Why does diversity, equity, and inclusion matter when it comes to energy efficiency?
The current energy system is not equitable. It doesn’t allow for all Vermonters to access affordable energy. Too many Vermonters struggle to afford energy bills—a problem that the COVID-19 pandemic is making worse. Studies show that Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPoC) and low-income communities have high energy burdens and face unique barriers to accessing energy efficiency to reduce those burdens. For instance, African American households account for nearly half of energy-poor households in the US. They are also more likely to have their electricity shut off.
This was the question we asked ourselves. VEIC, which operates Efficiency Vermont, has placed energy justice at the core of its mission. We’ve learned how the impacts of climate change are felt on communities of color. And in the racial reckoning that emerged after the murder of George Floyd, we recognized that we hadn’t done enough.
Efficiency Vermont has also worked to understand energy burden in Vermont. Energy burden is the amount of money a household spends on energy as a percentage of that household’s income. By understanding which communities face high energy burdens, we can reach low-income Vermonters with programs that would help to reduce those burdens. But our energy burden work historically has been limited to looking at income alone as a factor. Now, we need to take a multi-faceted approach. We need to do more to understand barriers faced by communities of color, renters, and non-English speakers.
We started by learning from national efforts to understand and combat inequity in the energy system. We then undertook our own analysis of energy efficiency programs in Vermont before creating a plan to help all Vermonters access energy saving solutions.
Efficiency Vermont is not alone in working on advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in energy. The current U.S. Presidential administration identified energy equity as an early priority. On January 27th, President Biden signed an executive order on tackling the climate crisis. The order set a “goal that 40% of overall benefits flow to disadvantaged communities” from federal investments in clean energy and energy efficiency. Disadvantaged communities were defined as those with racial and ethnic residential segregation, low income or high poverty rates, linguistic isolation, high transportation cost burden and/or low access, and high energy cost burden and low access, among others. The American Jobs Plan reinforced the Administration’s position. It included a focus on workforce development for BIPoC communities and women. It also prioritized clean energy investments for disadvantaged communities.
Many national organizations are working to measure equity. ACEEE’s ‘Leading with Equity’ effort and the Urban Energy Justice Lab’s Energy Equity Project are both focused on tracking equity. Understanding what success looks like will help support future successful policies and programs. As a data-driven organization, we can base future policy and program decisions on what these national partnerships define.
And other states are stepping forward too. New York, California, and Connecticut are working to ensure disadvantaged communities receive benefits from energy investments. The Energy Trust of Oregon (ETO) is Oregon’s statewide clean, efficient energy utility. They started their energy equity work by compiling baseline data on the income, geographic, and racial diversity of their customers. ETO then created a paid non-staff DEI advisory council to advise the utility on major decisions. Together, they completed a 2019-2020 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Operations Plan. Locally, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) is helping educate businesses on how to build a more inclusive and diverse work environment.
Efficiency Vermont has been inspired and took lessons from the efforts of others as we begin our own energy justice work. First, we analyzed the impact of our work to date. We wanted to understand participation in our programs through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Were communities with larger BIPoC or low-income populations participating in our programs at the same rate as whiter, more affluent communities?
While there were no obvious gaps in our current programs, we also learned that our data has limits. We found that towns with a high number of BIPoC or low-income residents or renters are not under-served, but our data does not give us individual customer demographics. However, focusing solely on gathering that data will not advance equity. We need to look closely at our programs and put in place strategies to ensure they reach all communities in Vermont.
Barriers to saving energy are higher for BIPoC and low-income Vermonters. Our path forward is 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 to help Vermonters reduce their energy costs and burden.
- Leverage our resources to support and uplift historically disenfranchised businesses, partners, and communities.
- Actively engage in the broader state-level effort to advance equity through public policy, working collaboratively with our regulators and efficiency utility partners to center energy justice in our collective work.
- Encourage all staff to participate in creating a work environment that values diverse viewpoints, cultures, and lived experiences; and fosters compassionate, open, and honest dialogue while supporting continuous improvement.
With the plan adopted, we move into doing the work and continuing to listen. We are already starting to talk with our regulators and utility partners about how we can work together to advance equity. We are launching a paid customer panel that will provide feedback on new programs and services. Our staff will participate in statewide forums on advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in Vermont. We will seek to engage with and more effectively serve BIPoC partners, community groups, and BIPoC-owned businesses. All current staff have already completed diversity, equity, and inclusion training. As staff learns, we will gain more of their feedback and participation in this plan. Through these efforts, we will understand more about how we can help all Vermonters with energy efficiency. As we listen and learn, the plan will continue to grow and evolve.
This is only the beginning. Inequity is baked into our current system. 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.