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This article is co-published by the Energy News Network and Planet Detroit with support from the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University.
It’s only been a few months since a punishing heatwave cloaked Detroit and the surrounding suburbs. Temperatures rose above 90 degrees for several consecutive days, which ignited warnings about the risks of dangerous illnesses like heatstroke and heat exhaustion.
Climate change makes severe weather events like floods and intense heat waves more likely. Researchers predict these life-threatening heat spells may become commonplace in future summers.
But as policymakers launch initiatives toward large-scale clean energy adoption, researchers and activists are concerned that the energy transition may be unjust and inequitable in low-income, predominantly Black and Brown cities like Detroit.
That’s why University of Michigan researchers recently released The Energy Equity Project, a new national framework that offers guidance on measuring energy equity. The project also includes 148 proposed energy equity measures, along with resources and guidance on implementing them. Dozens of academics, energy justice advocates, consultants, and utility experts, among others, also helped define the project’s key principles and scope.
Energy equity prioritizes the needs and perspectives of frontline communities — those who suffer the worst effects of climate change — so they may reap the benefits of ongoing climate investments, like aid for weatherization projects which help fortify homes and businesses against the pummeling of the elements, for example.
“I think people realized, ‘Okay, we’re gonna have a ton of investments pouring into the clean energy transition. And we don’t understand the equity implications of those,” said Justin Schott, the Energy Equity Project’s project manager. (Editor’s note: Schott is a Planet Detroit advisory board member).
“We don’t have a way of ensuring that those won’t continue to just enrich whiter and wealthier communities that have basically secured nearly all of the benefits so far, from energy efficiency and clean energy,” Schott added.
Such a blueprint may prove more urgent than ever as the Inflation Reduction Act, widely considered a watershed moment in climate justice legislation, includes $369 billion in investments and tax credits in clean energy and electric vehicles.
The project is based on four key guiding principles:
- Recognition — acknowledging the cumulative environmental hazards BIPOC communities faced over time while also understanding their vulnerability and needs across the energy system.
- Procedural — how community perspectives are integrated into the design, implementation and evaluation of energy programs and other decision-making processes.
- Distributional — how the energy system’s benefits and harms are distributed.
- Restorative — pathways on healing, accountability, and resilience.
According to Schott, one big takeaway is clear: A flattened, one-size-fits-all approach won’t remedy the disparities in the energy system as the climate crisis surges.
“Equity considerations need to be broad and holistic,” Schott told Planet Detroit.
As companies and lawmakers tout the electric vehicle manufacturing revolution, the primary demographic of EV buyers in 2019 was middle-aged White men who make more than $100,000 each year, hold at least a college degree, and own another vehicle, an Electric Vehicle Council’s Fuel Institute analysis found last year.
Schott points to the billions of tax credits set to go to rich households for things like solar, electric vehicles and heat pumps. And while some incentives target lower-income households, Schott is dubious that the money will reach them.
“There’s still [no] evidence at this point that they’ll really be able to take advantage of this for a variety of reasons.”
The framework asks big questions about how the energy system works and how it can be transformed: Who owns clean energy? How easy is it for low-income households and renters to enroll in energy efficiency programs, which reduce energy waste and costs? What can be done to better support people already living in chronic poverty and facing increasingly more expensive energy bills?
For many Detroiters, energy issues remain top of mind. A recent power outage saw thousands of DTE residential customers go for up to a week without electricity. Outages have quickly become recurring events, illustrating the energy grid’s lack of resilience after extreme storms. Energy justice activists are fighting another proposed rate increase this fall.
Amy Bandyk, the executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Michigan, said low-income communities and BIPOC communities deal with more frequent power outages, less investment into improving their utility service, and also pay more for utility service compared to other communities.
“To even begin to fix this situation, utilities, regulators and others need new approaches that take the potential impacts on these communities into account and can be used to evaluate every policy decision,” she said. “Measurable frameworks like the one developed by the Energy Equity Project are exactly what utility ratepayers, particularly lower-income ratepayers, need to address the poor reliability and high rates that they currently face.”
An onslaught of energy challenges hit close to home. In Detroit, residents pay some of the highest electricity rates in the country. And across the metro area, families with low-income backgrounds use about 10% of their monthly earnings toward energy bills, one analysis found. Anything above 6% is considered a substantial financial burden. Such bills remain unaffordable for a large swath of Black and Latinx families living in the area.
But zeroing in on a single measure like energy affordability, Schott said, isn’t the answer.
“I think we’ve seen a lot of individual utilities and states that are saying, ‘Okay, what’s the one metric we should adopt for energy equity? Is that energy burden, the percentage of income that people are spending on energy? Do we just need to make it affordable?’ And our response to that is no — equity is multi-dimensional.”
The project also includes an interactive mapping feature, which is among a number of state and federal mapping efforts attempting to visualize environmental justice issues. The mapping tool is expected to be released later this year.
Using a mix of data, including census estimates, this tool allows users to better understand the magnitude and geography of energy inequities occurring across the United States. For example, a user will be able to figure out which BIPOC communities may also face hurricane risk or if they have a high energy burden.
But Schott acknowledges the project does have some limitations.
“So originally, we envisioned having a single equity score, and you could just click on any census tract and get a percentile from it,” Schott said. “We weren’t able to do that because there’s not enough data to really represent all of the equity dimensions. So the first limitation is, we’re really short on data.”
“For instance, we might want to look at demographic representation of [public utility] commissioners by race or by gender. And that doesn’t exist now,” he added. “So a lot of this is kind of opening up research questions to help fill these data gaps that we have.”
For now, the framework’s 200-plus pages may be dense and overly complicated reading for someone who doesn’t have subject matter expertise.
“Given the complexity of the tool, we’re not expecting people to just pick up the framework and be able to use it independently,” Schott said.
Schott said the Energy Equity Project is offering training over the next year to help people navigate the project and develop clean energy goals for their communities.
The project is essentially an accountability tool, Schott said, aiming to equip frontline communities in their ongoing fight for energy justice.
“They’ll be able to use this, I think, really to validate what they’ve known for a long time, which is that they have faced these disparities, disproportionate share of burdens and receive very few of the benefits of energy,” Schott said.