The Citizens Utility Board (CUB) of Michigan talks a lot in this space about how Michigan has unaffordable energy and how lower-income communities are especially burdened by high energy bills. How does Michigan, as a community, address these inequities (which fall disproportionately on communities of color)? What’s more, as the state and other players try to modernize the electric grid and transition to cleaner energy in order to meet the recently-announced net-zero emissions goals, how do we avoid making the inequitable burden worse? To address these questions, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) just held the multi-day Michigan Environmental Justice Conference, which was titled “Rebuilding Trust, Reimagining Justice and Removing Barriers.”
The whole event is on YouTube and features speakers including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. CUB Executive Director Amy Bandyk was honored to speak on a panel along with EGLE Climate and Energy Advisor Dr. Brandy Brown and Dr. Tony Reames, assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.
Much of the conversation among the panelists focused on how well-intentioned programs to reduce the energy burden have not been as effective as they could be because they have not sufficiently understood the types of communities toward which they are targeted. Similar to how we have seen the sheer number of different programs with different eligibility criteria confuse and intimidate potential customers, a program can be well-designed in many aspects and still fail by not engaging with the community.
For example, the rebate is a main tool used in utility energy efficiency programs. But while those rebates might be useful for many customers, they might be a nonstarter for others. “If I go buy a new washing machine or refrigerator at Home Depot or somewhere, I can get a rebate from my utility toward that purchase,” Bandyk said during the panel. “But low-income families cannot necessarily just go out and make that big purchase—certainly not without financing help.”
Dr. Reames has done pioneering research into these kinds of access problems. One of his studies revealed that highly-efficient LED bulbs, a common prescription when trying to improve efficiency in homes or commercial buildings, are often not even available in stores in lower-income communities and communities of color, and far less available in these communities compared to others.
The fact that underserved communities and residents that face high energy burdens are often out of reach of existing programs is a hurdle that must be overcome if Michigan is going to realize carbon emissions reductions, Brown said in the panel. She is advising the governor on how to achieve the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. The pathway to carbon neutrality requires cutting emissions across the board, including emissions caused by inefficient energy use in older buildings that tend to disproportionately exist in lower-income communities. “If we go into this energy transition and build an energy future without addressing these problems we are going to have wide swaths of our neighbors not served,” Brown said. “That is emissions on the table. We cannot move forward without it.”
What is being done? Reames talked about a study in which he is currently engaged that seeks to understand more about barriers to access in utility customer assistance programs. Different types of efficiency programs, like home weatherization, “require different applications, different offices,” Reames said. “People are bouncing around to different agencies trying to cobble these different programs together to improve their homes and improve affordability.”
So Reames, other faculty members from the University of Michigan and representatives of communities in Detroit are working on a study in which case managers are assigned to represent individuals in several Detroit neighborhoods. The case manager will try to gather all the information needed to navigate the application process of various programs to develop strategies that can be used by others in underserved communities to get building stock energy improvement projects off the ground.
At the same time, ratepayers also need to keep raising a fuss about the inequities in utility rates that make energy bills so unaffordable for too many customers. “We need to make it easier for people, if they need assistance, for them to understand how they qualify for it, but also we need to make bills more affordable in general so people are not relying so much on assistance,” Bandyk said.