Under contract with PG&E, the Joint Utilities of California engaged Opinion Dynamics in a data gathering project across 179 disadvantaged communities (DAC) in the San Joaquin Valley (SJV). The project is a result of California Assembly Bill 2672, which seeks to increase access to affordable energy sources, reduce reliance on alternative fuels such as propane, wood, and diesel generators, and improve health, safety, and air quality in the SJV. The baseline data will inform an economic feasibility study of various interventions intended to reduce energy costs and mitigate the use of alternative fuels. The project involves compiling data from numerous primary and secondary data sources regarding energy sources used, reasons for use of alternative fuels, energy costs, energy burden, and household conditions.

Approach

Primary data collection followed a nested sample design and included the completion of 2,660 quantitative surveys, 259 in-home audits, and 60 qualitative in-person interviews. This primary data was compiled with utility and third-party data sources including energy usage data, census data, and CalEnviroScreen data. This enabled us to construct oversamples for subsequent in-home audits and in-depth interviews, use multiple sources to verify and adjust baseline conditions that customers often have a difficult time reporting, and garner additional detail and insight into data elements such as preferences, attitudes, and barriers or perceived barriers to fuel substitution and other alternatives.

For secondary sources, Opinion Dynamics gathered utility data from the utilities’ billing systems, internal customer information systems, and customer relationship management databases; ESA enrollment; CARE program eligibility, and additional energy efficiency, customer/TOU rate, demand response program participant enrollment data. We compiled this data with other publicly available data such as CalEnviroScreen scores, census data for DACs, and previous research from the Low Income Needs Assessment and Residential Appliance Saturation Study (RASS).

Primary data collection is challenging with customers in DAC communities, who often distrust their utility and other government entities. Additional obstacles to customer participation include language and technology barriers. Opinion Dynamics worked with Self-Help Enterprises (SHE) and other community-based organizations in SJV to assist with community outreach and support.

Community outreach for this study included door-to-door canvassing, participating in community meetings or events, and providing information and fliers to schools and other community organizations. Data collection and outreach materials, informed by input from SHE, prioritized readability, relatability, and accessibility of both physical and online materials. Additionally, all data collection instruments were offered in English and Spanish, and the quantitative survey could be completed online or over the telephone.

A second challenge for this study was the necessity of pausing data collection in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We also adjusted the survey instruments and our data collection strategies. First, due to the longer term focus of the study, we modified the survey instruments to focus respondents on how they typically used energy in their homes prior to the COVID-19 and associated lockdowns that increased their time at home. We also prepared, tested, and made available virtual options for both the in-home audits and in-person interviews to ensure customers were comfortable with participating in further data collection.

Performance Goals and Results

The information gathered through this study in support of Section 783.5 of Assembly Bill 2672 sought to increase affordable access to energy in DACs in the SJV. The results from this study directly support the economic feasibility study and the next phase of the SJV DAC ruling. Upon project completion, Opinion Dynamics provided a database to support a study of the economic feasibility of extending twelve pilot programs to all disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin Valley.

Key Study Findings

  • Energy burden is a function of household income and energy costs. The average customer who lacks access to natural gas pays 38% more in annual energy costs than customers with natural gas . Customers without natural gas have proportionately higher energy burdens than customer with natural gas (5.9% vs. 4.5%). Annual household incomes do not differ by natural gas access, revealing the difference in energy burden is driven almost entirely by higher energy costs.
  • The increased burden resulting from lack of access to affordable energy is not shared equally across all customers. Lack of access to natural gas has a disproportionately greater impact on low income customers (indicated by CARE eligibility) than non-low income customers. CARE-eligible customers who lack access to natural gas and live in small communities, mobile homes, or own their homes have particularly high energy burdens (11.1%, 10.1%, and 9.4% respectively). CARE-eligible owners have higher energy burdens than renters because they are more likely to use expensive alternative fuels whereas renters are more likely to be all-electric. CARE-ineligible customers without natural gas access have only slightly higher energy burdens than those with natural gas, suggesting they have the financial resources necessary to cope with the higher fuel costs.
  • Fuel outages and attempts to manage fuel costs are more likely to result in poor health for CARE-eligible customers than non-CARE customers. CARE-eligible customers are nearly three times more likely than non-CARE customers to report health hardships due to fuel outages and attempts to manage costs, regardless of fuel type.
  • Slightly more than three-quarters of SJV households (77%) rated the safety in their home as “good” (50%) or “extremely good” (27%). Just one percent of households reported the safety of their homes as “extremely poor.” Renters and small community households were more likely to say their homes are less safe in comparison to owners and medium/large community households.
  • One-third of SJV DAC residents experienced mold, mildew, fungus, or moisture in their homes in 2019. Few experienced it “all” (1%) or “many” (4%) times with most experiencing it “sometimes” (10%) or “rarely” (18%). Mold is a more common problem for residents of small communities, renters, and those eligible for CARE.
  • Nearly three-quarters (73%) of SJV DAC residents had rodents, insects, or spiders in their homes in 2019. Relatively few had pests in their home “all” (4%) or “many” (9%) times with most having pests “sometimes” (23%) or “rarely” (37%). Households without access to natural gas were more likely to have pests in the home for reasons that are unclear. Pests are also a more common occurrence for renters and those eligible for CARE.