By Agustin Cabrera
Gas heating bills are going to be painful in California this winter. Over the past couple of weeks, ominous warnings have gone out from utilities across the state, including SoCalGas, which told customers to brace themselves for “shockingly high” bills – more than double what households paid last year.
Utilities attribute this increase to the soaring price of wholesale methane gas. Wholesale gas prices increase when demand skyrockets, as it did during the deep freeze covering most of the United States at the end of December. These costs are then passed along to customers through their gas and electricity bills.
Gas price volatility is expected in the winter, but for many Californians, paying more for utility bills right now simply isn’t an option. Between our state’s housing affordability crisis and the growing cost of basic needs like groceries, low-income communities are already living on the brink.
State leaders and utilities must do more to insulate communities from the fossil fuel price spikes. That means investing state funds in utility debt to provide immediate relief for households, and moving to end utility shut offs for vulnerable customers statewide, like LADWP did for low-income Los Angeles customers last month.
It also means investing in long term solutions that will pave the way for energy affordability. In this fight, California has an incredibly potent tool that has gone underutilized in recent years. That tool is clean energy.
Despite California’s historic leadership in the transition away from fossil fuels, our state’s renewable energy investments have inexplicably stalled in recent years. In fact, according to a new report tracking California’s progress towards meeting its climate targets using the latest available data, the state’s pace of renewable energy growth has been slower than the U.S. average since 2017, and renewables have not increased significantly since 2018.
This baffling slow down has left Californians more vulnerable to the price volatility of methane gas. Renewable energy isn’t just cheaper than fossil fuels, it also has the benefit of price stability. Unlike fossil fuels, which are subject to an unpredictable global market, energy from the sun and wind will always be abundant and free for Californians to harness.
Black and brown communities in California have disproportionately paid the price for our state’s dangerous over-reliance on gas through dirtier air. 78% of California’s gas power plants reside in communities identified by CalEPA as having the state’s highest burden of poverty and cumulative environmental health burdens. In slow-walking the renewable energy resources necessary to close polluting gas plants, regulators have treated our communities like sacrifice zones.
It’s time for Governor Newsom to step in and direct regulators to make the bold renewable energy investments our state needs to keep electricity bills affordable, improve air quality in frontline communities, and improve the resilience and reliability of our state’s electricity grid. At the same time, California needs to invest in putting this clean energy to work lowering heating bills by upgrading homes with clean electric appliances like heat pumps – starting in the low-income communities and communities of color most burdened by high energy bills and fossil fuel pollution.
In this year’s budget, California committed to exactly the kind of bold investments our state needs, by allocating over $1.3 billion in multi-year funding for programs that will upgrade low-income households with heat pumps, along with other upgrades that cut energy use. But now, this multi-year funding could be in danger due to a projected budget deficit for this year.
Now is not the time for the state of California to walk back urgently-needed funds that will lower energy bills for low-income households, while cutting our state’s dependence on fossil fuels. The coalition of community groups that fought for this funding clearly illustrated the need – Gov. Newsom must honor the commitments he made last year.
The gas bills arriving in the mail this month are going to hurt – there’s no getting around it. These bills should serve as the wakeup call California needs to move forward with utility debt relief that meets the scale of the need, along with renewable energy investments and targeted low-income heat pump home upgrades to help Californians move away from the fossil fuels that are the root cause of this affordability crisis.
Agustin Cabrera is a policy director at Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education: SCOPE.