U-M Energy Equity Project to Develop First Standardized Tool for Driving Equity in Clean Energy Industry

ANN ARBOR—Despite widespread calls for a just transition to cleaner, more resilient energy systems, there isn’t a standardized measurement framework for evaluating the equity of clean energy programs. As a result, utility administrators, regulators, and energy advocates have been judging equity on an ad hoc basis. The Urban Energy Justice Lab at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) today announced a new program aimed at addressing this gap, which will measure whether clean energy programs are being distributed equitably to those who need them most.

The Energy Equity Project—a partnership between SEAS and the Energy and Joyce Foundations—will create a standardized approach to collecting and tracking data to improve equity in clean energy programs. The Equity Measurement Framework will be the first of its kind to assess equity in clean energy policies, programs, and investments, including how easy it is to access clean energy services in frontline and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities that are burdened by disproportionately high energy costs and pollution. This comes at a critical time, given the Biden administration’s increasing focus on environmental justice. The project will dovetail with the administration’s Justice40 Initiative, which pledges to deliver 40 percent of climate investment benefits, including weatherization, retrofits, and renewable energy, to disadvantaged communities.

The Energy Equity Project team will engage BIPOC and frontline communities in the Framework development process through a series of summer public engagement activities, including two webinars in June: “From the Frontline to the Front of the Line: An Introduction to the Energy Equity Project.”

Subsequent listening sessions will focus on hearing from those historically burdened by fossil fuels and excluded from the benefits of clean energy and climate action.

“The Energy Equity Project is an opportunity to both drive and measure how we’re moving the needle on equity in the clean energy and energy efficiency industry,” said Dr. Tony Reames, principal investigator of the project, who also is an assistant professor of energy justice at SEAS and director of the Urban Energy Justice Lab. “There’s a big transparency issue where it’s easy for utilities or regulators to say they’re incorporating equity into their programs or that equity is a priority, without having any teeth behind those commitments. We need a tool to evaluate whether they are hitting the mark or not.”

Reames and the Urban Energy Justice Lab were tapped by a group of collaborators to lead the development and testing of the Framework, which will address the key problems in equity measurement: a diversity of approaches that stymies aggregation and comparison, lack of access to demographic data, and the high cost to implement equity measurement and reporting. One of the key goals of the Framework is to measurably improve the clean energy benefits that BIPOC and frontline communities receive, including lower energy bills, cleaner air, green jobs, resilience to climate impacts and power outages, and ownership of renewable energy systems and electric vehicles.

“While electric vehicles, solar panels, and green jobs are theoretically available to anyone, the truth is that Black, Brown, and Native people are being shut out of these opportunities,” said Justin Schott, Project Manager. “Polls show BIPOC support a range of climate mitigation efforts at the same or higher levels than Whiter and wealthier counterparts. This follows the same pattern that we see in housing, health care, education, and economic development: The legacies of structural racism have resulted in barriers to a just transition. It’s much harder to find highly efficient, new technologies and experienced contractors in BIPOC and lower-income neighborhoods, for instance, and programs are designed for homeowners with high credit scores and access to financing. Our objective is to ensure that the voices of frontline communities are not only heard, but are prominent, and that they are not only the recipients, but the architects of an equitable clean energy future.”

A beta version of the Framework is set to launch in early 2022. Envisioned as an “off the shelf” guide, the Framework will consist of a set of text documents, spreadsheets, and an interactive website with user support provided via phone and email. Ultimately, the Energy Equity Project aims to contribute to how policies and programs are designed, how the benefits of decarbonization are distributed, and how the burdens of dirty energy are lifted.

Register for the Energy Equity Project kickoff webinar on June 9 or 17, 2021

Published by Dr. Tony G. Reames

Tony G. Reames is an assistant professor in the School for Environment & Sustainability (SEAS) at the University of Michigan. He has a PhD in public administration from the University of Kansas. He is a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) with a Master of Engineering Management from Kansas State University, and a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Dr. Reames leads the Urban Energy Justice Lab and his research investigates the fair and equitable access to affordable, reliable, clean energy, and explores the production and persistence of energy disparities across race, class, and place.

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