Dean J. Koepfler

Addressing Residential Energy Inequities in Washington’s Rural and Tribal Communities

On September 8, 2022, the Clean Energy Transition Institute released Community-Defined Decarbonization: Reflecting Rural and Tribal Desires for an Equitable Clean Energy Transition in Washington, a project that aimed to (1) understand the barriers to decarbonizing buildings for the state’s rural and Tribal low-income, energy-burdened households, and (2) determine whether decarbonization strategies and clean energy development could address energy inequities in these communities.

Energy Burden in Rural and Tribal Communities

The technical and economic analysis that the CETI provided for the Washington 2021 State Energy Strategy found that Washington’s rural communities were substantially energy burdened and are often faced with economic disparities and a lack of infrastructure investment.  

Energy burden is the annual share of a household’s income spent toward energy bills. On average, households in the United States tend to spend 3% of their annual income on energy costs. However, energy burden is not distributed equally in the United States, with the most vulnerable households experiencing the most energy insecurity. Energy insecurity is more likely to impact low-income households, racial and/or ethnic households, rural households, and communities with health-sensitive populations (i.e., children, disabled, or elderly individuals). Energy insecurity is also associated with negative health outcomes and increased financial instability.

Addressing the Rural and Tribal Research Gap

There is a paucity of research dedicated to examining how decarbonizing rural and Tribal communities could potentially address energy disparities unique to those communities. Most energy policy research focuses on cities and urban centers, the conclusions of which do not transfer to rural areas. Energy burden in rural Washington is tied to many social inequities, and there is wide variability in how different rural communities throughout the state experience energy burden.

We interviewed 24 community leaders, nonprofit staffers, and government agency representatives who work with rural and Tribal communities in Washington State to understand affected communities’ priorities for addressing energy burden and whether they thought decarbonization could address the energy inequity they experience. Our interviews suggested many community-identified strengths, challenges, and desires that could be leveraged for more tailored climate and energy solutions in rural and Tribal communities across the country.

Figure 1: Overview of challenges, strengths, and desires identified in interviews.

We also applied quantitative analyses to publicly available datasets to understand community-level energy inequities and their relationship to socioeconomic disparities. We reviewed research on energy burden, efficacy of weatherization and energy efficiency programs, and the potential for decarbonization to address economic and public health outcomes.

Identifying Solutions in Community-Defined Desires

The combined quantitative and qualitative research suggests that building decarbonization solutions—energy efficiency/weatherization, electrification, distributed renewable energy, vehicle-to-grid technologies, energy demand management, and fuel-switching to clean energy—cannot be advanced without addressing the fundamental inequity that exists in rural and Tribal housing and the energy burden that low-income rural and Tribal households face.

Addressing these inequities will require an interdisciplinary approach, with community-defined desires as the solution. Ultimately, there are several opportunities that can and should be leveraged in partnership with rural and Tribal communities, such as organizational collaboration, workforce development, and community leadership.

While it is possible that building decarbonization strategies could address Washington’s rural and Tribal communities’ energy challenges, they are not the primary focus for these communities. Fundamental non-energy needs for affordable, healthy, socially/environmentally just housing stock; economic development; and public health improvements must be addressed in tandem with, if not before, any decarbonization strategy.

Learn More

Several resources are available related to the Community-Defined Decarbonization project:

Mariah Caballero

Research Fellow, Equitable Rural Building Decarbonization
Mariah Caballero is a Graduate Research Fellow at the Clean Energy Transition Institute and Doctoral Student in Vanderbilt University’s Community Research and Action (CRA) program.
FULL BIO & OTHER POSTS

Addressing Residential Energy Inequities in Washington’s Rural and Tribal Communities

On September 8, 2022, the Clean Energy Transition Institute released Community-Defined Decarbonization: Reflecting Rural and Tribal Desires for an Equitable Clean Energy Transition in Washington, a project that aimed to (1) understand the barriers to decarbonizing buildings for the state’s rural and Tribal low-income, energy-burdened households, and (2) determine whether decarbonization strategies and clean energy development could address energy inequities in these communities.

Energy Burden in Rural and Tribal Communities

The technical and economic analysis that the CETI provided for the Washington 2021 State Energy Strategy found that Washington’s rural communities were substantially energy burdened and are often faced with economic disparities and a lack of infrastructure investment.  

Energy burden is the annual share of a household’s income spent toward energy bills. On average, households in the United States tend to spend 3% of their annual income on energy costs. However, energy burden is not distributed equally in the United States, with the most vulnerable households experiencing the most energy insecurity. Energy insecurity is more likely to impact low-income households, racial and/or ethnic households, rural households, and communities with health-sensitive populations (i.e., children, disabled, or elderly individuals). Energy insecurity is also associated with negative health outcomes and increased financial instability.

Addressing the Rural and Tribal Research Gap

There is a paucity of research dedicated to examining how decarbonizing rural and Tribal communities could potentially address energy disparities unique to those communities. Most energy policy research focuses on cities and urban centers, the conclusions of which do not transfer to rural areas. Energy burden in rural Washington is tied to many social inequities, and there is wide variability in how different rural communities throughout the state experience energy burden.

We interviewed 24 community leaders, nonprofit staffers, and government agency representatives who work with rural and Tribal communities in Washington State to understand affected communities’ priorities for addressing energy burden and whether they thought decarbonization could address the energy inequity they experience. Our interviews suggested many community-identified strengths, challenges, and desires that could be leveraged for more tailored climate and energy solutions in rural and Tribal communities across the country.

Figure 1: Overview of challenges, strengths, and desires identified in interviews.

We also applied quantitative analyses to publicly available datasets to understand community-level energy inequities and their relationship to socioeconomic disparities. We reviewed research on energy burden, efficacy of weatherization and energy efficiency programs, and the potential for decarbonization to address economic and public health outcomes.

Identifying Solutions in Community-Defined Desires

The combined quantitative and qualitative research suggests that building decarbonization solutions—energy efficiency/weatherization, electrification, distributed renewable energy, vehicle-to-grid technologies, energy demand management, and fuel-switching to clean energy—cannot be advanced without addressing the fundamental inequity that exists in rural and Tribal housing and the energy burden that low-income rural and Tribal households face.

Addressing these inequities will require an interdisciplinary approach, with community-defined desires as the solution. Ultimately, there are several opportunities that can and should be leveraged in partnership with rural and Tribal communities, such as organizational collaboration, workforce development, and community leadership.

While it is possible that building decarbonization strategies could address Washington’s rural and Tribal communities’ energy challenges, they are not the primary focus for these communities. Fundamental non-energy needs for affordable, healthy, socially/environmentally just housing stock; economic development; and public health improvements must be addressed in tandem with, if not before, any decarbonization strategy.

Learn More

Several resources are available related to the Community-Defined Decarbonization project:

Mariah Caballero

Research Fellow, Equitable Rural Building Decarbonization
Mariah Caballero is a Graduate Research Fellow at the Clean Energy Transition Institute and Doctoral Student in Vanderbilt University’s Community Research and Action (CRA) program.
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