Insulation Install

A worker installs insulation at a low-income home in Sunnyslope, Wash., in 2018.

Chelan County PUD is fine-tuning a plan to stamp out "heat or eat" situations, in which a customer may face a choice between paying a power bill and buying groceries or other necessities.

The utility's proposed plan emphasizes spending on energy efficiency measures to deliver long-term cuts in energy costs for low-income residential customers.

The staff estimates 2,100 households in Chelan County have a high energy burden, meaning they spend more than 6 percent of income to pay the power bill, according to a presentation at the Nov. 16 PUD commission meeting.

The 6 percent threshold comes from Washington's Clean Energy Transformation Act, which requires utilities to direct energy assistance money to low-income households, reaching 60 percent of eligible ratepayers by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050.

Chelan PUD staff further estimates that about two-thirds of these high-energy-burden customers—nearly 1,400—live in homes with significant energy savings potential.

While the first CETA target is 10 years away, the utility's proposed 2021 budget includes low-income efficiency spending.

Prioritizing the program now "is really about values, more than compliance," Chelan PUD General Manager Steve Wright told commissioners.

CETA gave the utility a framework to build a program proposal, he added.

The proposed plan would start in January with an 18-month phase to collect data and target low-hanging efficiency upgrades such as installing LED lights.

"To effectively reach this group, we need a highly specific understanding of the household and neighborhood needs," Andrew Grassell, Chelan PUD's energy development and conservation manager, told commissioners. "And we need to build relationships and gain the trust of a customer that we have not spent a lot of time getting to know and understand up to this point."

Starting in mid-2022, the second phase would offer more extensive improvements, such as weatherization or installing efficient appliances. Exact offerings will be shaped partly by information collected during the initial stage.

Data alone, however, is not enough to make sure the PUD provides the help needed for struggling customers. Working with community groups is critical to the program's success, Grassell said. "They know where and who can benefit from these programs."

Multiple factors contribute to a household having a high energy burden, but physical inefficiencies appear to be a major driver, according to a September report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

"High-income households use large amounts of energy to power larger homes—as well as more electronics and devices that use large amounts of energy—while low-income households tend to use fewer, less-efficient devices that require relatively large amounts of energy due to the inefficiency of the dwelling or the appliance itself," the ACEEE report states. "Therefore, household inefficiencies rather than inefficient behaviors tend to lead to higher energy use and expenditures for low-income households."

In Chelan County, PUD staff estimate that about two-thirds of customers struggling to pay their power bills are renters. Half of rental units are thought to be appraised for under $100,000.

"Hopefully, we will reduce the number of situations where customers weigh paying their power bill with other family needs," Grassell said.

Contributing Editor

Dan has covered stories from Seattle to Tbilisi; spent time with the AP, Everett Daily Herald and Christian Science Monitor; and was twice a member of a team nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He and his wife have three young children and live in Seattle.