Understanding Equitable Energy Futures

Millions of US households struggled during the past year due to COVID and related factors. In many cases, high energy burdens amplified that struggle. Energy burdens (defined as income compared to energy costs) have grown over the last decade due to systemic inequities in housing stock, employment, and energy rates, in addition to dramatic energy burden increases during the COVID-19 pandemic related to economic and health displacements. I looked at these and other causes of widespread energy inequity in my recent research publication Energy Impoverishment and Energy Insecurity in the United States. In this publication, I endeavored to provide a full literature review, revealing often startling findings including, most significantly, how much more low and moderate-income households pay for energy compared to high-income households in the same geographic area. Over the course of this research, I saw the extent to which high energy burdens impact minority, rural, and low and moderate-income households, as well as, the impact of older housing stock on energy burdens. These findings made clear the degree to which intervention is needed in order to allow households to overcome economic hardship and poverty tied directly to this income to energy cost equation. 

7 Worst States for Energy Burdens

In my report, you can see that seven states stood out as the most energy impoverished states. In these states, low and moderate-income households face mean energy bills of more than 20 percent of their household income. Additionally, this research shows that rural households have higher energy burdens than urban households, and communities of color were the most heavily impacted by high energy burdens. When families have to spend such a large percentage of their income on energy, it cuts these families off from fulfilling other needs and pursuing new opportunities. These households are effectively kept in poverty by their energy bills, which is especially tragic when you stop to consider readily available solutions that could have a dramatic, lasting impact on these households and the communities where they live — both in a cultural and an economic sense. In my report, I urged leaders at all levels to expand energy efficiency programs in order to address energy impoverishment, and I reiterate that plea here as well. Energy efficiency programs have been shown to have a lasting impact on participating households. However, too often these programs are too underfunded and under-resourced to meet the needs of more than a small fraction of the families struggling under overwhelming energy burdens. Of these states, Alaska leads the list with the highest energy burdens, and Maine follows closely behind with low and moderate-income households spending 40.4 percent of their income on energy, then Vermont with 27.2 percent. However, this trend of high energy costs compared to income was not limited to exclusively cooler northern states. Mississippi placed fourth on the list at 26.7 percent, followed by Hawaii at 23.1 percent, South Carolina at 22 percent, then Alabama at 20.9 percent. Expanding existing energy efficiency programs and investing in new energy efficiency programs has the potential to make energy affordable enough for these families to live comfortably by simply addressing the common problems that many homes occupied by low and moderate-income families face — often stemming from the median age of the homes themselves.

Building a Body of Energy Equity Research

I enjoyed talking about some of the findings from this report during Groundswell’s September webinar, Energy Futures 2021: The Poor Still Pay More. The questions from webinar attendees encouraged me to delve even deeper into data that had never before been analyzed with energy burdens in mind while allowing me to speak at greater length on some solutions to long-standing problems already identified through my analysis. A recording of this webinar is now online, and I encourage you to watch it and share any questions you have. I also hope you will take a moment to check out my research paper and its summary document, which are available here. This publication provides a full literature review and serves as a source of sources, including the methodology and details of this research. I hope this can serve as a starting point for addressing energy impoverishment on a larger scale. Groundswell will continue to explore energy burden data in more detail over the coming months, including several planned research publications tied to this topic. It is my hope that these resources will make it easier for stakeholders at all levels to enact effective solutions that serve those most impacted by high energy burdens.