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  • Destenie Nock

Who has been hidden in energy poverty?

Updated: May 12, 2022

Energy poverty is multi-faceted. Having a limited economic measurement focus can miss people who are suffering.

By Destenie Nock

July 8, 2021


Last summer during the COVID pandemic lock down my 75 year-old neighbor told me that she had to go to the hospital because her house was too hot and she fainted. It turns out that she had a heat stroke. I asked her why she left all of her windows open all of the time, and she proceeded to tell me about her broken air conditioner.

"It's just too darn expensive to fix! All this stuff is sky high!" She yelled as she threw her hands in the air.

Now some of you might be asking why she didn't just by a window unit, or more fans to cool the temperature within her home. I want to take a step back and remind readers that normally when a person is experiencing one form of poverty (e.g., difficulty fixing air conditioner, or paying for food), they are experiencing another form of poverty (e.g., difficulty paying medical bills or house payments). So the question isn't really "why didn't the person experiencing poverty buy XYZ," but "what has the person given up to reduce their financial stress in other parts of their lives?" In this case my neighbor gave up her air conditioner to cover medical and other expenses, but put herself at a greater health risk in the process.

If you experience heat exhaustion cool yourself down. For heat stroke call 911!

This summer my research team and I have been creating methods for identifying who is experiencing energy poverty. Currently the most common way to quantify energy poverty is by calculating the percent of income spent on meeting your energy bills. Unfortunately, this misses people who are cutting their electricity consumption to save money. In the case of my neighbor she has a very low percent of her income spent on meeting her energy bills because she cannot use her air conditioner. If people cut their energy (i.e., electricity and heat) too much they could be putting themselves at risk of heat strokes in the summer or hypothermia in the winter.

To identify people who have been cutting their electricity consumption my research team and I have been working with an electricity utility company to identify the outdoor temperature at which people turn on their AC units. Using regression analysis techniques we have found that low income households tend to wait 4 - 7.5 degrees F longer than high income households to turn on their AC units. This means that low-income households are putting themselves at greater risk of heat-illness in the summer. This academic paper has been submitted to a journal, so stay tuned for its release. The article can be found here

My work is discussed further in the following recent podcast and video appearances:

  1. This week I discuss my work in more detail on the Energy Nerd Show I discussed my research groups method for identifying energy energy limiting behavior in low income households. Check out the episode titled "Energy Poverty is More Complex (and Important!) Than You Think".

  2. The Big Switch is a new podcast which is focused on the energy transition. In this episode titled "Regulation: Why the Rules Matter" I discuss how rules and regulations impact grid operations and discuss the key players who decide how the grid operates..

  3. In a recent talk on the Energy Gang Podcast I discuss how to measure energy poverty and plan for an equitable energy transition in the episode titled "Tracking the Equity Outcome of Decarbonization". I also discuss the recent Infrastructure Bill and what I think the nation needs to prioritize for their infrastructure investments and a more equitable low carbon future.

Also I should give a shout out to my research team (the Energy, Equity and Sustainability Group at CMU), without whom I would not be able to do this work. Special thanks to Shuchen Cong and Teagan Goforth for helping with the energy poverty analysis.

Note about the Author: Dr. Destenie Nock is a leader in energy justice and decision analysis. She is an Assistant Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering and Engineering & Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Her current work is focused on 1) identifying who is experience energy poverty, and 2) creating optimization and decision analysis models which highlight the sustainability and equality trade-offs nations will make in energy transitions. She has previously consulted on projects aimed at enhancing equity and equality in energy transitions with BreakThrough Energy (on their Policy Solutions for a clean energy transition) and the Brattle Consulting Group. She obtained a PhD in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from UMass Amherst. Her PhD work was computational in nature and involved creating mathematical models which simulated electricity systems and evaluated them in terms of their sustainability. Her papers detailing her current published research in social justice, sustainability, and electricity modeling can be found here.

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