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Low-income Valley towns get pilot projects for clean energy at 2,000 households

In California, we know climate change is real. We also know that methane and carbon emissions are some of the leading culprits in this accelerating change. And according to the state’s 4th Climate Assessment released last August, San Joaquin Valley residents as a result face more intense and frequent heat waves, increased and prolonged droughts, greater risks of natural disasters such as floods and wildfires and are more vulnerable to a number of likely public health threats.

San Joaquin Valley residents also face the most extreme energy burdens in the state, paying a much larger percentage of their income for energy. But there is another population in the San Joaquin even more burdened with high energy costs and direct, daily exposure to air pollution because — in this extraordinarily productive agricultural region — people live in communities and neighborhoods that haven’t had access to clean, affordable energy, relying instead on wood and propane to heat their homes and cook their food.

Martha Guman Aceves Headshot HI-RES
Martha Guzman Aceves FRANK TAPIA California PUC

Last summer, at well-attended workshops in schools and gymnasiums in communities like Allensworth, Alpaugh, Le Grand, La Vina, Ducor, West Goshen and more, we heard from many of these residents.

We heard from hard-working people who endure icy showers and cold food when the propane or wood run out. We heard stories about people being manipulated and taken advantage of by unregulated propane suppliers. We heard stories about putting kids to bed cold and hungry because the fuel was gone. In this extraordinarily productive agricultural region, we heard about bad health and other impacts, particularly in winter when so many people don’t have clean energy options the rest of us enjoy.

Now, working with utilities regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, we can finally offer about 2,000 San Joaquin Valley households cleaner and safer energy alternatives, and we can reach more families in the future.

At our last CPUC meeting of 2018, the commission approved a $56 million investment for pilot projects in 11 San Joaquin communities. In addition to the benefits from cleaner energy and healthier air, the program has a big economic development component. With more energy alternatives and infrastructure to deliver them, it should become easier to attract other investments, housing and jobs.

I am proud of the CPUC’s decision to bring cleaner, affordable energy to communities in California long unserved and overlooked. I am even prouder of these communities themselves, and of their tenacity and commitment. It has been a long road, and these pilots are just another step. But they will provide energy efficiency upgrades, electric heating, solar benefits, job training and more — while reducing energy costs and pollution.

When then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2672 in 2015, the CPUC was directed to find ways to increase affordable access to energy for disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin Valley. But we first had to identify eligible towns and households and meet with residents to determine which clean-energy strategies would work best. Collectively, we’ll learn from the different experiences as we move forward and seek to replicate the successes in other communities during the next phase of our still-open CPUC proceeding.

The pilots will allow eligible households to replace at no cost their propane- or wood-burning appliances with new energy-efficient appliances — either electric or natural gas — and will allow some minor home upgrades if necessary. The pilot communities will also benefit from a Community Energy Navigator program established to inform, engage and assist participating residents. And we’ll build in basic bill protections to ensure that energy costs do not go up for participants.

Everyone involved knows a lot of work remains. But we are excited about the positive impacts and value of investing in communities that have long been bypassed.

As California continues reducing methane or carbon emissions, we must also meet the challenge of our current heating needs — for water and for living and work spaces — with cleaner energy so no one is left behind. These pilot projects, in addition to improving the quality of life for several thousand residents, will give us the experience and reliable data needed to determine the best ways of continuing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also keeping monthly bills affordable for so many other hard-working Californians.

Martha Guzman Aceves was appointed to the California Public Utilities Commission by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in December 2016. She previously served as deputy legislative affairs secretary in the Office of the Governor, focusing on natural resources, environmental protection, energy and food and agriculture.

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