Climate change hitting poor Texans the hardest, experts discuss ways to fix that

 

 
As the temps rise, many Texans are using less energy because they feel “scared or broke”
 
The heat punishing Texans and people in other states is not going away in the years to come. But a roundtable of experts said today that what can be alleviated is the burden of the growing high price of energy costs on lower-income families.
 
Presented by the Texas-based Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, the discussion highlighted the intersection of energy, affordability, and poverty.
“Given the extreme heat we’ve experienced so far this summer, it has been extraordinary based on historical patterns. But concern is with climate change impacts deepening, this year will not be an outlier going forward,” said Doug Lewin, president of Stoic Energy.
 
And 2022 hasn’t even been the hottest year on record yet, said Texas A&M University Professor of Atmospheric Sciences Dr. Andrew Dessler. That would be 2011.
 
“Affordable electricity is a significant household issue for many families. The economic health of citizens should be the heart of state energy policy. However, high energy costs create a disproportionate economic burden that puts individual families and entire communities at risk,” said David Monsma, director of CGMF’s Clean Energy and Subsurface Energy Programs.
 
Energy bills for end consumers in Texas have been rising steadily.
According to Alison Silverstein, a former advisor at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Public Utility Commission of Texas, there are multiple culprits: high natural gas prices, high demand caused by high heat, higher operations costs because of new ERCOT protections, the pass-through and losses related to Winter Storm Uri, and transmission congestion bottlenecks preventing the flow of energy in certain parts of the state.
 
But there are some factors lowering costs, including the low cost of wind and solar production, incentives to use less energy at peak levels, and individual choices to lower consumption.
 
Many Texans may be using less energy because they feel either “scared or broke,” Silverstein said.
 
That’s what Dr. Bobuchi Ken-Opurum, director of research for the Texas Energy Poverty Research Institute and founder and principal investigator of the Re-HOUSED Climate Resilience Project, described as either “energy poverty” or an “energy burden.”
 
Around 30 percent of Texans are low-income, she said. High energy bills often force poor Texans –especially people of color – to choose between food or the energy bill. Black Texans, for instance, pay the highest in energy bills as a percentage of their income, with an average of around $274 per month. That’s not because of a bad A/C, but historical inequities in policymaking impacting Black Texans, including where they live, their career, and less overall generational wealth, experts agreed.
 
Ken-Opurum’s data showed nearly 30 percent buy less food so that they can afford their light bill. 26 percent of households ration their energy usage, sometimes leaving temperatures at dangerously high levels. That’s compared to the national average of 18 percent.
 
Dessler said policymakers’ inaction on climate change will only widen its disparate impact on low-income Texans.
 
“The first thing about climate change is you have to talk about it,” Dessler said. “And there’s nothing that shows the dysfunction of our government more than our elected representatives even feel unable to mention climate change. It’s like Voldemort.”
 
“They do everything they can to avoid talking about how things are changing. You see these seasonal reports from ERCOT, for example. Their predictions are terrible,” Dessler said. “They don’t account for the fact we don’t live in a stationary climate.”
 
The panel agreed that climate change should be considered in every policy conversation, not just energy.
 
Just as “we haven’t built our power system infrastructure for a changing climate, we have not modified our housing policy for a changing climate,” Silverstein said. Building codes, for instance, are not tailored to higher-efficiency appliances. Apartments and homes in coastal communities are in
danger of flooding.
 
“Most apartments and homes in Texas are not built to withstand high temperatures,” Silverstein said, adding that those in poorer neighborhoods are less likely to have been retrofitted. Those same communities also see higher morbidity rates and will only see more because of extreme temperatures.
State government needs to do more outreach to community and grassroots groups, letting them know about various assistance available, Dr. Ken-Opurum said.
 
“It’s one thing to say, ‘funding is available,” Ken-Opurum said, “but if you don’t know about it as low-income household and can’t apply then it’s not benefitting anybody.”
 

 
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