By Gavin Dillingham, PhD, HARC
If we’re going to address climate change justly, we will need more people like Antonio Martinez. There are plenty of Antonios in Texas — they’re just not getting the attention they deserve.
Antonio has lived in Houston for more than 25 years and is active in various efforts to identify and find solutions to the energy challenges low-income Texans face every day. He participated in HARC’s groundbreaking Houston Harris Heat Action Team, which documented how Houston’s notorious summer heat translates to various temperatures across the area. He dug into his electricity usage and concluded that investing in a window AC unit to cool his bedroom was cheaper than cooling his entire home.
Antonio has been a perfect partner for HARC and several organizations as we have researched ways to make clean energy products and services work for lower-income energy customers through the Powered for Good program.
If your family doesn’t make a lot of money, energy and climate change are a double whammy.
First, you’re most likely to be affected not just by the future impacts of a warmer, drier and more erratic climate, but also by the changes we see today. In addition, yours is more likely to be one of the 4 million Texas households that pay about 10% of their monthly income on energy. If you live in a city, your neighborhood is more likely to experience the “heat island” effect, leading to health impacts and higher energy bills. You’re more likely to live near a highway or refinery and the pollution they produce. And you’re more likely to face the dangerous consequences of poorly insulated housing during winter storms, as so many Texans did during Winter Storm Uri.
These challenges will be exacerbated as climate change continues.
Second, low-income consumers face significant barriers to products and programs that conserve energy and reduce climate and local air pollution. From electric vehicles to smart thermostats to solar panels, modern energy products typically cost more, and many “go green” rebates and tax incentives favor people with higher incomes. For example, the IRS offers a tax credit of up to $7,500 for buying an electric vehicle. But the credit is tied to your tax liability – the less you make, the smaller your rebate. Many low-income EV buyers get no rebate, and those who do won’t realize the savings until the NEXT tax season.
That’s what drove the creation of Powered for Good, a partnership between HARC and several other organizations that work with low-income customers to design strategies that deliver affordable renewable electricity options. The partnership has produced a number of innovations and insights: a 100% clean electricity provider called Energy Well Texas that reduced electric bills by an average of 30%, a comprehensive online resource to help customers understand and choose the most effective electric rates and plans, and a pilot program that provided some customers micro solar+storage devices that could power small appliances and critical medical equipment during power outages.
Antonio received his storage device before Winter Storm Uri left his home without power for four days.
“It was a nice lifeline during the storm,” he said. In addition to keeping his and some neighbors’ phones charged throughout the blackout, Antonio could use his microwave and keep some lights on. The pilot was so successful that it attracted additional funding that will provide similar systems to 350 more families in the greater Houston and Harris County region.
Aside from Powered for Good’s results, the approach of extensive research and working directly with customers to identify what they want should serve as a model for utilities, cities and others working toward energy equity.
Most people in the renewable energy or electricity industry have very little personal experience with the needs and challenges that low-income families face. Our goal is to develop solutions with customers, not for them. That requires putting them and their families first.
Through our community-driven research, we learned that solar+storage is important for these residents. However, to bridge the green divide, the best option is to provide micro solar+storage systems and low-cost 100% renewable energy plans through our newly created retail electricity provider, Energy Well Texas. This solution will enable greater access to clean and renewable energy while meeting the goals of resilience and energy savings.
Just as Texas needs more clean energy customers like Antonio, we need more equity-focused products and services like Powered for Good and Energy Well Texas. Contact HARC to learn how your organization can get involved and help HARC investigate, design, and deploy new solutions across the state.