The L.A. City Council’s vote this week to raise electric and water rates over the next five years means that the LA Department of Water and Power’s work is really just beginning. Not just replacing aging water pipes and power poles, increasing our local water supply and developing more renewable energy sources. The DWP – and city leaders – also need to address how the most vulnerable ratepayers will afford and/or benefit from these investments.
Seniors in Valley neighborhoods like Pacoima need to run their air conditioning during ever more frequent heat waves. South Los Angeles barbershops and markets need to keep lights on and equipment running. Then there are the families doubling up in apartments in Pico Union who often have to choose between paying their rent or their utility bills.
In a city as vast and diverse as Los Angeles, even with the best intentions, protecting these customers is no small task. How well is DWP serving those low income ratepayers and their communities? It’s hard to say because DWP does not regularly track or share data on how its low income customers or small businesses are faring.
DWP has about half a million customers who are eligible for its low income programs. Yet 40% of eligible customers aren’t enrolled and the program’s monthly subsidy has not been increased in years.
We know that DWP has about half a million customers who are eligible for its low income programs. Yet 40% of eligible customers aren’t enrolled and the program’s monthly subsidy has not been increased in years. The turf rebate program has often rewarded homeowners with big water guzzling lawns. Less attention has been paid to DWP’s local solar programs, which leave behind the very communities that suffer most from pollution. Over 15 years, DWP has invested only 33 cents per capita in rooftop solar in Boyle Heights compared to almost $200 per capita in Bel Air, according to a recent analysis.
DWP does deserve some credit, though. The new rate structure rewards conservation, with users consuming the most paying more. The Department has increased enrollment in low income programs over the last few years and has also dramatically increased investments in energy efficiency programs, including those that serve thousands of struggling customers. These programs are also tied to the creation of local jobs, including a successful pipeline to utility careers run by IBEW Local 18 and DWP.
Yet it’s difficult to know who is benefitting from these efforts. That may change soon. Last month, DWP staff publicly committed to reporting regularly on a set of “equity indicators” that will shed light on these questions. Still in development, the indicators will likely tell us which neighborhoods have access to energy efficiency, water conservation and low income programs and how that compares to the need.
The data will no doubt show that DWP needs to improve customer outreach. Merely posting information online or in bill inserts doesn’t suffice to reach customers who lack fluency in English and internet access. A real investment in outreach for efficiency and more accessible clean energy programs will provide multiple returns, including lower bills, more comfortable homes, and less reliance on far flung and costly sources of water and power.
The stakes are high for many families. A 2006 study of California’s low income households revealed that 66% were “energy insecure” and worried about being able to pay utility bills, have services disconnected, or keep homes less comfortable to save on energy.
DWP can’t address all the economic forces that keep families from thriving. But DWP’s investments can and should be marshaled to make all of LA more prosperous, secure and healthy. Expanding access to clean energy, energy efficiency, and water conservation and low income programs is a great place to start.
Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE)