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Instances of Energy Injustice

Air pollution from the transportation and industrial sectors in Denver, Colorado, U.S.A. Air pollution negatively affects everyone in the community, but some segments such as elders and people with respiratory illnesses and diseases are more at risk. Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
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Significant disparities exist in U.S. home energy efficiency by affluence and by racial make-up (Bednar et al., 2016). Two studies, conducted in Kansas City and Detroit, brought to light that homes in neighborhoods with low income residents and a majority black or Hispanic population had higher home energy use intensity (EUI) as compared to neighborhoods with predominantly white populations. Several of the study neighborhoods with higher EUIs also had a larger number of renters than homeowners, making energy efficient home upgrades very difficult. The studies stress on the need to target energy efficiency programs to race, socio-economic class and location.

The disparities in energy efficiency across class and affluence levels are further complicated by the inequalities in access to technological solutions. For example, access to efficient lighting (CFLs and LEDs) is quite different depending on the affluence of a location (Reames, 2018). For instance, in Wayne County, Michigan, halogen lamps and CFLs were available in the majority of stores, but high poverty neighbourhoods had 30% less access to LEDs when compared with the low poverty neighbourhoods. The results show that as areas became poorer, the access to LEDs reduced and within high poverty neighbourhoods, the availability of LEDs were significantly lesser than IHLs and CFLs. The researchers also found a statistically significant difference in the prices of LEDs and CFLs in locations where the lower poverty strata lived, as compared to the national average. The economic burden imposed on low-income residents owing to the price disparities can have grave consequences on quality of life. This vast difference in access to and prices of energy efficient fittings need to be factored in when scripting energy transition decisions and policies.

Rooftop solar energy is extremely sought after for providing distributed clean and reliable power. The rooftop solar sector has experienced massive growth in the U.S., growing by as much as 50% since 2012. Increased adoption of rooftop solar energy, however, has come with several challenges. In a 2019 study published in Nature, severe racial disparities are evident in the distribution of rooftop solar PV (Sunter et al., 2019). On average, the study found that census tracts with a black or Hispanic population majority saw significantly lower PV installations. Specifically, tracts with no discernable racial majority were seen to have installed 61% and 45% more solar PV than majority black and Hispanic neighborhoods, respectively. These discrepancies could not be explained by other factors like home ownership or income level.

Information failures related to exposure to pollution, exposure to hidden pollution, and welfare loss due to hidden pollution can also disproportionately affect low-income and communities of color (Hausman, 2020). A low income community downwind from a refinery suffers from health implications that hamper residents’ capacity to thrive, further entrenching them in poverty. Individual households in this same community could find it difficult to pay their electricity bills and be faced with their power being shut off, further threatening the health of those most vulnerable (the elderly, sick, young) when extreme cold and heat hit the area with increasing frequency. Energy related expenses have a greater burden on low income households. Those living in poverty can be faced with the choice to keep their homes at undesirable or often perilous temperatures to save on energy expenditures.

Another equity consideration when it comes to a clean energy transition and the phaseout of coal power, is the job losses and economic downturn that mining communities suffer. In general, more diversified economies are better suited for phasing out extraction of fossil fuels than economies that might need to develop support systems before accelerating the phase out of fossil fuel extraction (Muttitt et al., 2020). Coal plants have been retiring in large numbers over the last decade owing to the increasingly competitive economics of natural gas and renewable energy. While the sustained retirement of coal power plants (and associated carbon reductions) have positive implications for global climate change, it is important to ensure that displaced power plant and mine workers are supported in the form of economic benefits and retraining (NRDC, 2019).

Retraining coal workers is not always a straightforward solution, due to stark wage gaps and location of jobs. Miners are paid upwards of $70,000 per year and oftentimes have homes, families, and deep roots in coal country. Moving to significantly lower paying jobs and/or migrating for alternate jobs can have negative effects on families. The United Mine Workers Association (UMWA) believes that while retraining is critical to the continued well-being of displaced miners, that alone is not sufficient as a solution. The union believes it is critical also to garner private investments and government funding in businesses such as education, healthcare, and construction that do not typically move around the globe and would depend on local talent to sustain their business (UMWA, 2019).

These and other injustices in clean energy access, affordability, and production need to be considered when policies are formulated. Policies promoting equity in the adoption of clean energy are essential to bridge this gap.