildings to serve as resilience centers that address the growing needs of working-class communities of color in the face of converging climate, economic, and public health crises. Pushing this funding to a bond measure instead of using the General Fund threatens to leave behind entire communities that are in urgent need of social infrastructure, disaster response, cooling, and clean air.

As California transitions to all-electric homes, we must also ensure that clean energy is equitable and accessible to everyone. The state should pull from existing funding streams meant for scaling distributed energy to invest $400 million in community-scale renewable energy and storage, which would facilitate the rapid deployment of clean energy projects that cut utility bills for low-income residents while increasing grid reliability and providing opportunities for wealth-building through community ownership.

Though the federal Inflation Reduction Act will direct funding to California that could help advance these priorities, it does not replace consistent, multi-year state funding. State and federal funds are both urgently needed to relieve Californians from extreme climate impacts and the high costs of using fossil fuels in homes and buildings. Investing in programs that support low-income Californians and that build climate resilience at the community level will also advance climate action by reducing emissions from the built environment, which accounts for a quarter of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, second only to transportation. It is a critical step towards achieving our state’s goals of creating 3 million climate-ready homes by 2030 and reaching carbon neutrality by 2045.

Delaying and reducing investments in these programs abandons our most vulnerable communities. Restoring these critical investments can ensure that California safely and equitably transitions to a clean, healthy, and resilient future.

Zachary Lou is the coalition manager at the California Green New Deal Coalition. Stephanie Tsai is a senior California policy and campaign manager at the Building Decarbonization Coalition

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