Environmental justice issues are a growing concern for our clients. Thankfully, Colorado has many organizations helping our low-income communities through research and education and direct action such as subsidies and assistance. We asked Andy Caler from Energy Outreach Colorado (EOC) to tell us more about EOC’s work and environmental justice in Colorado.

Nearly one in four families will have trouble paying their utility bills this winter. How are utility bills and energy costs part of environmental justice and the broader definition of sustainability?

When your income is low and the availability of well-maintained affordable housing is limited, the opportunities for energy efficiency upgrades are generally substantial. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to take advantage of these opportunities when your income must be prioritized to pay for food, medical expenses, rent and other basic necessities. When you combine a less than average housing stock with limited income, you start to see utility expenses become a much higher percentage of household income with limited abilities to reduce it.

In addition, all rate-payers, regardless of their income, pay for regulated energy efficiency programs through their monthly utility bill, but low-income energy consumers don’t necessarily have the ability to participate and benefit from these programs. EOC advocates for these consumers and works with the Public Utilities Commission and individual utilities to ensure programs are available specifically for this population. Many utilities (Xcel Energy, Black Hills Energy, Atmos Energy, Colorado Natural Gas, San Miguel Power Association and Holy Cross Energy) throughout the state are very proactive about working with EOC to create low-income specific programs to reduce the high energy burden of this population.   

Why is it important to support low-income communities even if you are not low-income?

Beyond having a human interest in helping out those in need, all community members benefit from families and seniors being able to safely stay in their homes and afford their home energy. If an individual isn’t able to pay their utility bill, the utility takes on that bad debt and passes it on to other rate-payers.  If individuals are forced from their home because of increased rents and utility costs placing them further from their job, there is a negative effect on air quality and traffic congestion because of longer commutes. Living in unsafe, unhealthy conditions increases the medical needs of individuals and places a heavier burden of the health care system.  The list goes on.

One in five Coloradans are considered low-income, how does Energy Outreach Colorado reach these communities?

We have a variety of approaches. Our non-profit was founded in 1989 on our Energy Assistance Program which helps limited-income households keep their heat on by paying a portion of their past due energy bills. Since then we’ve introduced energy efficiency programs to lower energy bills in order to help address the root cause. We currently have efficiency programs to help single-family and multifamily owners and non-profits that serve the low-income population. We also administer the Crisis Intervention Program that helps individuals repair or replace a nonworking home heating system. EOC’s Impact by Numbers in FY 2015-16:

  • 8,599 Colorado households received EOC energy bill payment assistance
  • 4,372 affordable housing apartments were weatherized by EOC to reduce energy costs and usage
  • 36 nonprofit facilities were weatherized by EOC to lower energy costs and usage and better meet the needs of low-income communities
  • 1,683 low-income homes received free furnace repair or replacement through the Crisis Prevention Program

How does EOC integrate and include low-income communities in energy policy decision making?

EOC is a recognized and credible representative of low-income energy consumers in local, state and national energy policy discussions and rate cases because of our extensive knowledge and in-depth experience. We actively collaborate with other organizations serving this population to ensure low-income consumers are considered in potential policy decisions and to monitor and assess the effects.

What feedback have you heard from people that have participated in Energy Outreach Colorado programs?

Our clients are extremely appreciative of the help and support they receive. Generally, these services come at a time of extreme need and duress and often protect them from potentially unsafe conditions. We help these families and seniors avoid having to make dangerous choices between paying for basic needs like heating their home or buying food for their next meal. When a family’s furnace goes out in the middle of January, EOC can come in and repair or replace it at no cost. When an individual has a past due balance on their home energy bill and is about to get shut off, EOC can pay their debt so they can remain warm and safe in their home. It’s a nice reminder that the work being done is really helping individuals and truly impacts people’s lives.

How can our readers find any additional information or support the work of Energy Outreach Colorado?

By visiting EOC’s website, calling us directly at 303-825-8750, and signing up for our newsletter or making a donation.