Energy Equity, Equality, and Justice Explained
Updated: May 12
By: Destenie Nock
Dec 6, 2021
Energy equity, equality, and justice are gaining a lot of popularity, but can be hard to distinguish because they all relate to each other. If you want a quick overview our 3-minute YouTube video "Energy Equity, Equality, and Justice Explained" breaks down the definitions, and provides examples of each definition. Being clear about definitions is a key step in reaching an equitable energy future.
Now let's dive into the definitions! First up, why are we even talking about this in the first place? The energy system has certain inequalities imbedded in it. These energy inequalities can stem from resources you have access to, or your position in society. For example, let's assume that everyone can buy rooftop solar. If you live in sunny Phoenix, AZ then your solar panels would produce more energy, than in cloudy Pittsburgh, PA. The inequality here is that it will take less solar panels to achieve 100 kWh of energy output in Phoenix than it would in Pittsburgh. This is an inequality of solar resources.
There is another stronger inequality simmering beneath the surface. Not everyone can adopt energy technologies like rooftop solar and electric vehicles, because not everyone owns their roof or has a garage. Renters and people that live in apartments will have a difficult time adopting solar and electric vehicle technologies due to lack of roof and garage space for charging the vehicles. This is not the technologies fault! But it speaks to a deeper issue of resource inequality within society. This inequality is in terms of capability to adopt energy technologies.
Energy equality refers to equally distributed tools and resources. For example, one energy equality based assistance policy could be providing every resident within a certain distance of a fossil-fuel plant the same rebate from a carbon tax. The idea behind the rebate could be to compensate people for the negative health effects associated with pollution.
One challenge here is that equal tool distribution does not account for the different inequalities people face in a broken and unjust system. Building on the fossil-fuel plant example the policy that gives everyone the same rebate does not account for the fact that low-income groups have poorer nutrition, older homes, and additional stressors stemming from poverty. Thus, low income groups would need larger rebates to reach the same level of health quality.
Energy equity refers to the creation of custom tools to address the inequalities faced by different individuals.
Energy equality and energy equity are attempts supply tools to people that correct for system level injustices. Energy justice focuses on fixing the system and providing people with the tools they need to have equal access to tools and opportunities. Since we have focused on the means and the system this is often called procedural justice.
One thing that makes these definitions confusing is that each of these terms relates to one another. Reaching equity and justice of the system should lead to equality of opportunity to the ultimate social objectives tied to the energy system. For example, equitable access to energy assistance should lead to justice, which would be equal access to affordable bills, clean air, and clean water.
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YouTube Video link: https://youtu.be/Jgcj7iLLPr0
Sources for energy poverty research:
Cong et al 2022 - https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-022-30146-5
Bednar and Reames 2020 - https://www.nature.com/articles/s41560-020-0582-0
Memmott et al 2020 - https://www.nature.com/articles/s41560-020-00763-9
Sources for Energy Justice types:
The energy justice Workbook. https://iejusa.org/section-1-defining-energy-justice/
Jenkins et al 2016 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629615300669?via%3Dihub
"Inequitable and heterogeneous impacts on electricity consumption from COVID-19 mitigation measures" - Lou et al. 2021 - Paper on COVID-19 impact on residential electricity consumption. One key highlight: The COVID-19 closure mandates exacerbated energy insecurity in US. Residential electricity consumption increased by 4-5%.
"Wind energy's bycatch: Offshore wind deployment impacts on hydropower operation and migratory fish" - Pfeiffer et al. 2021 - Hydropower plays a key role in maintaining grid reliability, and is key to reach our decarbonization goals. Yet, this will have an impact on fish populations and migration patterns. This paper presents an analysis of how high deployment of offshore wind in the US will impact fish species.
Note about the Author: Dr. Destenie Nock is an Assistant Professor in Civil & Environmental Engineering and Engineering & Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Her current research is focused on understanding sustainability and equality trade-offs in energy transitions. Her research is computational in nature and involved creating mathematical models which simulate electricity systems and evaluated them in terms of their sustainability and equality. Her papers detailing the research she completed in energy justice, sustainability evaluation, and electricity modeling can be found here, and on her Google Scholar page. Fun fact: Dr. Nock is the first African-American women hired into a tenure track Assistant Professor role by the College of Engineering at CMU, along with Elizabeth Wayne.