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U-M, community partners tackle energy insecurity in three Detroit neighborhoods

Johanna Mathieu is one of four principal investigators on a project to improve home energy efficiency and to lower monthly utility bills.

Written by James Erickson, Michigan News

Some Detroiters spend up to 30% of their monthly income on home energy bills, a sky-high rate that places the city among the Top 10 nationally in a category that researchers call household energy burden.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation, adding financial challenges that make it increasingly difficult for many low- and moderate-income residents to pay their utility bills.

A new University of Michigan-led project, in partnership with four Detroit community-based organizations, will try to lighten that load a bit. Team members will work with residents of 200 low- and moderate-income (LMI) households in three Detroit neighborhoods—Jefferson Chalmers, Southwest Detroit and The Villages at Parkside—to improve home energy efficiency and to lower monthly utility bills.

At the same time, the U-M researchers will explore the possibility of 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.

“Our premise is that energy is a basic human right. With a better understanding of energy consumption, we can determine if there is a free block of ‘essential’ energy that everyone should get—and if not everyone, then those least likely to be able to afford it,” said project leader Tony Reames, an assistant professor of energy justice at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability.

The project is funded by a $2.1 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Smart and Connected Communities program, with 30% of the funding going 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 partner.

The four-year effort, which involves home visits and neighborhood focus groups, has been delayed by the pandemic. Originally scheduled to begin this fall, the face-to-face portions of the project will likely start next spring or early summer, depending on what happens with COVID-19.

“The pandemic exacerbates the very disparities that we are trying to address,” said Reames, who directs the Urban Energy Justice Lab at SEAS. “This project is very timely, and we need to get it underway as soon as possible because it’s even more relevant now than when we proposed it last year.”

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For each participating home, local case managers and energy evaluators from Ecoworks, a Detroit-based nonprofit, will develop an energy improvement plan. Each plan includes a list of energy-saving DIY projects and the names of energy-assistance programs that the household can join.

The DIY projects could include things like adding door sweeps, window caulking, LED light bulbs or a programmable thermostat. Energy assistance programs could include the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program, various city of Detroit home improvement programs, and DTE’s Energy Efficiency Assistance program, for example.

The case managers will help residents implement the recommendations in their energy improvement plan. A key project goal is to help lower the household energy burden, defined as the percentage of household income spent on energy bills.

Researchers will also collect anonymized energy-consumption data from smart meters in all of the homes.

The smart-meter data will be used to develop algorithms that identify consumers’ basic electricity needs. The researchers will also weigh insights from the focus groups, where residents will be asked about their electricity-dependent household necessities.

Knowledge gained from both sources will inform a new electricity rate paradigm, one that explores the possibility of providing a free level of basic electricity to residents who need it most. At the end of the project, the researchers plan to submit a policy recommendation to DTE Energy and to the Michigan Public Service Commission.

“One goal of the NSF Smart and Connected Communities program is to engage directly with real communities, and I think this project is structured to accomplish just that, since the research goals and approaches are structured around real challenges faced by LMI  households in Detroit,” said Johanna Mathieu, an associate professor in the U-M Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Mathieu is one of the project’s four co-principal investigators. The other three are Marie O’Neill and Barbara Israel of the U-M School of Public Health and Carina Gronlund of the U-M Institute for Social Research.

The project is titled “Reducing barriers to residential energy security through an integrated case-management, data-driven, community-based approach.” Household energy security is the ability to meet basic heating, cooling and energy needs. Household energy insecurity is the opposite: uncertainty that a household can pay its energy bills.

Energy insecurity often co-occurs with food insecurity—a phenomenon sometimes called the “heat or eat” syndrome. Both energy and food insecurity can impact personal health, and both have been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit Detroit residents especially hard.

“Given the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular their impact on the financial resources available to Detroit residents, the active engagement of our community partners and their constituents in this effort is even more critical for understanding and addressing energy insecurity and promoting health equity,” said Israel, a professor of health behavior and education.

O’Neill, a professor of epidemiology and environmental health sciences, said, “Health equity has been defined as everyone having a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. Lowering the obstacle of high financial energy burden—thus reducing stress and enabling people to more easily pay for other basic necessities, including food and medicine—is one way this project can enhance health equity.”

Another goal of the project is to increase participation in energy efficiency programs among LMI households.

“Connecting people to those programs and identifying barriers to enrollment is essential to making them work,” said Gronlund, an environmental epidemiologist and a research assistant professor at the Institute for Social Research.

At the same time, improving household energy efficiency can be viewed as a form of climate adaptation, Gronlund said. And if households use less energy, then power plants will generate less air pollution and climate-warming greenhouse gases, she said.

“By expanding participation in energy efficiency programs, we can simultaneously improve outdoor and indoor environments, adapt to a changing climate, and slow climate change,” she said. “It’s potentially a win-win-win.”

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