Energy justice frameworks and approaches build upon the foundation developed by environmental justice scholarship and activism to combat energy-related disparities. Disparities in access to modern energy services and technologies across nations have motivated contemporary approaches towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and effectuating a just energy transition. Energy poverty, an oft-deployed characterization of these energy-related disparities, reflects a state or condition where households do not have access to sustainable, reliable, and affordable energy. However, current problem characterization and solution interventions for energy poverty in the United States lack a holistic framework that honors the multidimensional nature of household energy deprivation. Limited research explores the relationship between energy deprivation outcomes and spatially varying characteristics such as residential energy affordability, energy efficiency, and race/ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status of household occupants.
Accordingly, the crux of this dissertation lies in understanding how institutional barriers—across federal, state, and local levels—enable the persistence of household energy inequities. This dissertation therefore examines the multidimensional nature of energy poverty and the varied recognition of and responses to this phenomenon in the U.S. I use energy vulnerability as a lens to investigate this gap, including the technical, socioeconomic, and environmental-political dimensions that influence household levels of energy poverty. This dissertation employs a multi-method approach including a critical integrative literature review, international and subnational policy comparative analysis, content analysis, and generalized logistic regression techniques. These analyses are situated within the context of historical and contemporary recognition of and responses to the 1973 oil crisis and the 2020 coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, respectively. By drawing parallels to formal recognition and responses in the United Kingdom, I promote a more expansive understanding of the current and future landscape of American energy poverty.
In Chapter two, I argue that the failure to formally recognize energy poverty at the federal level limits our understanding of its circumstances and hinders systematic approaches to reduce it. Findings suggest that current measurements and evaluative metrics hinge on the distribution of government resources and the number of ‘vulnerable’ households assisted, rather than the impact federal programs have had on improving household well-being and reducing overall energy poverty. In centering programmatic impact, I offer a more expansive definition and framework for comprehending and responding to energy poverty in the U.S.
The next two chapters explore the multiple dimensions of energy poverty and the varied responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Chapter three asks, what factors are associated with the propensity to experience varying levels of energy poverty? I find that several technical, socioeconomic, and environmental factors influence the likelihood of experiencing higher levels of energy poverty. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chapter four characterizes residential energy protection measures through a suite of resiliency responses deployed in 25 U.S. metropolitan regions. I examine the urgency and binding level of COVID-era protections and demarcate them as either mandatory or voluntary measures, finding that metropolitan regions with lower protections tend to have low-income energy burdens and that energy policy responses are unevenly distributed across the country.
This dissertation advances energy and environmental justice scholarship and clarifies the necessary policy interventions for improving energy access for energy-vulnerable households. Collectively, this analysis and examination of energy poverty recognition and responses provides an evidence base for recognizing energy access as a human right.
Dominic Bednar is a candidate for the Ph.D. in Environment and Sustainability with a concentration in Energy Justice at the University of Michigan. His research explores the institutional barriers of energy poverty recognition and response in the United States whilst considering the spatial, racial/ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic patterns of residential energy affordability, consumption, and efficiency. More narrowly, his doctoral research aims to provide clarity for structuring more effective policy interventions and to improve decision making for assisting energy-vulnerable households, those likely to fall into energy poverty and struggle/unable to pay their energy bills resulting in energy utility shut-offs and forgoing basic necessities. Dominic is developing a multidimensional energy vulnerability index to better understand factors that contribute to household energy poverty in the U.S. Additionally, Dominic’s research uses LCA and LCC methods to better understand the effect of household appliance replacements on overall energy affordability of low-income households.
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