Brook Byers Prof. Brown Takes Deep Dive into Energy Poverty in New Paper

<p>Marilyn Brown, Regents' Professor in the School of Public Policy and director of the Climate and Energy Policy Laboratory.</p>

Marilyn Brown, Regents' Professor in the School of Public Policy and director of the Climate and Energy Policy Laboratory.

“In an era of U.S. energy abundance, the persistently high energy bills paid by low-income households is troubling.”  So begins the abstract to a new paper authored by Brook Byers Professor Marylin Brown and several co-authors.  Prof. Brown is also a Georgia Regents’ Professor, Director of the Georgia Tech Climate and Energy Policy Laboratory, and a Nobel Laureate.  The paper was recently published in the open access journal Progress in Energy, the full title of which is “Low-income Energy Affordability in an Era of U.S. Energy Abundance.”

This paper is a review of the current literature on energy costs in low-income households in the U.S.  The review reveals that socio-economic factors of the energy landscape put an onerous burden on poor households.  Programs meant to alleviate the burdens of energy insecurity are not particularly effective.  The authors draw four general conclusions:

  • Energy burden is highest among low-income households.
  • Low-income energy burden is worsening despite programs and funds tasked to help.
  • Low-income households cannot take advantage of many of the policies and programs that promote energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.
  • Low-income utility customers receive a disproportionately small share of the funding targeted to improve residential energy efficiency.

The authors point out that the most common models for policy interventions into energy poverty were begun in the 1970’s.  Few innovations or adjustments have been made to them despite a changing energy environment.   Currently, short term solutions, like financial assistance with utility bills, vastly outweigh programs with longer term effects such as weatherization or appliance replacement programs.  The focus on the short-term financial needs of low-income rate payers tends to perpetuate energy insecurity, rather than offering efficiency investments, which have proven to be a more durable solution.

Many other policy solutions are suggested in the paper including inter-agency coordination, targeting low-income multi-family housing, implementing technology solutions such as smart thermostats, and innovations in the financing of energy upgrades.  The authors also emphasize that some programs result in additional benefits which aren’t usually accounted for.  For example, members of households that undergo a weatherization process have better overall health than those that receive other energy help.  Weatherization results in improved indoor air quality, which is thought to lead to better overall health.  This, in turn, results in multiplying the financial benefits due to reduced sick days and lower healthcare costs. 

Insights, like the one outlined above, prompted the authors to suggest more holistic and scalable approaches to addressing energy poverty in conjunction with other health and poverty related issues.  Professor Brown and her collaborators conclude that the transition to a sustainable energy future need not leave behind those at the low end of the income spectrum.

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