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Poor people and people of color use significantly more electricity per square foot in their homes than whites and more affluent people, according to a new study. This means that households that can least afford it end up spending more on utilities.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, comes as the Biden administration has said it wants 40% of federal climate spending to reach the poorest communities and communities of color, including initiatives that improve energy efficiency. The researchers said better data on wealth and racial disparities is needed to ensure the success of such plans.
Researchers found that in low-income communities, homes used an average of 25 to 60% more energy per square foot than high-income neighborhoods. And in all income groups except the wealthiest neighborhoods, non-white neighborhoods consistently used more electricity per square foot than predominantly white neighborhoods. The results were even more striking during the winter and summer heating and cooling seasons.
“This study analyzes income and racial inequalities in the energy system of American cities and gives utilities a way to measure them, so they can solve the problem,” says Ramaswami, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Princeton University and study co-author.
Ramaswami says further investigation is needed to understand why this racial inequity exists. Utilities are likely to need to better tailor energy efficiency programs to reach underserved communities. She says there are also bigger structural issues over which utilities have less control, such as whether people own their homes or rent.
For the study, the researchers looked at two cities: Tallahassee, Florida, and St. Paul, Minnesota. They combined detailed utility and census data and measured the efficiency of buildings in specific neighborhoods.
“We were struck when we first saw these models,” said Ramaswami.
Princeton researchers also looked at which households participated in energy efficiency rebate programs. They found that homes in wealthier and whitest neighborhoods were more likely to participate, while poorer, non-white households were less likely.
Ramaswami expects studies like this in other cities to achieve the same results. They are already working with officials in Austin, Texas.
The information could be particularly valuable as the Biden administration prepares to spend big bucks on energy efficiency to meet the country’s climate goals.
“From a political point of view, [better data] can help policymakers better target communities for efficiency improvements and investments, ”says Tony Reames, assistant professor and director of the Urban Energy Justice Lab at the University of Michigan.
He is a leader in the emerging field of “energy justice”, which argues that communities of color too often experience the negative aspects of energy – such as pollution and utility cuts – and do not equally share the negative aspects of energy. benefits, such as well-paid jobs and energy efficiency programs.
Reames’ lab is among those launching the Energy Equity project. It plans to collect data “measuring equity between energy efficiency and clean energy programs.” He says that in addition to creating more equitable policies, this information can help communities defend themselves before utility regulators and government officials, and “ensure that investments come to their communities.”