Why does diversity, equity, and inclusion matter when it comes to energy efficiency?

June 5, 2023 | 6 min read

The current energy system doesn’t serve everyone well. It doesn’t allow for all Vermonters to access affordable energy. Too many Vermonters struggle to afford energy bills. High inflation and increasing extreme weather are making it even harder. Rural, Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), and low-income communities pay a lot for energy, relative to their income. They also face unique barriers to accessing energy efficiency to reduce those burdens. Renters don’t have the power to upgrade their homes and reduce their energy bills -and yet the average rental property consumes 15% more energy per square foot than an owner-occupied home. In Vermont, BIPOC households were seven times more likely to go without heat than white Vermonters. They were also seven times less likely to own solar panels.

Can Efficiency Vermont help advance diversity, equity, and inclusion?

This was the question we asked ourselves. VEIC, which operates Efficiency Vermont, has energy justice at the core of its mission. We’ve learned how climate change has a bigger impact on communities of color. We’ve engaged in research to understand how energy efficiency programs can better bridge the gaps. We continue to learn from frontline communities and national partners.

Efficiency Vermont has also worked to understand energy burden in Vermont. Energy burden is the amount of money a household spends on energy relative to income. Understanding energy burden helps us reach low-income Vermonters with programs that can help. The initial energy burden work only looked at energy costs and income. In 2020, we also analyzed barriers communities of color, renters, and speakers of English as an additional language face.

We started by learning from national efforts to understand and combat inequity in the energy system. We then analyzed energy efficiency programs in Vermont. This research led to a plan to help more Vermonters access energy-saving solutions.

What's happening nationally to advance energy justice

The current federal administration identified energy equity as an early priority. On January 27, 2021, President Biden signed an executive order on tackling the climate crisis. The order created the Justice40 Initiative. The initiative’s goal is that 40% of energy investments go to disadvantaged communities. The initiative defines disadvantaged communities as those with:

  • racial and ethnic residential segregation,
  • Low income or high poverty rates,
  • linguistic isolation,
  • high transportation cost burden and/or low access,
  • high energy cost burden and low access,
  • and more.

Since then, the administration and Congress have made significant investments. The American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act included funding to advance the Justice40 Initiative.

Investments can include programs related to:

  • climate change,
  • clean energy and energy efficiency,
  • clean transit,
  • affordable and sustainable housing,
  • training and workforce development,
  • pollution cleanup, and
  • clean water and wastewater infrastructure.

With so much national investment, it’s important to know what success looks like. How do we know if a program is equitable? How do we know if the money spent benefited the communities that needed it? Many national organizations are tackling this question. Two include ACEEE’s ‘Leading with Equity’ effort and the Urban Energy Justice Lab’s Energy Equity Project. ACEEE recently identified strategies to help utilities design programs to reach underserved communities.  

In 2022, Vermont passed Act 154, the state’s first environmental justice bill. The bill seeks to improve community participation in policies that impact environmental justice. It will also create a new mapping tool to identify impacted communities in Vermont.

What can energy justice look like in Vermont?

Our 2020 analysis of Efficiency Vermont programs asked the question: Were communities with greater renter, BIPOC, or low-income populations participating in our programs at the same rate as whiter, more affluent communities with higher rates of homeownership?

The answer was inconclusive. We found no obvious gaps in our programs. But our data had limits. We only have access to town-level demographics. The data showed that towns with a high number of BIPOC or low-income residents or renters engage at the same rate as other towns. But without seeing household data, we don’t know if access is equal within those towns.

We didn’t want to let a lack of data get in the way of change. The national and state-level data is clear.

We know that barriers to saving energy are higher for renters, BIPOC and low-income Vermonters. Our path forward was to advance a plan to tackle the barriers we are aware of. We identified four primary goals, and adopted strategies to meet each goal:

  • Embed a core focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion into all aspects of our work. Advance the goal of helping all Vermonters reduce their energy costs and burden.
  • Leverage our resources to support and uplift historically disenfranchised businesses, partners, and communities.
  • Engage in the broader state-level effort to advance equity through public policy. Work with our regulators and efficiency utility partners to center energy justice in our collective work.
  • Encourage all staff to take part in creating a work environment that values diverse viewpoints, cultures, and lived experiences. Foster compassionate, open, and honest dialogue while supporting continuous improvement.

We adopted the initial plan in 2020 and began advancing strategies. We invested in translation services in our call center and the Efficiency Vermont website so that speakers of English as an additional language could access our resources. We prioritized communities with large numbers of renters and BIPOC residents for focused engagement and outreach. We incorporated an energy equity track into the Better Buildings by Design and Best Practices Exchange conferences.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recognized our work in their recent report, "Toward more equitable energy efficiency programs for underserved households.”

“Efficiency Vermont incorporated changes to its programs to support a “wide and deep” portfolio to address diverse needs among low-income and rural customers. Its programs incorporate lighter-touch measures that reach many customers (e.g., distributing efficient products and devices through food banks), comprehensive retrofits (e.g., envelope and equipment upgrades) that serve those in greatest need, and offerings that find a middle ground between reach and impact (e.g., flexible appliance vouchers allowing households to choose an appliance that best meets their needs). These new approaches allowed Efficiency Vermont to reach seven times more households with high energy burdens than prior program designs.”

Jennifer Amann, report author and senior fellow , American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy
The learning continues.

And we continued learning more. We hosted trainings and listening sessions with our staff. We led research into measuring equity and justice impacts of energy efficiency projects. From that research, we identified new metrics we can use to measure future projects and programs.

This is only the beginning. We have updated the plan for 2023 with new and evolved strategies building on the work we’ve done so far. Our current system is inequitable. It won’t be easy to change that. But our energy system has already undergone tremendous change. We are moving towards more efficient, carbon-free, and affordable energy. We want it to work for all, not a few. That transformation relies on all Vermonters participating. We won’t succeed unless we can reach everyone. The challenge excites us because we know that it’s fundamental to our success. Thank you for working with us to get there.