While interviewing a grandmother in Kansas City during his doctoral research, Dr. Reames asked the woman about her energy bill. Her response was a familiar one. “She told me when she saw the utility truck, her heart rate escalated, even if she knew her bill was paid,” he says. “She was afraid that a neighbor would be shut off and that she’d have to store their food or run an extension cord to their house so they would have at least one light.”
That encounter, and others, inspired Dr. Reameas to dedicate his research to the social aspect of energy affordability in order to achieve a more just and equitable energy system.
Dr. Reames, an assistant professor of environmental justice and sustainable systems at The University of Michigan, says he wants to break down the persistence of racial, economic and geographic disparities in energy access and affordability and reduce energy poverty. “My goal is that the research and data we produce increases communities' capacity to advocate on their behalf.”
In 2015, the University of Michigan established The Urban Energy Justice (UEJ) Lab at the School for Environment and Sustainability (UM SEAS). Now, led by Dr. Reames, he says he is committed to exposing students to careers in energy research, working with NGOs, organizing, local, state and federal government policy, entrepreneurship, and working to change the culture of utilities toward energy justice.
“I often say we’re living in the United States of Energy Insecurity,” say Dr. Reames. “Data from the US Energy Information Administration found that roughly 1 in 3 (31%) US households face energy insecurity (didn’t buy food or medicine to pay energy, received a shutoff notice, or kept their home too hot or too cold to save money). Dr. Reames teaches a course called Energy Justice (EAS 525). The goal of the course is to help students understand current trends in framing, policy, and research on the topic of energy justice.
“Black households are disproportionately impacted, 52% experience energy insecurity and Black households have an energy burden 43% higher than white households ,” says Dr. Reames. “The pandemic has worsened levels of energy insecurity.”
Over time, EAS 525 has evolved to consider public participation in energy decision making as well as social movements around energy justice, access, affordability and clean energy. “The energy justice class bridges the gap between environmental justice and climate justice,” says Dr. Reames. “Because many of the environmental justice issues are tied to inequitable and racist energy decision making in the past, and may of the solutions to achieve climate justice are rooted in equitable, anti-racist energy decision-making going forward.”
A challenge often mentioned in conversations about “going green,” is cost. Dr. Reames agrees that going green is expensive. “New technology typically costs more than older technology,” says Dr. Reames. “However, in many cases the costs of new technology are often subsidized and those benefits often accrue to wealthy, white households.”
Dr. Reames said that in his recent research of LED bulb access and affordability in Detroit he found that the costs to upgrade from an energy inefficient incandescent bulb to energy efficient LED bulbs was twice as expensive in low-income neighborhoods than higher income neighborhoods.
“This was primarily because stores in poorer neighborhoods did not have partnerships with the utility or government to offer instant rebates like big box name brand stores located in the suburbs,” said Dr. Reames. “These rebates reduce the costs substantially for people shopping in the suburbs and this is a disadvantage to low-income households unable to travel outside of their neighborhood because of various reasons such as poor transportation options.”
A COMMUNITY EFFORT
Knowing the challenges faced by low-income communities to achieve environmental justice, makes it clear that it will require more than one man or day to see sustainable change. But what can local lawmakers and leaders do to further the efforts of someone like Dr. Reames? He says being green should be attainable for all.
“Recognition justice demands that leaders understand the unique needs of populations and places, whether that racial groups, different income levels, or different neighborhoods,” says Dr. Reames.
“Then ensure that policies and programs are designed to ensure the distribution of benefits and burdens are not felt disproportionately by any one group.”
Dr. Reames says sustainability will require an equity-based approach to all decision making. “Increasing public participation in decision making is key,” says Dr. Reames. “What are your constituents saying? If you don’t know, that’s the problem.”
If you are interested in learning more about environmental justice or finding out how to ensure that your community is part of the movement to “go green,” by establishing reliable and affordable energy access, Dr. Reames recommends getting involved in your state’s Public Service (or Public Utility) Commission.
“There are the folks that make decisions on everything from how much you pay for your electricity and gas to how your utility produces energy (e.g., coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, solar),” says Dr. Reames.
“For people who live in cities with a municipally-operated utility or in rural areas with a co-op, identify who is responsible for decision-making and make your voice heard, demand more affordable and cleaner energy.”
Want to know how clean is the electricity you use? Visit the EPA’s Power Profiler tool and enter your zip code https://www.epa.gov/egrid/power-profiler#/
Monique Wingard is an entrepreneur, educator, and doctoral student in communication, culture, and media studies. Follow her on Instagram @moniquewingard.