U-M Energy Equity Project Partners in Developing Inclusive Decarbonization Policies for the Future

By Haley Riley, MS Candidate | May 27, 2021

The Biden administration’s recommitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change has inspired experts and organizations focused on net-zero energy production to plan for the implementation of decarbonization technologies. On May 25-26, the School for Environment and Sustainability joined a workshop for stakeholders, including modelers, analysts, and policy and implementation experts. Participating groups included Climate Works, Center for Global Sustainability, Rocky Mountain Institute, and World Resources Institute, as well as researchers and advisors appointed to President Biden’s climate policy and innovation office.

“Our goal was to create a governing body for this work, and to bridge the gap between technical and analytical frameworks and an interest in including equity and jobs considerations in long-term decarbonization strategies,” said Justin Schott, project manager for U-M’s Urban Energy Justice Lab’s Energy Equity Project, which was one of the organizers of the workshop.

While low-carbon technologies such as batteries, photovoltaics, and wind turbines are more cost-competitive than ever, this workshop focused on moving the conversation beyond least-cost, model-based scenarios toward policy and technology pathways that are politically feasible to implement in the U.S. and globally. Discussions around the feasibility, affordability, and steps for how to actually implement net-zero technologies led the direction of the workshop, but equity also featured heavily.

“We determined that we have the tools to feasibly implement these technologies, and we know we can do it affordably,” Schott said. “But the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd has given us space to discuss and address the legacies of structural racism and white supremacy. The topic of equity is now open for discussion even among researchers and modelers who previously didn’t see equity as playing a role in their own work. We discussed how to rework models to actually include equity and job promotion, as well as how to engage with community members to make sure that our models account for actual lived realities.”

At the end of the workshop attention was turned towards integrating equity, job creation, and other factors into net-zero modeling and future research efforts. Participants also shared the intent to raise a research agenda to inform more inclusive decarbonization policies for the future.

Energy Equity Project

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.” (Register below)

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

Group lays groundwork for equity metrics framework

In 2018, about 40 people gathered to lay the groundwork for development of a standardized approach to collecting, reporting and utility demographic variables to improve equity in clean energy programs.  Coming out of that gathering, several staff from VEIC, Efficiency for Everyone, Urban Institute, GHHI, and Energy Trust of Oregon took on 3 tasks:  1) Identify model approaches from equity assessment in non-energy fields like housing and education; 2) Identify model approaches from equity assessment in the clean energy industry; and 3) Identify an institution to develop an equity assessment tool.