Energy Equity

On a sunny February day in Daly City, Cesar Oliveros and Eddie Talamante drive up to an older house owned by Avelina Convendo and her husband. The Convendos, residents since 1996, are senior citizens on a fixed income who have long been frustrated by high utilities bills. They are about to get some relief, through a ratepayer-funded program Greenlining works to protect and improve.

Oliver and Talamante work as installers for El Concilio, a contractor that works with the Energy Savings Assistance Program (ESAP), providing no-cost weatherization services to low-income households who qualify for the California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) program.  El Concilio is a Greenlining Coalition member organization which works with Latino communities in San Mateo County.

Oliveros has worked as an installer for four years; Talamante for eight. Today, they’ll be installing door weather stripping and a central ventilated air installation on Convendo’s home.

While Talamante performs a carbon monoxide test—to ensure there are no gas leaks—and attends to the air vents in the garage, Oliveros installs weather stripping on the door connecting the garage to the rest of the house. Next, Talamante places foam insulation behind light fixtures, while Oliveros uses a hacksaw to cut the weather stripping to size. He works with the practiced, repetitive movements of someone who has done this hundreds of times before.

High Energy Bills, Limited Income

As the two men work, Convendo watches with interest. The house dates back to 1947 – “same year I was born,” she notes. She applied for ESAP out of necessity and desperation. Faced with high energy bills and a limited income, “we just suffered… I told my husband not to wash heavy loads. Sometimes we cook at night time. I just used one lamp. I unplugged the microwave.”

Still, her bills remained high; her last PG&E bill of $234 represented more than 20 percent of her and her husband’s income. The bills are somewhat lower during summertime , but not by much. “We’re paying the house and we have to eat. It’s too much, it’s too much,” she repeats for emphasis. “And then a friend said, my sister’s in the program, you should apply.” .

Meanwhile, the deadbolt is locked as the stripping on the front door is installed. The entire process has taken about an hour. Talamante asks Convendo to sign a work order, Then they  load up their gear and put it into their van.  They have two more stops today, both in South San Francisco.

Before they head to their next installation, the two share more details about their work. Talamante, a heavyset, bearded man and the more outgoing of the two, estimates the crew works on 300-400 units per year; the company they work for averages 2,500-3,000 installations annually. He says he likes the work because “you see a different face every day. We’re out here doing different things, meeting different people, different cultures.”

Oliveros, still babyfaced despite his moustache, is shy and soft-spoken, yet has a warm smile. He takes obvious pride in his job, as evidenced by his being named “Installer of the Year” for 2012 after attaining a 100 percent success rate during inspections. He estimates he’s helped “thousands” of families since he’s been doing this work.

Satisfaction From Helping People

Originally from East Palo Alto, Oliveros was an ESAP customer before he became an installer. The installers who worked on his parents’ house told him the program was hiring; he called the next day.  After passing the test, which involved a lot of math—luckily, his favorite subject in school—he was hired in 2009.

“That was great,” he says, because “I had gone 8 months without a job.” Oliveros is now thinking of a career as an installer; he says what he enjoys most is the satisfaction he gets from helping people – most of whom, like Convendo, are low-income or people of color.

Programs like ESAP are critical for non-English speaking, low-income, and minority communities, Talamante explains. “They gotta know their options, they gotta know what’s out there. We bring these programs to them and it helps them out a lot. They get a discount off their PG&E bill, they get their attic insulated. … It’s a great program.”

Gloria Flores-Garcia, Associate Director of El Concilio, describes ESAP as a “wraparound” program because it hires people from minority and low-income communities, like Talamante and Oliveros, to be energy specialists and installers—both reducing the financial burden on these communities and creating economic opportunity.

ESAP is a two-tier program: Energy specialists do the initial outreach to potential program applicants, while installers, who manage the home visits, “have major contact with the community,” says Flores-Garcia. Installers, she adds, must submit to a background check and be licensed by PG&E to perform installations.

Keeping Doors of Opportunity Open

Greenlining recently intervened to head off an excessively restrictive new background check policy that would have barred thousands of responsible job applicants from participating. The policy would have banned those with even nonviolent, misdemeanor drug possession charges on their record, even if they posed no risk. Pointing out that people of color are far more likely to face such arrests (even though they are not  more likely than whites to use drugs), Greenlining succeeded in establishing a policy that maintains appropriate safeguards while keeping the doors of opportunity open to those who need them.

The ESAP has been impactful in several key areas, Flores-Garcia says: “there’s the money saving, of course, and then the learning about how to protect Mama Nature, the planet… That’s really a big deal,” she says, “because most of the time the customers are busy just trying to survive.”

Energy savings, she explains, go beyond just lowering monthly utility bills: They help reduce carbon emissions – an opportunity many low-income families don’t have. “It doesn’t take a big investment, like solar panels… People on a fixed income can’t afford that,” she says. People on fixed incomes, she says, “often have to choose between buying their medication or paying their utility bills.”

For families living at or below the poverty level, “the percentage of income spent on energy is shocking,” says Stephanie Chen, Greenlining’s Energy & Telecommunications Policy Director. There are often high reconnection fees for families who are cut off for failure to pay bills, she says — which amounts to double dipping from the same empty pockets.

For those reasons, much of Greenlining’s advocacy work around energy over the past two decades has been focused on making energy policy more equitable for low-income and minority communities and families.  The good news is that disconnection rates overall have dropped since the California Public Utilities Commission issued new consumer protections in 2010.

The bad news is that, according to a 2011 report by the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, the amount of unpaid bills owed by low-income customers totaled $55 million in 2010, double the previous year. Moreover, 33,000 disconnected low-income customers didn’t reconnect service.

Like most utilities, PG&E, the utility provider for 48 of California’s 58 counties, has historically had difficulty effectively reaching communities of color and non-English speaking people, Chen says. What this means in real terms is that these communities are often uniformed about CARE and other programs designed to help low-income families save money and become more energy-aware. Partnerships with organizations like El Concilio have helped PG&E and companies like it bridge these communication gaps.

Protecting low-income consumers, and especially improving and expanding programs like CARE and ESAP, remains high on Chen’s agenda. Much of her team’s work is highly technical and complex, but it’s felt in the real world by people like Convendo, Talamante and Oliveros.