Bills and Rates

House hearing focuses on equitable access in clean energy

On Thursday, October 1, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy held a hearing, “Generating Equity: Improving Clean Energy Access and Affordability,” which included discussions on how legislation related to clean energy should consider impacts to low-income customers and disparities to other populations.

In an opening statement, Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) said, “Energy access and energy burdens often do not get the attention they deserve…While we are all affected by climate change, we must make sure that no one is overlooked in our efforts to build a clean and resilient future.”

In his opening statement, Committee Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR) brought up that energy cost burdens have become more common due to COVID-19-related shutdowns and that there are many programs at the Department of Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services aimed at relieving energy burdens. He said that while renewable energy sources play a role in reducing emissions, aggressive policies that drive up energy prices put additional burdens on low-income communities.

Pallone mentioned that nationwide, 800,000 customers with low incomes are at risk of having their electricity shut off. Pallone mentioned that a shutoff moratorium was included as part of the updated HEROES Act, which the House passed October 1. The updated HEROES Act also includes $4.5 billion for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Subcommittee on Energy Chairman Bobby Rush (D-IL) said the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People found that nearly 70% of African Americans live or have lived within 30 miles of coal-fired power plants, which he stated has made them and other “frontline” communities more susceptible to harmful health effects of the burning of fossil fuels. Rush asserted the U.S. must continue to improve access to clean energy technologies so frontline communities can benefit by having their electricity bills lowered, air quality improved, and energy burdens lowered.

Subcommittee on Energy Ranking Member Fred Upton (R-MI) expressed concerns as to how “one-size-fits-all” federal mandates on energy sources could impact the diversity of the fuel mix and energy costs. “The proper role of the federal government is to promote innovation and technological development and to ensure competition and consumer choice,” said Upton. “It would be foolish to bet it all on one technology or energy resource. Congress doesn't have the crystal ball. Rather than mandate a top-down clean energy standard or ban on fossil fuels, let's learn from the experience of all 50 states.” 

Four witnesses testified at the briefing on different perspectives related to relieving energy burdens.

Ariel Drehobl, Senior Research Associate, Local Policy at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, presented recent research on energy burdens, which found that one-fourth of U.S. households face a high energy burden and two-thirds of low-income households experience a high energy burden. Drehobl stated that more than one-fourth of people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic have reported skipping or needing to skip a utility bill payment. She asserted that energy efficiency and weatherization programs can provide a long-term solution to reducing high energy burdens, while also complementing bill payment assistance and programs aimed at energy-saving education and behavior change. She called on Congress to take action by expanding the low-income Weatherization Assistance Program, including funds for health-related home improvements, leveraging Medicaid funding to improve health and efficiency in homes, increasing funding for LIHEAP, and developing national guidance around utility-shutoffs, energy efficiency, and COVID-19 recovery.

Tony G. Reames, Assistant Professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, recommended that Congress explore the feasibility of restructuring and integrating LIHEAP, weatherization assistance programs, and other energy assistance-related programs into a comprehensive energy assistance national strategy; develop a national framework to identify and quantify current residential energy gaps across geographies, race, ethnicity, income, and other social demographic groups; and establish equity metrics and goals to track progress.

Robert Bryce, a visiting fellow at The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, called on policymakers to ensure that “the cost of decarbonizing America’s enormous energy sector and power sector is not borne by low- and middle-income families.” His testimony included comments on how California’s aggressive renewable mandates have coincided with a dramatic increase in electricity prices, and he raised concerns that low- and middle-class residents are subsidizing the electric vehicles purchased by wealthier residents.

Alexandra M. Wyatt, Policy and Regulatory Manager at GRID Alternatives, testified on the need to improve affordability and equitable access to clean energy technologies and highlighted the work done by GRID Alternatives to aid in these efforts. Wyatt said, “There are few more worthwhile and urgently necessary investments than mitigating climate change through reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing needless death by reducing toxic pollution and reducing high energy burdens that contribute to economic insecurity and worse.” Wyatt recommended investments be made in existing energy assistance programs and extending the federal solar investment tax credit, including making it accessible to tribal entities and nonprofits.

“In addition to helping people with the LIHEAP, we have to figure out how the system remains operational and I think that probably means some kind of federal assistance as well,” said Pallone during a question and answer session following the testimonies. “[The] most important thing is that we get Leader McConnell and President Trump to come to a consensus bill that we can pass in the next few weeks and hopefully we'll move in that direction.”