A truly energy efficient economy must be founded on the principles of environmental justice. If we do not recognize the realities of disproportionate energy burdens, energy efficiency outreach cannot create an equitable or sustainable future.
We face a major energy crisis here in North Carolina. The total energy load during On-Peak Hours – the time when energy use is at its highest – is steadily growing in Western North Carolina, and Duke Energy plans to build a power facility that addresses only on-peak energy use. Considering the environmental and social impacts already seen with pre-existing Duke Energy programs, it is important that we band together to prevent more Duke Energy plants from being constructed. One of the easiest ways to do this is to focus on small-scale reductions in on-peak and total energy use in the households that weigh heaviest upon the grid, and multiple studies have found that investment in energy efficiency for low-income households has the highest return-on-investment and makes the biggest dent in our total energy use. More importantly, energy efficiency services provided to low-income households and households-of-color have a ripple effect that improves quality of life, safety, and security, and these investments can help break the cycle of poverty.
While white and black households pay similar utility bills, households headed by African-Americans face a 64% greater energy burden than white households, and Latinx households face an energy burden that is 24% greater than white households.
On the surface, it may seem that a large, single-family McMansion with multiple high-tech gadgets and lots of square footage would pull more energy from the grid, but a recent study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) illuminated a different reality. To be factual, trends show that low-income, households-of-color, multifamily, and renting households all spend a much larger percentage of their respective incomes on energy bills when compared to the average American family. The ACEEE reviewed 48 major metropolitan areas in the United States and found that the energy burden on low-income households is more than two times higher than median-income households and three times higher than high-income households. The data were further broken down into the context of building ownership as well as racial composition, and the disparities broadened. While white and black households pay similar utility bills, households headed by African-Americans face a 64% greater energy burden than white households, and Latinx households face an energy burden that is 24% greater than white households. Considering these numbers, it becomes clear that there exists a major disparate impact of energy burden along both racial and economic lines. There are, however, many potential policies and programs that can address disproportionate energy burdens.
Bill Assistance programs are frequently offered as the be-all, end-all for alleviating the energy burden on low-income families. In fact, 81% of all low-income support programs for energy use come in the form of bill assistance at both the federal and state levels. The largest federal program, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), provides funding to states to address low-income energy needs; the vast majority of LIHEAP funding is utilized as bill assistance. Additional bill assistance funding comes from ratepayer-funded programs. In North Carolina, Duke Energy customers can pay into the “Share the Warmth” program which provides bill assistance during the winter for qualifying households. While noble, bill assistance programs do nothing to actually relieve households of the source of their energy burden. Moreover, bill assistance has been shown to have a much lower return-on-investment compared to Weatherization Assistance.
The U.S. Department of Energy Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) has provided services for about 7 million households throughout the country. Despite this, WAP estimates that 38 million more households qualify for WAP funding and an additional 15 million could dramatically benefit from cost-effective weatherization services. Furthermore, the Department of Energy determined in 2015 that the average value of efficiency upgrades is 2.2 times greater than the cost of performing the upgrades. This value improvement goes beyond the energy bill savings alone to also include the social benefits of improved health, safety, and security in homes that are properly weatherized. Various programs across the country have shown that, when accounting for the non-energy benefits of energy efficiency alongside energy savings, the benefit-cost jumps to 3.5 times initial investment in multifamily households. Whole-home energy efficiency and weatherization programs are the most effective solutions to improving energy affordability in both the short and long term.
In order to address our energy use, we must view this problem through the lens of environmental justice. Addressing the disparate impacts of the energy burden on low-income households and households-of-color is key to eliminating the need for on-peak energy facilities. This work goes beyond simply lowering our total energy use; it is an effective solution to the cycle of poverty that grips too many households in Western North Carolina. Weatherization programs alone will not solve poverty or climate change, but investment in energy efficiency and weatherization services for marginalized communities is a tremendous step toward equitable sustainability. It is a way to help the climate by helping people.