California’s New Air Pollution Solution

In an unprecedented move that will cut costs for low-income households and cut emissions for everyone, the state is paying for some homes to install energy-efficient appliances.

Two years ago, the World Health Organization identified the San Joaquin Valley in California, an agricultural area between Los Angeles and San Francisco, as having the nation’s worst air pollution. At the time, a reporter from The Guardian was sent out to talk to laborers in the region who worked outdoors. To his surprise, most of them shrugged off the news. Several workers recounted suffering from coughs and other health problems, but they had bigger concerns than bad air: feeding their families and paying the rent.

Some metro areas in the San Joaquin Valley rank among the poorest in the state and nation. When asked about possible remedies, one worker interviewed didn’t suggest robust pollution reduction measures, but masks and gloves. Nevertheless, by the end of this year California will be embarking on an ambitious project that goes well beyond masks and gloves to reduce the region’s pollution. 

In December, the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted to approve a new pilot program in 11 disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin Valley. More than 1,800 homes will have their propane and wood-burning appliances replaced with mainly high-efficiency electric heat pumps, cooktops, washing machines and other energy-efficient upgrades free of cost. 

The $50-million, five-year pilot will put the PUC in compliance with a 2015 California law that mandates that the state connect low-income communities -- where propane and wood-burning heating systems contribute significantly to the region’s terrible air pollution -- to natural gas or electricity. “This pilot program is the initial step,” says Merrian Borgeson, a senior scientist with the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “The intention is to learn what works and what doesn’t. If the pilot is successful, it could be rolled out to 170 disadvantaged communities in the region.”

The undertaking is a first in California and likely the nation. There has been nothing this comprehensive to electrify homes in low-income communities, according to Borgeson. Until now, she says, there have been some smaller-scale low-income programs that focus on weatherization and offer some support for electrification. Maine, for instance, has a program for income-eligible homeowners that covers 80 percent of the installation of a ductless heat pump and requires that participants take part in a home energy assessment. California has a low-income weatherization program for multifamily dwellings. “Most weatherization programs install new windows or seal up air ducts,” says Borgeson. “But to do a full change of all equipment in someone’s house, I don’t know of any program like that.”

The effort comes as the state seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from residential and commercial buildings by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Homes and buildings are responsible for 25 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report commissioned by the NRDC last fall. More than half of that pollution is the result of burning gas and propane. The report concludes that if a third of California’s buildings switched to clean electric space and water heating technology by 2030, heating emissions would fall by 7 million metric tons per year. That’s equivalent to taking 1.5 million cars off the road.

While how much air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions will be cut under the pilot hasn’t been estimated, the program is expected to save participating households about $1,500 in energy costs each year. The initial purpose of the pilot was to save customers money on their energy bills in these disadvantaged communities, says Borgeson. Mandating electric appliances where feasible came in later. “Low-income communities can’t always be last in line,” she says. “We need to make energy-efficiency programs work for everyone. If we don’t address low-income communities earlier in the process, we’re never going to reduce climate and air pollution. We’ll never get at the overall problem.” 

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.