Opinion

Marginalized communities shoulder the heaviest energy burdens. Cities can lead the way to energy equity

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When energy prices spiked this fall, some families were hit much harder than others. Fully one quarter of American households struggle with high energy burdens, spending more than 6 percent of their income on electricity and heat. For more than 1 in 10, that burden is severe, with energy costs consuming more than a tenth of their household budget. Gasoline costs also take a toll: American households put about 7 percent of their income into their gas tanks, on average. For low-income households, that number rises to 14 percent

For all energy costs – heat, electricity, gasoline – the heaviest burdens are shouldered by people with lower incomes, older adults and communities of color.

The good news is that some American cities are working to lighten that load, with energy equity programs that broaden access to affordable clean energy and low-carbon transportation. Unfortunately, our 2021 City Clean Energy Scorecard shows that these programs remain few and far between. In the 100 cities we surveyed, equity-driven initiatives accounted for less than 20 percent of new clean-energy actions undertaken between May 2, 2020 and July 1, 2021.

Why does it matter? Clean energy and efficiency are obviously important: they save money, improve health and reduce climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, weatherization – caulking leaky windows or insulating attics – can cut household energy burdens by about 25 percent, making homes more comfortable and affordable. Low-carbon transit also benefits the climate while saving families money and ensuring access to jobs and opportunity. But if those interventions fail to reach the most energy-burdened households, the most vulnerable Americans may be driven deeper into poverty.

Some cities are getting it right. Notably, Minneapolis topped the Scorecard’s energy equity metrics for the third year in a row. The city’s Green Cost Share program provides financial incentives for efficiency upgrades and solar panels, prioritizing properties in low-income areas. The city also pays for free Home Energy Squad visits to homeowners anywhere in the city with below-median incomes. And owners of select rental properties are required to disclose energy use information so that tenants can choose more efficient, less costly rentals.

Many cities are now incorporating equity into their planning processes – by, for example, screening policies and programs for their impact on marginalized communities. In 2021, 43 of 100 cities surveyed were taking a more equitable and comprehensive approach to developing clean energy initiatives – up from only 24 in 2019.

However, better planning has not yet translated into more-equitable outcomes. Only one-third (34) of the 100 cities have a low-income energy efficiency incentive or financing program. Of these, only three programs include requirements to keep housing affordable after making energy-improving investments. Only six cities have a policy requiring landlords to disclose energy use information to prospective renters.

A few cities have adopted building energy performance standards requiring owners of existing buildings to reduce energy use or greenhouse gas emissions. But only one – Washington, DC – has adopted such requirements for affordable housing while offering support to help housing providers comply.

Cities are also adopting equity-driven transportation initiatives. In fact, a majority (52) of the cities surveyed offer at least one subsidy to help historically marginalized groups access energy-efficient, low-carbon transportation (bikes, transit, electric vehicles, etc.).

But again, there is much room for improvement. While 41 cities have taken steps to incentivize the creation of affordable housing near transit, only three – Honolulu, Miami, and Washington, DC – have what could be described as a true requirement, with no wiggle room for developers to evade the intent of the law. And, in only 16 cities do 75 percent of low-income households live within half a mile of reliable transit.

Oakland, California, received high marks on transportation equity. The city offers several programs to increase low-income residents’ access to efficient transportation options, such as a Bike Share for all Reduced Fare Program, and a GIG Free-Floating Car Share that reduces household transportation costs by providing access to a fleet of vehicles without the cost of owning. Oakland also won more than $90 million in funds from the Affordable Housing Sustainable Communities program to provide renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts for affordable housing developments adjacent to transit. Currently, 89 percent of the city’s households making less than $50,000 are within a half mile of high-frequency full-day transit.

In the last two years, many Americans have begun to reckon with our nation’s stark racial and economic divides. Not surprisingly, energy burdens reflect those divides, as low-income people and communities of color pay a hefty share of their income for heat, electricity and transportation. As energy prices rise, the most vulnerable families may be forced to choose between heating their homes, paying the rent, and buying food and medicine. Cities can help, by making sure their efforts to promote clean, affordable energy reach those most in need.

Stefen Samarripas is a local policy manager with ACEEE. He conducts research, analysis, and outreach on policies and programs that encourage energy efficiency throughout local communities. His work currently focuses on supporting local government-led clean energy initiatives and scaling up energy efficiency investments in affordable housing.