In the transition away from gas, California must not leave low-income people behind

Carmelita Miller and Matthew Tisdale, Special to CalMatters

California has passed dozens of laws designed to create a 21st Century clean energy economy, earning a reputation as a global climate leader in the process. 

But this work does not end with the governor’s stroke of a pen. In fact, implementation of our clean energy future has just begun. 

Nowhere is this challenge of policy implementation more evident than in the future of California’s gas system. This vast network of wells, storage fields and pipelines delivering gas to homes and businesses faces enormous challenges in coming decades. 

Increasing infrastructure costs paired with a decline in demand will push the ever-increasing costs of maintaining the gas delivery system onto a shrinking pool of customers, setting up urgent equity concerns. 

Our commitment to moving away from fossil fuel means that in the future, gas will play a smaller role in providing our power and heating our homes. Research shows gas demand may decline by up to 50% by 2050. 

Yet the cost of safely maintaining the aging system has risen in recent years, and will continue to increase as utilities request funds for necessary safety upgrades. 

While wealthier Californians will have the opportunity to avoid rising gas costs by switching to all-electric appliances, many other people won’t be able to make that choice easily or quickly. Poverty is a reality for many in California. 

And close to half our state’s residents, and 70% of low-income Californians, are renters who do not choose what fuel powers their appliances. These customers, with the least ability to move off of gas or pay higher bills, will be hit the hardest.  

In response to this challenge, the thinktank Gridworks convened meetings with consumer, labor, equity, utility and environmental representatives. The resulting report, California’s Gas System in Transition: Equitable, Affordable, Decarbonized and Smaller, makes one thing clear: we cannot leave a transition of this magnitude up to chance. 

California policymakers must urgently plan for a smaller, more equitable gas system or put workers, low-income communities, and the economy as a whole at risk. 

The first step to getting yourself out of a hole is to stop digging. 

New residential and commercial construction in the state needs to be all-electric, to avoid expanding the gas system. We also must research and develop a plan to prune the gas system where it can be done most affordably and quickly. 

And, importantly, we must develop a comprehensive strategy to empower low-income communities to access electrification options while supporting a just transition for workers.

We know we will need a well-trained gas workforce for decades to come, and an equitable transition depends on working in collaboration with unions to protect workers and ensure that utilities have access to the skilled labor they need to maintain a safe and reliable gas system, even as it contracts. 

Targeted policy-making will ensure protections for the environment and for residents who are living on low incomes by helping them gain access to fossil fuel-free homes. 

To help guide decision makers and advocates in this process, The Greenlining Institute and California’s Energy Efficiency for All coalition developed Equitable Building Electrification: A Framework for Powering Resilient Communities: Its important steps to community-led, people-centered policymaking include: 

  • Assess community needs.
  • Establish community-led decision-making.
  • Develop metrics and a plan for tracking.
  • Ensure funding and program leveraging, and improve outcomes. 

The California Public Utility Commission’s San Joaquin Valley Disadvantaged Communities Pilot Project is an example of how to get this right. 

The project allowed communities without access to gas infrastructure to work with an on-the-ground team to identify the solutions that would best serve their needs. At least nine communities are moving to electric appliances powered by clean energy, and are doing it in a manner that was developed by the people who live in those communities.

With such high stakes, California can’t afford to leave the future of our gas system to chance, and we don’t dare do nothing at all. With conscious, thoughtful policies, we can show the world we deserve our title as leaders in the climate fight.

___

Carmelita Miller provides legal counsel to The Greenlining Institute’s energy equity team, [email protected] Matthew Tisdale is the executive director of Gridworks, [email protected]. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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