Equity and Energy

By Maya Black, Sales Development Representative

What does equity look like?

For people like me who are just starting their careers, this is an important question to ask, but is one that has not been asked enough by those who we work for.

Efficiency and conservation programs are an important strategy to help utilities in reaching their carbon reduction and climate goals. But are they equitable? The answer is no.

Before I go on, I need to acknowledge the privilege I have that comes with writing about energy equity and energy burden without having experienced it myself. This privilege looks like efficiency and conservation programs being designed with people with backgrounds like mine in mind. It looks like having easy access to stores to purchase energy efficiency measures and to not have to decide between paying my energy bill or getting a prescription medication for the month. It looks like being able to afford equipment updates in the first place, where a rebate payout is a nice added incentive to commit to the upgrade.

Efficiency and conservation programs leave out a large portion of the community because the question of what equity looks like is not being asked. Programs are excluding the people who are the most impacted by energy burden and would benefit the most from efficiency savings.

In the beginning of February, I attended the Midwest Energy Solutions Conference hosted by MEEA. I went to a session focused on the challenges and strategies for achieving energy affordability, and therefore energy equity, in the Midwest. The panelists: Briana DuBose from EcoWorks, Mari Ojeda from Fresh Energy, Andrenika Whisenton from CLEAResult, and moderator Katie Frye from Minnesota Power, gave an overview of what energy burden looks like and what can be done to reach energy affordability.

Energy burden is defined as the portion of a family’s income that is spent on energy bills, which is further impacted by home ownership status, race, and ethnicity. Although white households use more energy overall, African American and Latinx families often live in less efficient homes and therefore consume more energy per square foot. Energy burden has a significant impact on a family’s health and well-being due to the choices that come between paying the energy bill or getting other necessities. It also disproportionately impacts renters, who have interest in implementing more energy efficient measures, but are not able to because landlords don’t invest in making their buildings more efficient.

Quinn Parker, CEO & Founder, Encolor

Following the Midwest Energy Solutions Conference, I spoke with Quinn Parker, Founder and CEO of Encolor, to learn more about her perspective of how energy equity can be achieved in the utility industry.

Encolor is a strategic consulting firm that serves as a partner to utilities to help design and develop strategies for programs that make equity at the forefront.

So, this brings me back to the question of what does equity look like?

When I asked Quinn what strategy should be more widely utilized to achieve energy equity, she said “I don’t know if there’s one key strategy to deploy, but we need to ask what equity looks like and use that definition as a framework to assess programs through an equity lens.” She emphasized the importance of asking this question to not only evaluate equity in existing programs, but also from the very beginning of the program design stage to ensure equity is present throughout the entire process. She works with utilities to complete equity assessments so there is a clearer vision of where change can be made to guarantee efficiency programs are there to support and benefit everyone.

One of the biggest challenges Quinn sees with addressing energy equity is that the question of what equity looks like is not asked due to the fear of knowing inequity exists.

This is a barrier that is essential to look past, because if inequity is not acknowledged, change will not follow. Another challenge she sees is with the general framework of how DSM programs are designed. “Programs are designed to achieve the most savings in the most cost-effective way. As a result, they often target more affluent communities who have the means to implement efficiency measures.” Were programs designed to be equitable in the first place if they only target a portion of a community’s population?

The approach for addressing energy affordability needs to be different depending on the community that’s being targeted. Quinn believes it’s important to talk about the rural vs. metro divide because “there could be philosophical difference in how urban and rural communities address energy efficiency.” Despite different program approaches and offerings, community building is an essential aspect to addressing energy equity no matter what the location is. In rural settings, it’s important to have someone in the community who understands the challenges of living a rural lifestyle to help influence the community in their efficiency efforts. It’s also necessary to build a workforce of local contractors because they know the community best and can be trusted.

Now, how can we measure progress and success when working to achieve energy equity? Quinn says the answer is data. We are a #datadriven industry, so it only makes sense that we need to get comfortable with collecting more qualitative data around energy equity. Conversations need to be had with the people who are the most impacted with energy burden and are in the most need of savings that come with program participation.

Quinn also discussed how the conversation needs to be reframed to use words that are meaningful to low-income communities. She explained, “words like decarbonization, sustainability, and efficiency often don’t mean much when a family is struggling to pay their energy bills in the first place.” The conversation should focus on how these families can save money instead of how they can help climate change.

Quinn highlighted the importance of focusing on how programs can be designed to meet people where they are currently at. “We need to understand a community’s most pressing energy usage needs and design programs they want to implement to solve these problems. We need to look at how to best incorporate those who are the least engaged.”

We need to change a programs approach for homeowner’s vs renters and metro vs rural areas. But no matter where you are, involving the community is a necessary first step to implementing more equitable programs for everyone.