California’s clean energy programs are mainly benefiting the rich, study finds

Source: By Sammy Roth, Los Angeles Times • Posted: Monday, June 29, 2020

One lesson from the ongoing uprising against anti-Black racism is that the United States has made far too little progress against rampant inequality. The police killing of George Floyd has brought new attention to the fact that Black Americans breathe dirtier air, are more likely to be homeless and are far more likely to be killed by police, among many consequences of systemic racism.

A new study from a team of UCLA researchers illuminates a different — but related — manifestation of inequality.

Led by Eric Fournier, research director at UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities, the team analyzed energy use data for every ZIP Code in Los Angeles County, home to more than 10 million people. They found that people living in areas more likely to be “disadvantaged communities” — defined by state officials as having high levels of unemployment, poverty, pollution and/or health conditions such as heart disease and asthma — use half as much energy, on average, as people in wealthier areas.

Here are some maps from the study, showing residential electricity and natural gas use by ZIP Code, with darker blue indicating greater use. In areas outlined in red, most census tracts have been designated by the state as disadvantaged communities:

UCLA study maps

The charts beneath the maps show that electricity and natural gas use are lower in poorer, more polluted areas.

If you’re familiar with Los Angeles County, you can probably figure that out by studying the maps. See those two dark blue blobs just a little ways in from the coast on both maps? That’s Beverly Hills and the ultra-wealthy Bel Air neighborhood.

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Residents of those ZIP Codes (and also nearby Culver City) use more electricity, per person, than anywhere else in the county.

By contrast, many of the areas that use the least energy — illustrated in pale colors on the maps — are state-designated disadvantaged communities, including large parts of South L.A., whose residents are mostly Latino and Black. The racial makeup is no coincidence; the factors California evaluates in designating “disadvantaged communities” are strongly correlated with race.

Consider the city of Maywood, which is 98% Latino and has a median household income just under $40,000. In 2016, Maywood residents used less than one-tenth as much electricity, on average, as residents of Beverly Hills’ famous 90210 ZIP code.

Some low-income families often can’t afford to use enough energy to stay warm or cool. As a result, they “continue to live in less comfortable housing and pay a larger proportion of their income for that discomfort,” the researchers write.

By comparison, some wealthy families — who are more likely to be white — consume “in excess of what they require to meet their essential needs,” the study says. Excess consumption “has many causes, but often arises from individuals choosing to meet their needs by inherently more energy intensive means, such as purchasing large, single-family homes, or by overconsumption of energy services, such as leaving the air conditioning on while the home is unoccupied.”

It’s a provocative claim in a society built on the idea that there’s no such thing as too much consumption.

Fournier, the study’s lead author, acknowledged as much when I asked him about it. He said he and his colleagues “did think a lot about the choice of that word, in terms of what do you call that consumption at the high end. Is it excessive? Is it profligate?”

“This level of consumption is clearly beyond what you need to provide for your survival, to allow you to be a functioning member of society,” he told me.

Now let’s get into the climate policy realm. Similar to their energy-use findings, the researchers concluded that electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid vehicles and rooftop solar installations are way more common in wealthier areas. Here are the maps:

UCLA study maps

None of those findings are especially surprising. But California is trying to implement climate policies that not only reduce emissions, but also spread the benefits of clean energy equitably. For instance, there are incentives for low-income homeowners to go solar, and requirements for utilities to install electric vehicle chargers in heavily polluted areas. At least 25% of the proceeds generated by the state’s cap-and-trade auctions must be spent on projects that benefit disadvantaged communities.

The UCLA researchers concluded those policies aren’t doing enough, at least when it comes to solar panels and clean cars.

In addition to mapping out who’s got rooftop solar and electric vehicles right now, they projected the uptake of those technologies through 2030, based on a “business as usual” scenario where prices keep falling and similar types of government policies remain in place. They found that people living in disadvantaged communities will start installing solar panels and buying clean cars at higher rates — but they’ll still lag way behind non-disadvantaged communities, where rates of adoption will climb even faster.

And therein lies the study’s key conclusion: California’s programs to subsidize rooftop solar and electric cars are disproportionately benefiting wealthier homes that often use more energy than they need to live comfortably. And they’re disproportionately leaving behind lower-income families who often can’t afford to use enough energy to stay warm or cool, depending on the season, and who would benefit greatly from cost-saving clean energy technologies.

Fournier says the lesson for policymakers is clear: Redesign climate programs to distribute the clean energy wealth more equally, with the bulk of the money going to disadvantaged communities, whose residents are far more likely to be Black or Latino.

Maybe that means solar subsidies or energy-efficiency financing programs that target renters in multifamily homes, rather than homeowners. Maybe it means limiting electric vehicle rebates to low-income households, or offering larger rebates for a first car.

“If your actual objective is to close these gaps between disadvantaged communities and the more affluent communities, you have to think about being strategically unequal in the extent to which these incentives are available,” Fournier told me.

Rooftop solar installation

Workers from GRID Alternatives, a San Diego nonprofit that provides no- or low-cost rooftop solar to low-income families, install a solar panel at a home in 2017. (Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Fournier and his coauthors say it doesn’t make sense to keep spending so much public money on solar panels for homeowners who keep their giant houses air conditioned when they’re not home, or Teslas for families that already have multiple cars.

They also point out that clean energy technologies, good as they are at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, have downsides. Problems include raw materials supply chains that can destroy delicate ecosystems or exploit child labor; the potential difficulty of recycling hazardous wastefrom solar panels; and the degradation of wildlife habitat by poorly sited solar and wind farms.

Renewables are still a lot better for people and the planet than fossil fuels are. But the UCLA researchers say it’s not enough to keep making our energy use cleaner and more efficient, even as the wealthiest among us consume more than they need.

“At some point, you have to get to a place where you’re using less energy,” Fournier said.