Team working to reduce energy burdens in Detroit recognized with Michigan Difference Student Leadership Award

PhD students Joshua Brooks, Xavier Farrell, and Madeline Miller are part of an NSF Smart and Connected Communities project that partners with local Detroit organizations to reduce household energy insecurity.

Xavier Farrell and Joshua Brooks hold the award plaque at the ceremony surrounded by U-M balloons
Xavier Farrell and Joshua Brooks accept the Michigan Difference Student Leadership Award at the award ceremony on March 23, 2023 in the Michigan League Ballroom. The third member of the team, Madeline Miller, was unable to attend.

A team of doctoral students working to improve home energy efficiency and to lower monthly utility bills for low- and moderate-income (LMI) households in Detroit have been recognized with a Michigan Difference Student Leadership Award. Joshua Brooks and Xavier Farrell are PhD students in ECE, and Madeline Miller is a PhD student in the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS).

“If successful, this project can serve as a scalable model for how to effectively mitigate the energy related hardships experienced among low-to-moderate income households,” Farrell said. “This means reducing the number of ‘heat-or-eat’ type decisions where persons are forced to choose between paying for energy expenditures and other physical or medical necessities.”

If successful, this project can serve as a scalable model for how to effectively mitigate the energy related hardships experienced among low-to-moderate income households.

Xavier Farrell, ECE PhD student

On average, energy costs for Black and Hispanic households are 43% and 20% higher, respectively, than white households. Some Detroiters spend up to 30% of their monthly income on home energy bills, which places the city among the top ten nationally in a category that researchers call household “energy burden.” These disproportionately higher energy burdens result in household energy insecurity, or the inability to adequately afford their energy costs. Energy insecurity can lead to or exacerbate a host of physical, social, economic, and health issues in communities of color.

“Behind the metrics, numbers and data, there are real people in our communities experiencing cold winters, financial hardships, and insecurity relating to their energy that are in need of help,” Farrell said. “As engineers and compassionate people, we are equipped with many tools to help them.”

The team has been exploring how smart meter data can be used to improve utility programs and rate recommendations. They are also researching possibilities for reforming the utility rate structure to provide the basic electricity needs of LMI households for free while ensuring that the utility provider’s costs are covered.

Madeline Miller
Madeline Miller is a PhD student in the School for Environment and Sustainability.

“There is very little real-time data on energy usage for low-income single and multi-family homes,” Miller said. “The information that comes out of this project can be used to inform realistic, impactful, data-driven decisions for the most vulnerable residential utility customers.” 

Brooks, Farrell, and Miller are specifically working with community-based organizations in the Jefferson Chalmers and Southwest Detroit neighborhoods and the Villages at Parkside, a multifamily public housing community.

“I was born and raised in Detroit myself, so this project felt like a natural extension to try and help people in the community I’ve called home for most of my life,” Brooks said.

The team’s work includes codifying insights from surveys and household smart meters to identify ways to reduce energy-related costs and improve household comfort. They share these insights and suggestions with the community partners, who engage in informed conversations that lead to personalized recommendations for each resident.  

For instance, much of what contributes to high energy costs is old, power hungry, inefficient technology. The data provided in this study can help inform customers which of their appliances are consuming the most energy and offer suggestions for the best interventions.

“Working with the non-profit Friends of Parkside, we’ve helped facilitate the installation of energy conserving measures, including smart thermostats, refrigerators, and LED lighting, to residents of this multifamily community,” Miller said. “We have also conducted energy efficiency workshops and have plans to distribute other resources to lessen this community’s energy burden.”

In addition, the students have had to adapt to a variety of challenges, including the pandemic, which has affected recruiting efforts and delayed project goals. When DTE updated its default electricity rate, the students were tasked with generating entirely new educational materials and messaging about how the rate change will affect each participant’s bills.  

“The students are doing a fantastic job working directly with the community to ensure their research is addressing community priorities and needs,” said Prof. Johanna Mathieu, the project Principal Investigator.

According to Mathieu, the potential impact of this project and the specific work done by Brooks, Farrell, and Miller, will include:

  • Building a relationship of trust and research co-design with communities in Detroit
  • Reducing energy burdens for study participants
  • Developing data-driven tools that could be used in other studies/implementations to help low-to-moderate income families reduce energy burden
  • Generating scientific results on best practices for engaging communities to reduce energy burdens
  • Fostering a culture of interdisciplinary work at U-M
  • Contributing to anti-racism research at U-M

In addition to Mathieu, the project is co-led by Prof. Marie O’Neill of the School of Public Health, Research Assistant Prof. Carina Gronlund of the Institute for Social Research, and SEAS faculty Shelie Miller, the Jonathan W. Bulkley Collegiate Professor of Sustainable Systems and U-M Distinguished Faculty Fellow in Sustainability, and Prof. Tony Reames. Reames is currently serving as Deputy Director for Energy Justice at the U.S. Department of Energy where he leads the Office of Energy Justice Policy and Analysis in the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity. Mathieu advises Brooks and Farrell, and Reames and S. Miller co-advise M. Miller.

The project is funded by a $2.1 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Smart and Connected Communities program. 30% of the funding goes to U-M’s community partners in Detroit: Jefferson East Inc., Friends of Parkside, Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, and EcoWorks. DTE Energy is also a collaborator.