Reducing high energy costs that rob the poor

"The worst country to be poor in America," historian arnold Toynbee once observed. That goes double today. skyrocketing energy prices are robbing the poor, the elderly, and those on fixed incomes of somewhere between $8 billion and $10 billion in purchasing power, according to the latest federal estimates.

In fact, getting enough heat has become the No. 1 concern of the nation's low-income consumers, a recent survey of 133 community action agencies found.

Warning signs regarding this problem have been plentiful since the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo. But the generally hidden nature of poverty in the United States has kept it from public view. That is, until the latest round of oil-price increases last year put the poor in such dire straits that they could no longer be ignored.

An advisory report to the US Department of Energy (DOE) last summer painted a distressing, if statistical, portrait of the current plight of low-income consumers. It estimated that there are 16.2 million households with incomes less than 125 percent of the poverty level that spend more than $: $S percent of their disposable income for home heating. THis winter, expeditures for energy are expected to average 25 percent of income. And, in certain areas, like New England, the average is much higher -- about 50 percent.

These high costs are despite the fact that the poor are using far less energy than middle-or upper-income groups.

"Evidence is ample that the poor generally are already conserving as much as they are able -- more, in fact, than could be regarded as healthy. The large cash outlays needed for weatherization would be available only by foregoing expenditureds of such pressing necessities as food or clothing," the advisory committee reports state.

This committee advised of an "immediate and urgentm " need for a $3.2 billion direct assistance program. This is twice the amount passed by Congress late last year. Congress has since decided to devote $54 billion of windfall oil profits to direct assistance to the poor over the next 10 years. Also, an extremely mild winter in much of the country has given the nation a much-needed reprieve. And there are indications that US policymakers are giving this matter a higher priority.

"Six months ago, we were fighting to get people to recognize and the improtance of this problem. Fortunately, that is no longer the case," observed Tina Hobson, head of the Consumer affairs Office of DOE.

Now, out of several years of fits and starts, small-scale mistakes and successes, unconventional wisdom concerning the scope and direction of the efforts required to aid the poor appears to be emerging. Most of its elements are contained in bits and pieces in energy legislation already proposed.

Such a program includes direct assistance to meet the immediate needs of the poor combined with a significantly more aggressive national weatherization program, and, where feasible, augmented by low-cost solar and altenative energy technologies.

When conducted at a community level and combined with training programs, this approach holds the promise of not just holding down the energy costs to the poor but also creating jobs for the unemployed as well as self-reliance and civic pride in depressed areas.

Its proponents point out some collateral benefits as well. According to Norman Stein of the New England Energy Congress, a $1 billion-a-year national weatherization program -- five times the size of current federal efforts -- would pay for itself in 10 to 15 years simply by reducing the amount of direct assistance required to keep people from freezing.

Such a "payback" can be reduced substantially by including the indirect economic savings realized from decreasing oil imports. The Energy Project at the Harvard University Business School estimates that each additional barrel of oil the US imports costs the nation somewhere between $35 to $85 over and above the market price, due to its effect of increasing world oil prices and worsening US balance of trade. The New England Energy Congress calculates a major weatherization program could be saving 24 million barrels of oil a year by 1990. Using the Harvard estimates, then, such a program could save the nation anywhere from $830 million to $2 billion a year.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) recently proposed a more inclusive "poor people's energy program." Besides weatherization, this includes solarization, energy-efficient public housing, giving gas guzzling autos fuel-efficiency "retrofits," alcohol fuel production, and solar greenhouses with food cooperatives. They estimate conservatively that this could result in 1.7 million barrels of oil equivalent per day saved and produced. NCAT calculates the cost of such an effort as $10 billion a day, less administrative overhead: comparable to the massive synthetic fuels plan proposed by President Carter and designed to produce 2.5 million barrels of fuel a year beginning in 1990.

There are two pilot programs, one urban (in Washington, D.C.) and the other in rural Colorado, which illustrate such an approach and argue for its feasibility.

Anacostia is one district in the District of Columbia. Most of its 180,000 people are black and of the lower working class. Last year, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) began an energy project that has proved so successful that the DC government is proposing its expansion throughout the area.

According to David Morris of ILSR, the Anacostia Energy Alliance consists of two basic programs: energy audits and hands-on solar and conservation workshops.

A dozen unemployed Anacostia residents, ranging from young adults to senior citizens, were trained to do energy audits. To date, going door to door, they have talked with 1,000 residents, and have audited 300 homes.

"We have had a 50 percent response rate, as compared to the 3 to 7 percent reported by utility programs," Mr. Morris reports. the degree of community support is further illustrated by the fact that local merchants are offering special discounts on conservation materials to those holding audit cards.

In addition, the alliance has held a series of workshops. In these, they choose a house -- typically that of a welfare mother -- and, by weatherizing and solarizing it, teach the participants the techniques involved.

In the near future, they plan to set up neighborhood competitions and give awards for those who conserve the most energy. "And I have in mind putting up two big thermometers, like the United Way uses, for fund-raising," Mr. Morris adds. "One would record the amount of energy the community is conserving and the other would indicate the amount of energy being produced."

"Conservation," Mr. Morris says, "is the most important from an economic point of view, but solar is even more important for psychological reasons. It allows people to change themselves from consumers to producers of energy."

It is hard to imagine two areas as different as Washington and the San Luis Valley in Colorado. San Luis, 2,000 miles west of and 8,000 feet higher in altitude than the nation's capital, is the largest alpine valley in the world and one of the most economically depressed areas in the U.S. But it is drenched with 360 days of sunlight a year.

Starting five years ago with the efforts of one couple, the Dunsmores, the San Luis Valley now boasts 500 solar installations, with more going up every week. The majority of these are self-built and low-cost -- about $300 apiece -- says Bob Dunsmore, director of the San Luis Valley Energy Center. The solar units can provide 50 percent or more of the home heating required during the valley's severe winters. In addition, there are 70 solar greenhouses that can provide up to 80 percent of the heating requirements of houses there and enable people to grow food year-round.

"It really blows people away to walk into a neighbor's warm home and find him lying in a hammock, munching on a fresh tomato," Mr. Dunsmore explains.

As a result of this peer influence and the simple nature of the technology involved, about 50 percent of the installations now are the result of neighbor copying neighbor, Mr. Dunsmore estimates.

Energy experts have consistently argued that solar heatters do not make any sense for homes that have not been thoroughly insulated and weatherized. But the San Luis experience calls the basic assumption into question. Here, many people who have installed solar collectors have insulated, caulked, and conserved afterwards.

"With solar collectors, people have personally invested in their energy future, so they are determined to make it work," Mr. Dunsmore explains.

At least some poverty workers agree that the psychological dynamics of low-cost solar technology could prove to be a major weapon in the battle against poverty.

"It is one of the most exciting things to happen in this field for some time, " says Miriam Charnow of the federal Community Services Administration.

Such an approach cannot be used everywhere. In areas like Hartford, Conn., where most of the low-income people are renters, for instance, alternative approaches are necessary.Still, as Norman Stein points out, "conservation and solar energy are the only alternatives to direct assistance, at least for the immediate future."

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