Los Angeles said on Thursday that it would build electric vehicle chargers and offer bigger rebates for the purchase of battery-powered cars in response to a new report that concluded that low-income people were being left behind in the transition to clean energy.
City officials said they would offer qualified residents up to $4,000 to buy used electric vehicles, up from $2,500, and build a network of fast chargers in underserved neighborhoods where few private companies have built such stations.
Los Angeles’s effort comes as government officials are struggling to make electric vehicles and clean energy more affordable. Sales of new battery-powered cars have slowed in recent months partly because many of the models are too expensive for most car buyers.
Some of these challenges were highlighted in the report, released on Thursday by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, a city-owned utility; the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; and the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Working families in our city need to be assured that our city’s clean energy future won’t leave them trapped in the past,” Mayor Karen Bass said. “Many working families — some working two to three jobs to make ends meet — won’t buy or lease E.V.s if they don’t have access to convenient, timesaving, cost-saving places to charge them.”
The city’s power provider — the largest municipal utility in the country — has been studying how Los Angeles can reach 100 percent clean energy for several years and estimates that doing so will cost as much as $87 billion. Thursday’s report is the second comprehensive review by the city and the federal laboratory, this time with a focus on those who can least afford to participate in the energy transition.
President Biden has made it a major goal to move away from fossil fuels, the leading source of the emissions dangerously warming the planet. His administration wants to hasten the move to battery-powered vehicles, electric heating and cooling systems, and emissions-free electricity sources like wind and solar energy.
But making the transition to cleaner forms of energy is proving difficult, especially for lower-income people who cannot afford the large upfront costs of buying new cars, solar panels, heat pumps and other green devices.
At the same time, low-wealth communities are also more likely to be exposed to the harms of fossil fuel use because they are more likely to be near power plants or busy roads than wealthier neighborhoods.
California leads the United States in the shift to clean energy — it has more rooftop solar panel systems and electric school buses than any other state — and Los Angeles is a leader within the state.
But the study showed that wealthier residents in the city received most of the incentives for clean energy programs, like electric vehicle rebates and compensation for energy sent from rooftop solar to the electric grid. Of the $5.4 million the city spent on electric vehicle rebates from 2013 to 2021, just 23 percent went to underserved communities, the report found.
“In order to reach a 100 percent clean energy transition you really need to bring everyone along,” said Kate Anderson, a strategy lead at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the agency’s principal investigator for the study. “The transition is not going to just depend on the utility or the city making changes. It’s going to depend on everyone making changes in their households. The affordability piece is a huge challenge.”
Los Angeles County has the biggest concentration of low-income residents of any county in California. Many of the more densely populated areas are within the city and include places overdue for upgrades to the electric grid and other equipment.
Those who receive their electricity from the city utility also lack the kinds of bill assistance given to their neighbors who receive their electricity from the state’s investor-owned utilities, like Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and Pacific Gas & Electric.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power offered a discount of about $8 a month as of 2019 to disadvantaged customers. The state’s investor-owned utilities offer discounts of as much as 35 percent off the total bill.
“That is a pretty significant gap and disparity, without question,” said Cynthia McClain-Hill, president of the city board that oversees the utility. “Without a local referendum allowing us to establish and increase our low-income programs, we are unable to do that.”
In the long term, the transition away from fossil fuels should reduce energy costs, many analysts say. But in the coming years, individuals, businesses and governments will have to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on buying new equipment and upgrading old gear.
“This transition is obviously going to be expensive,” said Stephanie Pincetl, a professor at the U.C.L.A. Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and founding director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities. “Somebody is going to have to pay for all of this.”