Editor’s note: This is the fourth piece in a series on what utilities and others are doing to increase equity in the U.S. power system, the challenges they face, and what more consumer advocates say needs to be done.
- Researchers at the University of Michigan’s Energy Equity Project, or EEP, are forging relationships with partners who will implement and test their newly released national, standardized energy equity framework. The document is intended to help users measure and track equity in clean energy programs and investments.
- The 200-page framework identifies 148 energy equity metrics to guide users such as utilities, governments, regulators and community groups in finding and mitigating energy and environmental inequities. It incorporates Census data and other data sets, including demographics, percentage of income people spend on energy, and median income of households that install rooftop solar.
- The EEP team also built a quantitative database, and in about two week, they plan to publicly release a related open-source, interactive mapping and tracking tool that lets users do their own data mashups and visualizations. They will also offer several training sessions and invite users to implement the framework’s principles and assess which portions provide value as they are and which parts could be improved.
This project is the culmination of 15 months of work by EEP and engagement with more than 400 stakeholders. Utilities, regulators, nonprofits, academics and community organizations are among those who weighed in.
The University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability — funded by the Energy Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and Crown Family Philanthropies — launched EEP last year to improve clean energy outcomes for “Black, Brown, Native, frontline, and low-income communities” that disproportionately have been affected by pollution and climate change and left out of clean energy opportunities. The framework recognizes the unequal impacts of legacy and current energy practices and offers recommendations for changing them.
“When we understand who is impacted, who is benefiting and how, we can prioritize investments to tackle energy insecurity and center frontline communities in the health, environmental and economic benefits of the clean energy transition,” said Justin Schott, project manager of the Energy Equity Project. “It’s really about changing mindsets and ongoing practices.”
The framework supports accountability for federal equity requirements to receive funding as described in the Justice40 initiative, which sets a goal of 40% of certain federal climate investment benefits flowing to disadvantaged communities overburdened by pollution. The Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act both fall into this category.
“I hope that people are thinking about Justice40 and how might we look to the framework to help us think about and help us define what benefits our local communities care about,” Schott said.
The EEP team notes some gaps in its data that it will work to fill over time, including utility shutoff data and information about renters as opposed to homeowners.
Utilities already have a lot of the data that could be used as equity metrics, Schott said. For example, utilities know who loses power during storms, which neighborhoods are most impacted by shutoffs and who participates in energy-efficiency and solar programs. Some utilities already use and disclose this type of data, either voluntarily or to fulfill regulatory requirements; this is an area of opportunity for those that don’t yet report the data, Schott said.
“Model utilities that share data they already collect for internal purposes are poised to immediately advance energy equity,” Schott said.
Despite the self-identified data gaps, the framework seems to be a useful tool for helping stakeholders like public power utilities develop policies that benefit frontline and underserved communities in the clean energy transition, said Carolyn Slaughter, director of environmental policy at the American Public Power Association.
“The framework report highlights several fundamental tenets of the public power business model, like meaningful public participation, community benefits and affordability,” she said. “These tenets, we believe, allow for ongoing collaboration with [environmental justice] communities to support community needs, especially as they continue to reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions from energy generation.”
The EEP team will work with users who want to implement principles outlined in the framework because they recognize that “this can be a little daunting, particularly for people that haven't been doing this a lot in their current context,” Schott said.
Eliminating inequities doesn’t have one universal solution and can’t be achieved overnight, he added. It takes “deeper staff training and thinking about ways that we embed equity into institutions and institutional processes and culture. I think that's really the long-term work.”