The term "energy justice" may not be widely known, but researchers at the Urban Energy Justice Lab (UEJL) in Ann Arbor are set on changing that.
Dr. Tony Reames defines energy justice as fair and equitable access to affordable, reliable, and clean energy services. Reames founded UEJL in 2015 at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (U-M SEAS), where he is an assistant professor. He created UEJL as a way to concentrate his research efforts and engage students, the community, policymakers, government, and businesses around the concept of energy justice.
"A just energy system fairly disseminates both the benefits and costs of energy services, and has representative and impartial energy decision-making," Reames says.
There are three tenets of energy justice. The first is distributional justice, which focuses on the benefits and burdens of energy generation. The second is procedural justice, which considers access to participation in the energy decision-making process. The third is recognition justice, which is the identification of energy injustices affecting specific populations.
UEJL research primarily spotlights fair and equitable access to reliable and affordable energy services, such as energy-efficient and renewable technology and programs.
"We focus particularly on the institutional structures and policies that both produce and sustain inequalities across race, class, and place," Reames says.
Most notably, he and his colleagues have studied spatial distribution energy efficiency in Detroit and Kansas City. They discovered that areas with more low-income Hispanic and African-American households are more likely to be energy-inefficient compared to higher-income areas with more Caucasian households. UEJL has also examined disparities in Michigan utilities' investments in energy efficiency programs, such as whole home retrofitting, weatherization assistance, and lightbulb replacement plans.
"We found that utilities are under-performing in providing equitable investments to low-income households based on dollars spent and the proportion of low-income households in their territory," says Ben Stacey, a UEJL graduate research assistant.
In the Washtenaw County region, Reames says the energy justice movement has been steadily evolving.
"People are interested in local and regional renewables. There is a lot going on around the potential for battery storage to expand the viability of – and access to – renewables," he says.
Reames says other areas of local public concern include economical energy rates, increasing efficiency and affordability to allow seniors to age in place, increasing efficiency in student housing, and rebuilding affordable housing more efficiently. Furthermore, UEJL has heard from students who are interested in participating in energy decision-making at the Michigan Public Service Commission.
As interest in energy justice continues to develop, UEJL is striving to open up opportunities for communities to get more involved. Currently, UEJL is in the midst of launching a new initiative in Ypsilanti called the Community Engagement Energy Justice Project.
UEJL is working with the Ypsilanti Housing Commission to develop "energy ambassadors" in the Hamilton Crossing, New Parkridge, and Sauk Trail neighborhoods. Those ambassadors will collaborate with U-M students from Reames' Energy Justice course to create "family energy nights."
That project is inspired by the UK's "energy cafes," which aim to alleviate energy poverty by creating friendly spaces where people can get advice on understanding or lowering their energy bills. Dominic Bednar, a U-M Ph.D. candidate and UEJL doctoral research assistant, is spearheading the initiative and is excited at the possibilities the new program will offer.
"The family energy nights will allow us to co-develop and co-create effective energy solutions and discuss available resources based on the specific needs and interests of each individual community," he says. "We're aiming to create a space that will serve as a safe place where people can come together to get advice and support in advocacy."
Essentially, Reames and his colleagues want the UEJL's efforts to get more people engaged.
"We want our work to impact policy, practice, and activism. A key component of energy justice is procedural justice, ensuring meaningful public participation," Reames says. "Our hope is that our findings encourage people to get involved in the energy decision-making process and to be the voice of the voiceless."
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.