The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

DOE energy justice official: New power paradigms must protect the poor

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reames1The inordinate burden of energy costs is shown in this slide presented by Tony Reames during a discussion of energy injustice at the University of Tennessee Howard Baker Center.  U.S. Department of Energy

Department of Energy official pushes goals for energy equity in midst of power turmoil

KNOXVILLE — Energy injustice seems abstract until you run extension cords to your neighbor’s house and store their food in your fridge because their power got cut off.

What else are you supposed to do? Maybe start raising hell about the utility inequities faced by poor people that are clearer every day in an energy marketplace scarred by war and inflation and manipulated by global petroleum cartels?

“We’re at a critical moment in our society. Across the globe, we are hearing about energy insecurity, energy, affordability issues, a lack of resources,” said Tony Reames, Department of Energy deputy director of energy justice, a newly created position at DOE.

“We’re at this critical moment where we have investments that can actually address the energy and security crisis that we face,” thanks to congressional and Biden administration investments into alternative fuels and efficiency improvements that can reduce poor people’s unfair weight of utility costs.

Tony ReamesDr. Tony G. ReamesReames made the comments at a lecture this month at the University of Tennessee Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy sponsored by the Engineering Research Center and UT College of Engineering. 


On the eve of an impending global energy crisis

The Inflation Reduction Act includes $369 billion in tax credits and investments in clean energy. It’s the largest clean energy investment in U.S. history.

Reames stressed the concepts of environmental and climate justice in preparing the national energy grid for times of intense energy demands and reforms.

“Climate justice is really thinking about the future inequities that may occur because of climate change,” Reames said. “How do we focus on our energy system so we can eradicate the environmental injustices that exist?” 

Those environmental injustices can be measured by federal and state efforts to simply make homes more energy efficient in minority neighborhoods, considered a low-hanging fruit of energy conservation. But a lack of cultural understanding and too many earnest white faces sometimes trip it up.

Reames cited a challenging effort to enlist Black and other minority households in a federal energy-conservation program targeted for low-income communities in Kansas City.

“When you come into a low-income community, how do you make something like green real? When people have so many other issues, and you know, people associate green with Whole Foods or you know, Tesla, things that they can’t attain? And so it was really about making that economic argument about going green,” he said. 
Dr Reames presenting


Money alone is not the solution

But even vast government funding can’t overcome some basic distrust when strangers appear at doors talking about “energy audits,” Reames said.

“People have distrust issues with utilities. People have distrust issues with government. And energy programs touch both of those things.

“Who do you think showed up at their door in this initial rollout?” he said, referencing the Kansas City effort with local universities to improve and encourage energy efficiencies for free in low-income households.

“There were mostly young white kids. So grandma was like, ‘What is this kid doing on my porch? What are they selling?’”

Thus was birthed the need for local block leaders to push free and subsidized energy-efficiency improvements in low-income neighborhoods. 


Personal initiatives can make BIG differences

A woman named Miss Riley, now deceased, served the need by agreeing to have a new energy-efficient furnace installed in her house, Reames said. 

At the time, she boasted she could once again comfortably move about her home in her housecoat, and invited neighbors over to scope out her new furnace, which she called “Little Thunder.” Her enthusiastic endorsement was caught on camera and distributed.

Thus the importance of the block captain to help transmit the warnings and solutions to people who might have to choose between “heat or eat.”

“People are choosing whether they’re going to heat their home or buy food, and then people are keeping their homes at unhealthy temperatures, right, so either their homes are too hot, or too cold, because they can’t afford to pay their utility bills.

“So they’re curtailing and cutting back, or their system is broken, and they can’t afford to replace it. And so again, massive increases in all these conditions of energy insecurity. 

“We know energy insecurity has not been felt equitably across different populations. So we can see racial disparities, ethnic disparities, disparities in the age of the householder, even folks with children, you know, maybe more at risk of experiencing energy insecurity. And, of course, our lower-income households. 

“And so we’re talking about African American communities — 52 percent of black households were experiencing energy insecurity in 2020.”


Renewed Commitment to Environmental Energy JusticeTap the image to view the event recording (75 minute Baker Center video with slides).

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