Low-income Oregonians struggle with energy costs

Governor’s working group recommends solutions

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One in six Oregonians — more than 637,000 — live in poverty and for many of them the cost of energy is a major burden.  For that reason, in May 2018 Governor Kate Brown convened the Low Income Utility Program Working Group, which has now released its findings and recommendations.

Beginning with an inventory of existing energy assistance and low-income weatherization programs and funding resources, the Working Group identified a $345 million affordability gap, which represents energy spending by low-income households that is over and above 6% of their incomes — the national affordability standard.  That’s about $630 annually for an average low-income household.  Moreover, the $345 million gap exists after current low-income assistance, which comes to just $61 million annually, has been accounted for.

The challenge of closing the gap for low-income households is exacerbated by shortcomings in information and reporting.  At present, the state cannot comprehensively track which households are being served by which programs, nor can it assess the extent to which the assistance provided to low-income households addresses their energy burdens.

In a search for solutions, the Working Group,whose members included NW Energy Coalition staff members Wendy Gerlitz and Oriana Magnera, reviewed other states’ strategies and tactics for dealing with low income affordability.  The measures examined included rate discounts, incentive programs for renewables and energy efficiency, and direct funding mechanisms to reduce energy costs for low-income consumers.

Observations and recommendations

The Working Group’s assessments yielded four observations that are highlighted in the report.

  • Weatherization and energy efficiency play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing energy bills, and they also support positive health outcomes for vulnerable populations.
  • No general funds dollars are currently utilized to provide low-income weatherization or energy assistance programs. Ratepayer and federal funds are the primary source of energy assistance in the state, which means the availability of funding differs according to which utility serves a given low-income customer. Only the federal funds provide a fuel-blind, all territory program response to the statewide need.
  • Every utility in the state provides some form of energy assistance to its customers. For the consumer owned utility, these programs have been designed by the individual utilities and funding varies based on the assessment and decisions of the local governing board.
  • Energy assistance and weatherization programs vary geographically and availability depends on where you live.

Based on these and other findings, the Working Group concluded the report by making four recommendations for consideration by the Oregon Carbon Policy Office, the Governor and the Legislature.

  1. Give utilities the authority to create low-income programs and require annual reporting on data and metrics.
  2. Ensure low- and moderate-income customers, especially seniors, people with disabilities, and environmental justice and rural communities, are resourced to participate in the clean energy transition, including allocating funding which may be available under a Cap and Invest program to mitigate the impacts of climate change on low-income customers.
  3. Make permanent an Energy Burden and Poverty Task Force to formalize and continue to further the development of innovative approaches to meeting the energy burden and reducing the greenhouse gas footprint of low-income Oregonians.
  4. Implement new programs, enhance existing program designs, and diversify funding sources to reach greater numbers of low and moderate income Oregonians.


The recommendationsare accompanied by suggestions for how they should be carried out.  Click here to download a PDF of the full report.