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Energy Justice – How to Make the Energy Transition Fair

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By Deborah Scaggion

· 3 min read

We often hear scientists and politicians speaking about the importance of decarbonizing our energy system, but what they often do not address is the impact the energy transition can have on different communities around the world.

In fact, even within developed countries, different communities already experience varying access to energy, largely due to the impact of energy costs on their incomes and the large upfront costs linked to the energy transition, if transferred on final customers, could have devastating effects on their ability to access energy safely.

Indeed, access to energy is a survival issue and is strongly interconnected with healthcare: a recent study found that communities which have poor access to energy, experience more premature deaths, poorer health and shorter life expectancy.

The pandemic has only made the need for a more just and inclusive energy transition more evident than ever: to address these and other challenges posed by the energy transition, in the last decade, the concept of ‘Energy Justice’ has emerged. Energy Justices aims at creating an energy system that distributes energy’s benefits and costs fairly, applying just principles to energy production and systems, energy consumption, energy policy, energy security and climate change.

Indeed, energy justice provides a new, stimulating framework to bring together research in the field of energy system design and broader questions around justice. There are four types of justice that this concept tried to address within the energy sector:

  • Recognition Justice, that is recognizing that different communities have different energy needs
  • Distributional Justice, mainly in energy costs and energy efficiency
  • Procedural Justice, which focuses on how people engage with the decision making process within the energy sector
  • Corrective Justice, which focuses on the efficiency of different programmes in enhancing energy democracy

Most recently, this framework has been employed in the context of some US cities, where households from minority groups often face higher energy burden (the percentage of income going toward energy costs) than their wealthier counterparts.

In Detroit, Michigan, 2016 a report by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) revealed that on average, this burden is three times higher for minority groups, like Afro-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. The pandemic, leading to massive increase in unemployment rates, has only made it harder for low-income residents to pay for their energy bills. Accordingly, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Earthjustice, an environmental NGO, reached an agreement with DTE Energy, Michigan’s largest electricity and gas utility to develop a programme to reduce the energy burden for low-income residents in Detroit who struggle to pay for service. Through this programme, the utility will audit the properties and install residential retrofits, such as new refrigerators, water heaters, windows, or insulation to 500 low-income customers. In line with the principles of Energy Justice, the goal of the programme is to lower the economic impact of financing the energy transition for vulnerable customers, but also to protect them from the effects of extreme weather and prevent them from resorting to unsafe heating and lighting methods such as space heaters and candles.

These types of programmes have already proved successful in other US cities and in Vermont, where some cities are even planning to expand the provision of energy efficient products for low-income customers, also in the field of transportation and heating. Moreover, the Detroit program will serve as a pilot project to facilitate the cooperation between the public and private sectors and to develop a model that could be replicated elsewhere.

Home energy retrofits help reduce this energy burden, but the up-front costs can be out of reach for low-income families who are already forced to make hard choices about which bills to pay.

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Deborah Scaggion is a Commercial Associate at Aurora Energy Research. She has a strong interest in the energy sector. More specifically, she is passionate in the energy transition, a topic on which she currently researches and writes.

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