Affordability, access, safety, resilience, quality and reliability are social equity issues, whether applied to food, water, housing or even energy. When all the factors are not all considered and balanced, bad things happen. Flint, Michigan, is one example. Neither affordability nor access was the issue in the horrendous water contamination case that recently resulted in a $600 million settlement. The utter disregard for safety and quality, however, made this an environmental justice nightmare for those affected.

Inequity can be found in energy bills as well. This past September, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) started collecting data for the 2020 Residential Energy Consumption Survey. The last survey was completed in 2015 and among the findings then, was this: “Of the 25 million households that reported forgoing food and medicine to pay energy bills, 7 million faced that decision nearly every month.”

In general, Americans spend 3% to 4% of their income on energy bills, but those with less who have to make the heat-or-eat choice on a regular basis, pay a disproportionate burden. A few points illuminate what is often invisible:

  • Nationally, 67% (25.8 million) of low-income households (≤ 200% of the federal poverty level) face a high energy burden and 60% (15.4 million) of low-income households with a high energy burden face a severe energy burden.
  • From an Energy Efficiency for All report: “The median urban household pays an estimated $1,812 – about $151 a month – or 3.1% of an annual income of $57,800 on energy bills. The median rural household, comparatively, has an income of $43,000 but spends $1,905 – $159 a month – on energy, or 4.4%. And while the rural poor pay less – $1,580, or $132 a month – energy bills make up nearly 9% of their median annual income of $17,952.”
  • Utility programs that promote rooftop solar power, electric vehicles, and home energy storage are largely inaccessible to low-income households.

It’s expensive to be poor, and last year, a group of social scientists writing about the complexity of energy inequity, said this:

“Energy transitions from fossil fuels to renewables such as wind and solar may also contribute to a growing gap because white-collar businesses and wealthier households are able to control and obtain financing for renewable energy, whereas poorer, minority populations are unable to grow their use of renewable energy technology because the cost is prohibitive and access is difficult given the cost, lack of social capital, and lack of education around renewables.”

Energy Equity in a Low Carbon Era

Policy is invisible to the eyes, but it makes a huge difference in our lives. Think, for example, about education policy. The idea that every citizen has access to low-cost education through 12th grade is a massive social equity commitment. Medicaid is a social equity policy for health care, and of course, Social Security was originally designed to provide economic security for the elderly. What about an energy equity for the low carbon era?

Latino activist Robert Apodaca, executive director of United Latinos Vote, believes it is a real issue. California’s climate change regulations and the massive investment in renewables are coming, he says, “at the expense of poor people…” making it “more difficult to…not be driven into poverty because of a higher cost of living and energy.”

If you believe energy equity is a basic right, then you can agree that policy imbalance almost always leads to bad things. This means ideas like “all-electrification” are bound to create negative consequences that affect those least able to absorb the impact. Instead, achieving energy equity requires a balanced approach guided by ideas like these:

  • A smooth transition to a low-carbon future is a good thing, shocking change is not. The cost of shifting the U.S. power grid to 100% renewable energy over the next 10 years, however, is an estimated $4.5 trillion. The sheer magnitude of that number is a jolt. Actually spending that amount would roil the economy and further burden those with the least amount of individual resilience;
  • A smooth transition to a low-carbon future means multiple paths are best. Increasing electricity costs show the electrification of everything is not equitable. Here’s what the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information says on the subject: “Large emissions reductions are achievable through a broad range of opportunities, including…substitution of traditional fossil-fuel-based industrial feedstocks with low- or zero-carbon alternatives”;
  • Matching the best energy from abundant, affordable and low carbon sources to everything from agricultural uses to transportation is absolutely achievable, and new technologies along with leading edge science are showing we are already making a big difference. In 2019, the U.S. had the most significant CO2 reduction in the world on a country-by-country basis.

Dozens of other opportunities exist for us to improve energy equity. Microgrids, for example, hold great promise because they help with security, reliability and sustainability. Clean fuels like propane, renewable propane, hydrogen, syngas from biomass, and ammonia for industrial uses, as well as bioethanol as a replacement for jet fuel and dimethyl ether blended with propane as a clean energy replacement for diesel are being deployed in a wide variety of applications today. We can draw solutions to help us achieve a low-carbon future and energy equity from a variety of sources. The challenge is simply to stay balanced on the journey to a low carbon future.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tucker Perkins, President and CEO

Tucker is an engineer, entrepreneur, business leader, speaker and is now the president and chief executive officer of the Propane Education & Research Council. He has worked in the propane industry nearly his entire professional career, having served as the director of business development for Inergy, chief executive officer of Premier Propane, and the chief operating officer of Columbia Propane, a unit of the Columbia Energy Group. Tucker is also the former chairman of a PERC advisory committee on engine fuel matters and is active with the National Propane Gas Association and the Virginia Propane Gas Association.