Many of us think we pay too much for electricity — and for most, it’s true. Our homes and businesses rely on inefficient energy infrastructure, so we’re left to pay for the electricity we use and any that’s lost in transmission.
In Florida, low-income families spend almost four times as much of their annual income on energy services as their wealthier counterparts. When people don’t have consistent access to reliable and affordable power, they are forced to make tradeoffs between other expenses such as medications, childcare, or food. Energy insecurity often feeds into a cascade of disadvantages, including financial hardship, inadequate housing, poor nutrition and unmet health needs.
One important, but oft-forgotten, contributor to high electric bills is wasted energy. Reducing energy use by minimizing waste is cost-effective and feasible with technologies we have today. You may have already considered adding insulation, installing window screens or upgrading to appliances at home that use energy more efficiently. Even spending a couple dollars caulking air leaks in window frames and doorways can create energy and cost savings.
But, to reap the deeper benefits of energy efficiency upgrades, we need to look to the broader system beyond ourselves.
The U.S. Department of Energy found that energy efficiency can help a low-income Florida family reduce their energy bills by up to 29%. The United States has made substantial investments in energy efficiency over the past four decades, and those choices paid off big time by generating over $800 billion in cost savings in one year alone, for example. More stringent efficiency standards for buildings, new appliances and cost-relief programs offered by utilities can be designed to create prosperity in multiple ways.
The problem is, government agencies and utility companies responsible for implementation have not been held accountable. For instance, Florida Power & Light invests the least nationwide on low-income energy efficiency programs and ranks 51 out of 52 of the nation’s large electric utility companies. They also lobby against utility-scale efficiency goals that would benefit everyone.
Meanwhile, the federally funded Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) does not help low-wealth or working people meet their energy needs comfortably. It is administered by local agencies with closer ties to residents, but inadequate funding, restrictive eligibility criteria, and poor outreach keep many people from long-term utility burden relief.
Of Miami-Dade County’s nearly 900,000 households, 54% were unable to make ends meet to cover their basic needs, despite working, in 2018. Since then, the number of households burdened by high energy costs has increased as the cost of living rises and wages remain stagnant. Meanwhile, the share of income-eligible households serviced by WAP remained relatively consistent and below 1%.
Embracing energy efficiency would support financial wellness at the household level, while stimulating the local economy by creating jobs that cannot be outsourced. Today, energy-efficiency work supports 2.1 million jobs across the country and ranks as the energy sector with the highest rate of job growth. It’s important for municipal governments and workers to lean into the ways we benefit from energy efficiency. We need to invest in workforce development that prepares and connects residents to apprenticeships, family-sustaining jobs and resources to launch a small business or worker cooperative in this field.
Employment issues, poor housing stock, environmental shocks and the stress of high-energy burden lead many of us to resoundingly declare that now is the time to embrace energy efficiency.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill sets aside a historic $5 billion for energy efficiency and clean energy programs which will improve health and safety while creating local jobs. If the Build Back Better Act is signed into law, an additional $131 billion will create more efficient and resilient housing.
These programs are one positive approach, but their reach is often controlled by investor-owned utilities or public officials. Insights from community-based organizations and affected residents should inform a locally relevant and just energy efficiency strategy. Investments should be funneled directly to homes and small businesses through grants that fund the design and implementation of local programs and projects.
Natalia Brown is climate justice program manager at Catalyst Miami and chair of the Miami Climate Alliance’s Clean Energy Working Group.