To borrow an old joke, my hometown of Spokane, Washington experiences all 4 seasons: Almost Winter, Winter, Still Winter, and Construction, and it seems “Almost Winter” has already begun. With daily temperatures in the 40’s and low 50’s now, the highest burdens on the electric grid and the electricity consumers is about to begin. For my colleagues in Texas, the hardest times are in the Summer when temperatures are consistently in the triple digits and folks need AC to survive, but in northern states it is the opposite. As it gets colder everyone needs to turn on the heat. Families need to be kept warm,  businesses need to create respites from the biting cold, and most homeowners would rather their plumbing not explode. Because we are farther from the equator, our shortened Winter days can get as extreme as a 4pm sunset necessitating longer hours of lights being on for basic home functions and studying. Compounding all of this, the roads can become dangerous and the wind can become bitter and piercing leading many to stay home on weekends with their heat and lights on.

This is why our utility, Avista, partnered with the Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners, an advocacy group for the most vulnerable citizens, to put on Energy Assistance Day where people could come sign up for grants and assistance in a convention building at the fairgrounds behind the minor league baseball stadium bearing Avista’s name. It’s important to note that whether your heating is gas or electric, it still comes from Avista, so this was the place to be yesterday for folks with heating concerns for the sudden onset of cold weather. They also had several booths with utility employees explaining how to help lower utility bills, stay abreast of air quality issues for people with respiratory concerns, and find ways to be more energy efficient, plus free coffee and an omelet bar to help ward off the outside cold.

I’ll admit, when I received an email from Avista explaining that they had an energy fair that focused on assistance and energy programs for people to come ask questions, I thought it would be a little more insider baseball about programs, especially the new smart meters that have the town abuzz, but I was pleasantly surprised that it was a venue for doing good by our community. Dozens of SNAP volunteers were helping people through paperwork, discussing bills with them, and providing immediate assistance to extreme cases, ensuring as few people go heatless and powerless this Winter as possible. The various booths around the small convention hall were also letting people know how they can reduce water consumption, conserve energy/heat, and learn about what benefits they might be eligible for from various nonprofits around town.

This event was about taking steps towards energy equity. One Avista rep was happy to answer my DER and EV questions but I quickly realized what SNAP was doing was fighting to reduce energy burden, not for the grid, but for the most vulnerable in our city. While there is something to be said about the highest profile equity event being about cash injections and teaching people to do more with less rather than addressing systemic issues that keep these people vulnerable and their energy burden high, I’m still very happy that SNAP and the other nonprofits were given a venue to help people address basic quality of life and financial needs. Before I left, Avista gave me a tote bag as an “energy efficiency starter kit” which contained a lot of weather stripping, energy efficient lightbulbs and nightlights, as well as efficiency brochures and a blanket. It’s a small gesture but an important one because it shows a commitment to immediate solutions in a geographic area of fickle weather conditions facing a new national era of rising energy costs and greater income inequality. If Winter is here to stay, focusing on assistance and education now may save a few lives.