Community Approaches to Energy Justice
When we think about racial justice, we might think of needed reforms to policing or eliminating voter suppression. But we should also be thinking about energy.
One-third of American households struggle to pay for their basic energy needs and end up unable to heat, cool, or power their homes. And disproportionally these are Black and Brown families.
Earlier this month, the Kleinman Center hosted an important event that explored the topic of energy justice. Tony Reames, assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Environment and Sustainability, spoke to a virtual audience about racial disparities in energy efficiency and rooftop solar adoption and illustrated the value of community-based solutions. Reames is a 2021 Kleinman Center visiting scholar.
Reames advocates for energy justice, a concept with the objective of ensuring universal access to safe, affordable, and sustainable energy for everyone. As Reames put it in his presentation, “the goal is to get to an energy system that fairly disseminates both the benefits and costs of energy services.”
In the United States, 1 in 3 households face energy insecurity and 1 in 5 households have had to forgo basic necessities to pay an energy bill. Research shows that minority households experience higher energy burdens than non-Hispanic white households. The median energy burden is 43% higher in Black households, 20% higher in Hispanic households, and 45% higher in Native households when compared to white households.
In addition to unfair energy burdens, minority communities also do not have the same access to renewable energy programs. Although costs of solar continue to decline, adoption by low- to moderate-income (LMI) households and households of color are growing at a much slower rate than their white counterparts.
How can we bridge these gaps in both energy burdens and access to renewable energy or energy efficiency measures? Reames says we can make progress with community-based approaches. This includes fostering social connectedness to transform the way people consume energy—relying on group interaction, peer support, and communal resolve to impact behavior.
“The energy system routinely sacrifices Brown, Black and Indigenous bodies to keep the lights on for the majority.”
In one example Reames showed, the Kansas City Green Impact Zone had a goal of weatherizing 659 homes to improve their energy efficiency. They ultimately missed their goal, largely because of barriers such as lack of information, split incentives, social-cultural barriers, and public distrust.
He argued that the program could have made more progress with more community involvement. The program was not trusted by the individuals who lived in the neighborhoods they were trying to serve. With better messengers and more outreach, they may have been able to get more people on board.
Systemic racism touches all aspects of our society, and energy is no exception. By approaching these issues with a community mindset, we can decrease energy burdens and improve access to energy efficiency and renewable energy programs for all people.
Learn more from Tony Reames in this podcast episode: