Aerial view of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Credit: Ron Reiring / Creative Commons

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a comment from We Energies.

In Milwaukee, Black and Latinx families bear a much higher energy burden than White families, exacerbating long-standing inequities in health, housing and income, a new study by the Sierra Club shows.

Energy burden is the share of household income that goes toward energy expenditures including electricity and gas bills. A burden above 6% is considered problematic, and above 10% is considered severe.

The average burden across the metropolitan Milwaukee area is 2.8%, but 85,000 people live in areas with a burden over 6%, with an extremely disproportionate share of them being Black and Latinx. Milwaukee households 1.5 times below the Federal Poverty Line spend as much as 20% of their income on energy bills, the report found. 

The analysis comes from the Alliance for Climate Education, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, North Side Rising Co-op, the Sierra Club, and Voces de la Frontera.

It found that across the Milwaukee metropolitan area, households in predominantly Latinx and Black neighborhoods have an average energy burden over 5%, while those in predominantly White neighborhoods have an average burden of only 2.1%.

And many individual families bear a much greater burden. A 2016 study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy showed that “one in four Black families in Milwaukee has an energy burden at or above 15.5 percent, while one in four Hispanic/Latinx families has an energy burden of at least 7.9 percent,” as cited in the Sierra Club report.

The Milwaukee area has often ranked among the country’s most segregated cities, and it is notorious for an eviction crisis disproportionately affecting Black residents. Sierra Club electricity sector senior analyst Brendan Pierpont explained that areas that were historically redlined — with lending discrimination that shoehorned families of color into certain neighborhoods — are areas that now see high energy burden.

The study also shows that areas with high eviction rates and high asthma rates overlap with areas of high energy burden — all disproportionately impacting families of color.

“I’ve been affected by all of those things,” said Dana Kelley, health equity organizer for the group North Side Rising, during a webinar about the report. “The scales are truly unbalanced.”

Kelley and other speakers demanded that the utility We Energies, which serves the Milwaukee area, do more to help people afford their electricity bills and avoid shut-offs. The report cites $500 to $600 “down payments” it says We Energies demanded from customers to reconnect energy or avoid shut-offs.

The report and the Beyond Coal campaign also called on We Energies to change its energy mix in order to increase affordability and mitigate the public health hazards of coal-fired power that fall disproportionately on communities of color nationwide.

“Latest reported figures show that We Energies’ fleet in Wisconsin operates on 73% dirty, harmful fossil fuels, with its largest plant burning 5.9 million tons of coal each year (nearly 60,000 railcars) just south of Milwaukee,” the report says. 

In an emailed statement to the Energy News Network, We Energies spokesperson Amy Jahns responded: “We are the largest renewable energy investor in Wisconsin.”

“Clean energy investments are an important part of our goal to reduce carbon emissions from electricity generation, 70% from 2005 levels by 2030 and to be net carbon neutral by 2050,” Jahns said. “Our plan to close older, less-efficient fossil fueled units and add new renewable energy is expected to save customers $1 billion over 20 years.”

In Milwaukee and other cities nationwide, communities of color most affected by air pollution, energy burden and other environmental justice issues were also disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The Sierra Club report features César, an undocumented resident on Milwaukee’s South Side, whose family members contracted COVID-19 and also suffered economically during the pandemic.

César’s father received a $4,100 bill from We Energies, and was repeatedly put on hold or otherwise unable to reach We Energies as he sought assistance in dealing with it. Ultimately he was told he’d have to pay $1,000 immediately and then $250 a month or have his electricity shut off, César said, which was impossible for the family. César noted that because of their immigration status, the family has been unable to access federal or other supports for utility bills, “even though my family has worked and paid taxes for more than 20 years.”

“During the past year my family has struggled to pay for our rent, utilities and food without any government assistance,” César said. “Things were so challenging we were unable to pay our We Energies bill. It was a very anxious and desperate moment. … We know our story is not a unique one in the city. Many families who are trying to survive are unable to apply for government assistance because they are undocumented.”

César asked the state’s Public Service Commission to declare a moratorium on utility shut-offs through the end of the pandemic, echoing a demand made by community organizations nationwide.

“Disconnection always has been and always will be a last resort,” Jahns said. “We have been working hard since the pandemic began to help our customers by offering enhanced payments plans and connecting them with heating assistance. Because of our efforts, less than one percent of our customers are at risk for disconnection.”

Milwaukee County board chair Marcelia Nicholson placed the energy burden situation in the larger context of “institutional and structural racism” that the city needs to address. 

“When burdens are disproportionate, we have to level the playing field,” Nicholson said, including through increased assistance for energy efficiency and housing. “It’s related to the legacy of redlining. People of color live in older housing, it’s more likely to be in disrepair, and it’s a lot harder to maintain.”

Kelley called on We Energies specifically to assist low-income people and renters in lowering their bills. She noted that the utility’s weatherization program is difficult for renters to take advantage of, since property owners may not want to participate.

The Public Service Commission recently voted to end a shut-off moratorium, effective April 15. So Kelley asked We Energies’ parent company to use some of its $1.2 billion in income last year to forgive debt and help low-income ratepayers avoid shut-offs.

North Side Rising member LaTesha Johnson said she “struggles month to month to make ends meet,” after losing her source of income.

“The options are pretty much rob Peter to pay Paul if you want to keep the lights on,” she said, calling on We Energies to help consumers like her. “They really should take into consideration what we have gone through during the past year financially. … It has been very hard on people in the community.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.