New bill increases funding for low-income communities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Oakland resident Ted Tesfazghi intalls solar panels on his own roof. Photo courtesy of Grid Alternatives.

Oakland resident Ted Tesfazghi intalls solar panels on his own roof. Photo courtesy of Grid Alternatives.

California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill in early September that could bring more clean energy projects—and jobs—to low-income communities like ones in Oakland that are struggling to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

In August, the state legislature had passed a slew of bills designed to combat climate change, including an ambitious commitment to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. One of these latest bills, Assembly Bill 1550, increases funding for low-income communities to make the necessary home and transportation upgrades, so the state can reach that goal.

Oakland stands to be a prime beneficiary because it has fallen behind the state in its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to the city’s latest Greenhouse Gas Emissions Report, emissions from buildings and energy actually rose by 4 percent from 2005 to 2013.

Steve Lautze, the city’s green development advisor, said that nearly 20 percent of residents are considered to be disadvantaged, meaning that they earn less than 80 percent of the average income in California.

Existing policies already set aside funds for those communities, but environmentalist groups charge that they have been inadequate. The projects and jobs the monies funded would sometimes be based outside of the communities, and there was not enough effort toward education and training of local technicians.

“I think Oakland has a great opportunity … to increase efforts to reduce its carbon footprint, to expand its clean energy resources, and all that while we’re promoting local jobs,” said Sachu Constantine, policy director for the environmental nonprofit group the Center for Sustainable Energy.

Pollution from gasoline and coal is a pressing issue for cities across the country because they trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere, causing global temperatures and sea levels to rise. Clean energy, like that from solar panels and wind turbines, can cut these emissions down because they rely on wind and sunrays to generate power, as opposed to dirtier fossil fuels.

While affluent neighborhoods can afford to invest in clean energy projects, lower income communities can’t, even though they are disproportionately at risk from the effects of the Earth’s changing climate.

Oakland has already begun to experience some of these effects, such as an increase in respiratory diseases linked to dirty air. According to the Oakland Berkeley Asthma Coalition, West Oakland residents are five times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than the average California resident.

During a hearing last April, California Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles), who authored the bill, said new clean tech projects could help lift more Californians out of poverty. Constantine pointed out that an increase in clean energy projects located within the city could lead to more jobs.

Oakland’s burgeoning clean tech hub has already begun reaching out to community members through training programs that introduce residents to the clean energy industry. Non-profit group Grid Alternative, for example, uses state funds to train Oakland locals and install solar panels on roofs.

“It’s been a really powerful relationship for us,” said Grid Alternatives manager Mara Ervin, adding that she has been able to witness her clients improve their lives by saving money while cutting emissions. She said the solar installations will save Oakland families almost $7 million in energy cost savings and kill 13,600 tons of greenhouse gas emissions over 25 years.

Constantine believes the bill is just the first step. He said the only way for California to hit the government’s climate target will be to engage with low income communities on every level, from educating community members about the importance of sustainable energy to training residents on how the technology works.

“It’s not a handout that’s going to make the difference here, and I don’t think that’s what communities want,” said Constantine. “They want to be empowered to make good choices, and if this legislation helps, then it’s going to be a good thing.”

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