Sarah Higginson and Bowale Fadare look back to the conversation that inspired our hiring a researcher to explore the intersections between vulnerability and energy demand.
In 2021, CREDS and the Runnymede Trust organised a joint workshop for experts in the fields of racial and energy justice, to discuss the intersections between these two areas of research.
Based on this conversation, CREDS advertised a post and has recruited a researcher who will start in the spring of 2022 to scope this agenda and help us advocate for funding. This blog describes the background of this conversation.
Despite extensive research on fuel poverty in the UK, and a growing literature on energy justice, there is a gap in research examining the intersection between racial justice and energy demand. As the energy system undergoes its most rapid transformation ever, decarbonising, digitising and shifting which type of energy is used for what (such as the use of electricity in heating and transport), there is a danger that energy policy and infrastructural developments will overlook and impact already marginalised ethnic minority groups (OngenOpens in a new tab, 2021).
Intersectionality “views categories of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, ability, ethnicity and age, amongst other things, as interrelated and mutually shaping (one) another” (Hill Collins and BilgeOpens in a new tab, 2020). Lack of access to energy affects all aspects of life, including housing, health, mobility, access to culture and recreational activities, as well feelings of fulfilment (BartiauxOpens in a new tab et al., 2018). Socio-economic status is both a cause of, and exacerbated by, this lack of access.
Research in the US has started to examine the racial aspect of this phenomenon, and has discovered that those with lower incomes/ below the poverty line, living in racial/ethnic minority led households, with adults who have attained less than a high school education were, on average, less energy efficient (ReamesOpens in a new tab, 2018). Further, such groups tend to congregate in areas with the greatest environmental hazards (for example, near busy roads / railways, or sources of energy generation) which increases their exposure to congestion, noise, poor air quality (indoor and outdoor), lack of green space, dangerous urban/ remote rural locations, and so on.
The Covid-19 pandemic has further highlighted the systemic inequalities which disadvantage marginalised communities. In the UK, nearly half of minority households already live in poverty (ButlerOpens in a new tab, 2020). This is predicted to worsen as households face higher energy bills from being at home (Editorial Nature EnergyOpens in a new tab, 2020) and may face unemployment, which disproportionately affects ethnic minority communities (Butler, 2020). Statistically, such communities are also more likely to live in inadequate housing, which is crowded, near air pollution (Ongen, 2021, MavrokefalidisOpens in a new tab, 2021) and energy inefficient (KhanOpens in a new tab, 2020).
Occupying a larger percentage of the rental market, energy efficient solutions (like retrofitting) are often challenging due to the requirement for people to meet upfront costs and own their homes (OsborneOpens in a new tab, 2017). Ethnic minority communities can often not afford to transition to clean energy (solar, batteries, heat pumps, electric vehicles) and face high energy costs (they are often on the most expensive tariffs and pre-payment meters), which are likely to rise ever more steeply.
As such, relatively well-off, mostly white people have benefitted disproportionally from subsidies like the feed-in tariff, which offers payments to those with onsite renewable technologies. In addition, these customers are then ‘free’ from the grid, though they benefit by using it for backup, while those still wholly reliant on it, in their energy inefficient homes, pay high standing charges on their bills to subsidise the transformation of the grid. This constitutes a regressive tax on some of the most vulnerable in our society.
Looking forward, the benefits of the ‘green transformation’ for marginalised communities are also in doubt, as the promised green jobs, infrastructural investment and subsidies are unlikely to materialise for these communities. Meanwhile, to support intermittent renewable generation and reduce peak demand, they will be asked to be increasingly flexible about when they use energy. A smart green grid will carry a financial incentive to be flexible, using technologies like smart meters and smart appliances to facilitate this. Those without access to this ‘smart future’ will again be disadvantaged. Given that many of these communities lack the social networks, access to capital and capacity to influence how this future develops or, indeed, to own any of its assets, the green revolution is currently likely to leave people of colour in its wake.
Researchers like us are interested in highlighting such issues so that they can be addressed. However, there is a distinct lack of data, funding for this sort of work is nascent and recruitment of people interested in this work historically inadequate. The Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions and the Runnymede Trust want to see a just and equitable energy economy fit for all. We are therefore seeking to develop a research agenda in this area that examines how different forms of vulnerability intersect in relation to energy demand and how institutional racism manifests itself in the systems described above.
The terms BAME and BME have been largely discredited as not representing the lived experience and rich mixture of culture, ethnicity and identity with which people might identify themselves. People’s lived experiences cannot be lumped together in a catch-all acroym just for the sake of convenience. However, even the more complex categories outlined in the UK census data are problematic, featuring, as they do, an odd mixture of race (with its eugenic roots), ethnicity, culture and colonial history. Such categories both contain huge gaps – Latin America is not mentioned, and it’s not possible to be a black-Asian, for example – and make sweeping generalisations – massive areas (Africa, Asia) are each treated as one place. This sort of data is not collected in the same way in other countries, leading to questions about its constructedness and also its comparabilty. As researchers, if we wish our research to be taken seriously by marinalised communities, we need to talk to and involve them so they feel represented. This means being specific about what we want to know and why, and then asking (and reporting on) specific data relevant to our studies. There is no simple solution. Researchers, journals and funders need to think carefully about how to address this complex question. I wish to thank Dr Yasmin Ahmadzadeh for drawing these issues to my attention.
Banner photo credit: Mangostock on AdobeStock