Published June 29, 2020
Energy plays a large part in our lives. It heats our homes and buildings, transports people and products around the world and powers our electronics. Energy is also linked to complex global issues of access and equity. Not everyone has access to reliable energy services, and for low-income households, energy bills often represent a large portion of their household expenses. Even more, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are disproportionately impacted and are more likely than white consumers to struggle to pay their energy bills, resulting in an increased risk of energy shut-offs.
The energy system can be complex and challenging to understand. Responding to energy challenges that benefit individual and collective communities requires a larger energy educated population that can actively participate in decision-making processes.
A common literacy in how our energy systems work is critical in creating more inclusive energy systems and resilient communities. Defined by the Department of Energy, energy literacy is “an understanding of the role of energy in the universe and in our lives” and “the ability to apply this understanding to answer questions and solve problems.” Knowledge of who makes decisions on energy sources, prices, and programs, as well as who is impacted, is important in understanding how community members can take advantage of and be involved in influencing decisions.
Why an educated energy consumer is important
The impacts of an educated energy consumer, as described below, translate to both household and societal benefits.
- To make better household decisions. With better information, households can make decisions that will help them conserve energy and lower their energy expenses. Educational resources can help residents understand the steps to follow when having difficulty paying for their electricity and heat and prevent them from being disconnected. On a community level, educated energy consumers can share information and resources with community members on energy efficiency practices and energy programs.
- To participate in policy decision-making processes. Education can empower residents to make informed decisions and give them agency to participate in energy-related policy conversations and energy decisions at the legislature and Public Utilities Commission.
How energy education relates to energy justice
Social inequalities and systematic racism are perpetuated in energy policies, processes, and programs. Energy justice is a framework that applies principles of justice, fairness, and social equity in order to address inequalities that exist in energy systems and energy system transitions. Its objective is to reduce energy burdens on low-income consumers, avoid disproportionate distributions of the costs and negative impacts, and ensure equitable distribution and access to beneficial energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions.
Energy justice requires community engagement and participation in energy decisions. While community engagement and participation rely on a number of factors, education is especially important. It is a critical tool to keep community members informed on how changes in the energy system might impact them as well as how they can intervene.
Within an energy justice approach, community voices are vital in bringing up critical issues of energy burdens and the negative impacts associated with energy production — and in informing energy solutions that are accessible and equitably distributed. Even more community input is consequential for designing energy efficiency programs. Low income households tend to have older, less efficient appliances and equipment making them important targets for energy efficient solutions. Unfortunately, energy efficiency programs are not well designed to serve BIPOC communities, making access to energy efficient solutions even more difficult. Community input can inform program design that supports low-income and BIPOC households and provide greater energy and cost savings as well as associated health, and quality of life benefits. Community members have valuable knowledge about their communities and can provide critical insight when trying to provide solutions. By understanding the different players, processes, and impacts, community members can have the necessary knowledge to better participate in wider energy policy decisions and increase community voices at the decision making level. While education is not going to guarantee increased participation, it provides tools for consumers to more effectively participate and feel empowered in energy-related discussions.
In order to make improvements, we need to understand how the system functions. We can develop and take advantage of programs that exist while identifying gaps to suggest improvements that best serve communities.
Access to information is critical in being well informed and advocating for systems change. Utilities, legislators, and the public utilities commission need to facilitate collaboration with community stakeholders and be transparent in their decision making process and results. Additionally, administrators of energy programs can incorporate energy education initiatives into their programs to further build trust and community partnerships.
While educated consumers are essential, achieving an energy just system will require larger infrastructural change. One that is based on inclusive protocols in decision making to ensure equitable engagement of all stakeholders, transparency, incorporation of local knowledge, and fair representation. To learn more about the principles and components of energy justice read more here.
Part of our mission at CUB is to address issues of energy injustice through our outreach and policy work. Education is not the only answer to injustice, but it is an important tool for consumers to make informed decisions and to have agency on decisions at the household level and policy level.
The current health crisis of COVID-19 has exposed the disparities that exist in the energy system. When the crisis goes away, the disparities will remain, unless we take action to correct underlying unjust systems. The energy sector needs to address systematic racial and economic disparities in energy issues in order to create healthy sustainable communities. This is why educating residents about energy is so critical. Utilities and governing structures need to commit to working in the best interest of residents by increasing community engagement and education, advocating for consumer protections, and providing affordable and reliable utility services for all residents. Linked below are some of the conversations happening around the topic of education, access, and community participation in energy decisions:
- Flexibility in an Inflexible System: What COVID-19 means for energy access and equity
- The Hidden Pre-Existing Condition
- Ensuring Access to Energy More Important than Ever
- Energy Efficiency Reform is Needed to Reach All Communities
To stay updated with energy policy in Minnesota subscribe to our newsletter here. CUB is here to help Minnesota consumers navigate their energy costs. Please reach out with any questions, and we’ll do our best to help you out.
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