In this episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Kelly T. Sanders, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California. Sanders summarizes her research into how minority and low-income communities in the United States disproportionately lack access to air conditioning, which can be fatal in the summer months. As climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic threaten to intensify these inequalities, Sanders discusses how policymakers can develop innovative solutions to ensure that access to cool air does not come at undue cost for those in need.
Listen to the Podcast
- Lack of air conditioning has devastating impacts on marginalized communities: “Across the United States, about 87 percent of our households do have access to air conditioning, but it's typically the most vulnerable—minority communities, communities of color—that don't have access. And … at the national level, we know that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 600 people in the United States die from extreme heat events every year on average. That's actually more deaths than storms, floods, and lightning combined.” (7:00)
- COVID-19 makes managing heat waves harder: “[It] is going to be a huge challenge for cities and other communities to think about how, on one hand, do you protect people that don't have access to air conditioning from these extreme heat events, while also trying to prevent the spread of COVID? So, this is really a coupled challenge that we are seeing some response to [already], but it's going to be a pretty big deal as we move into the hot months of July and August.” (23:43)
- Planning ahead to protect the vulnerable from rising temperatures: “We look at [climate change] as an environmental problem, or a problem for sustainability—but just like COVID-19, it's really going to challenge every element of our society. We really have to get out ahead of it and think about how we are going to protect our most vulnerable communities from some of the largest economic consequences of climate change. How do we protect vulnerable communities from bigger hurricanes, more wildfires, and more extreme heat events?” (27:25)
Top of the Stack
- "Utilizing smart-meter data to project impacts of urban warming on residential electricity use for vulnerable populations in Southern California" by Mo Chen, George A. Ban-Weiss, and Kelly T. Sanders
- Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities by Vaclav Smil
- These Truths by Jill Lepore
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week, we talked with Professor Kelly T. Sanders from the University of Southern California. With her coauthors, Kelly has recently published a series of studies on air conditioning use in Southern California, with a focus on who does and who does not have access to cooling on hot days. This work, which touches on issues of energy and environmental justice, has big implications for managing the COVID-19 pandemic this summer and for managing climate change in the decades to come. Stay with us.
Okay, Kelly T. Sanders from the University of Southern California, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Kelly T. Sanders: Well, thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure.
Daniel Raimi: So Kelly, one of the questions that we always ask our guests who come on the show is how they got interested in working on environmental or energy-related issues from the beginning. So can you give us a sense of what your path was?
Kelly T. Sanders: Yeah. So my path was actually a little bit circuitous. I had a long path of getting here, but as a child, I was always out in nature. So I think I was out with my dad toddling around at the age of one, backpacking through the Appalachian Mountains. And so hiking and mountain biking was a huge part of my childhood. But as an undergraduate, I actually went into bioengineering. So I was also an athlete, and I was interested in helping people. And so I was really interested in the design of prosthetics to help people that have gone through traumatic events. I was in a really bad bike crash when I was 19, so that was a passion of mine. But I had this gap in between undergraduate and grad school, where I actually had time to read. So I started reading about the world and I started reading about climate change and renewable energy, and I really got swept up in this conversation about sustainability.
So I had what I call my first quarter life crisis. I've had a few since then. And I switched from bioengineering, and I went into mechanical engineering, where I studied energy systems at the University of Texas. And from that, I really just developed this huge passion for understanding how energy systems impact the environment.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Fantastic. And I should mention that you've been a guest by proxy on the show before, because we interviewed one of your coauthors, Emily Grubert, with whom you published a really great study about water use in the US energy system. You may well have published other papers together as well, but that was the one that Emily and I talked about on the show a few months back.
Kelly T. Sanders: Yeah. She's been a fantastic collaborator. We actually spent some time at the University of Texas together, so we've actually done a pretty big body of work. So she's just a brilliant mind in the energy space.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, absolutely. Well, let's talk now about our main focus of conversation today, which is a series of studies that you've published over the last several years with some coauthors that look at a variety of issues related to temperature and energy use in Southern California. And I've just found this work really fascinating. So can you give us a little bit of an overview of what this work is and give us a sense of why you and your coauthors were interested in exploring it?
Kelly T. Sanders: Sure. So this is a body of work that I completed with another professor at the University of Southern California named George Ban-Weiss and a PhD student that we worked with together named Mo Chen, and he is just graduating. So he just defended his dissertation, which is really exciting. But what we were trying to do with this study is to really understand how residential energy use is going to be impacted by the increase in temperature due to climate change. So I'm an energy analyst and George Ban-Weiss is a climate scientist, so we kind of put our heads together to think about this question of how can we really understand how our energy system, and by proxy, some of the environmental impacts of that energy system, are going to be impacted by climate change.
And what we did is we actually requested smart meter records from one of our local utilities here, Southern California Edison, and we actually got two years of hourly smart meter data for nearly 200,000 customers. And this data has been completely anonymized, so there's no security concerns. It's held on a very, very secure server. But what it enabled us to do is really this study with unprecedented spatial resolution, really understanding at the household level how different households react to changes in temperature based on historical data. And so what we're trying to do moving forward is to understand how might that change in the future because we have climate change, but we also have this thing called urban heat island, which essentially means that in cities, your built infrastructure itself can hold heat. And sometimes you have these localized heat impacts of cities themselves, which is important as we continue to urbanize. So this was a really fun, collaborative study, and I think it has big implications for what we have moving forward.
Daniel Raimi: Great. So thanks for that background. It's really interesting in thinking about not only what can we learn about the future under climate change, but learning lots of stuff about access to energy today, in the studies that you've put out. And when I think about the concepts of energy poverty and energy access, sometimes called energy justice, the US isn't always the first place that comes to mind, right? We've done shows recently on issues related to energy access in Africa, and we're doing one soon on India, but what this work shows is that today there are substantial portions of Southern California where there are lots of people that don't have access to air conditioning. Can you give us a sense of how big that issue is and what communities are most heavily affected?
Kelly T. Sanders: Yeah, those are all really great points. And that's one of the reasons that we wanted to do this study, because in the United States, we do have high penetration of AC. So across the United States, about 87 percent of our households do have access to air conditioning, but it's typically the most vulnerable, and also minority communities, communities of color, that don't have access. And because of the nature of limitations to prior study, just because we didn't have access to a lot of energy data, we just didn't have a good sense of exactly where these communities existed. But at the national level, we know that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 600 people in the United States die from extreme heat events every year on average. And so that's actually more deaths than storms, floods, and lightning combined, which a lot of people don't really realize. So heat-related illnesses are actually a leading cause of death in terms of natural weather or environmental events.
So one of the reasons that we wanted to look at Los Angeles is it's incredibly racially diverse. It's very economically diverse. But one of the really interesting keys that I didn't mention before is it's also very climatically diverse. So you have the coastal regions, you have high desert or high mountains, you have low desert regions. And so it really gave us this unprecedented opportunity to look at how some of these economic and social tensions also conflict with some of these spatial and climatic disparities across the region.
So using our methodology, we found out that about 69 percent of the Los Angeles region, the Greater Los Angeles region that we investigated, has access to air conditioning. Now, a lot of the people that don't have access to air conditioning live on the coast, where it's a little bit more mild, but in recent years, even in those areas, we see large installations of air conditioning. So even here in Los Angeles, we found that there still are a lot of inland communities that deal with a lot of extreme heat events that don't have access to air conditioning.
And one of the big outcomes of this study, as we looked at this based on projections from the state of California about climate change, is that 30 percent of the census tracts that we identified as most vulnerable, so that means that they have limitations from an economic standpoint, they're poorer communities, and they also don't currently have access to air conditioning. 30 percent of those are going to experience as much as 32 extreme heat days per year by the end of the century. So that's a really big deal from a public policy perspective. And as you mentioned before, the United States compared to the rest of the world is not in bad shape. An 87 percent penetration rate is pretty high.
But as you look at this more broadly, we're expecting there to be somewhere between a two- and threefold increase in the number of air conditioning units that we have globally. And most of that growth is going to be in more developing countries, such as China and India and Indonesia. So you have kind of this twofold tension, where we have the increase in the number of units that we're going to need, but we also have this increasing intensity with which we use the units that we have. So we really have to think about that from an energy usage perspective.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Absolutely. And you mentioned one of the key findings by the end of the century when it comes to climate change. I'm just curious, do you remember what the climate scenario was that you were using to reach that finding?
Kelly T. Sanders: Yeah, so we used a reference of RCP 8.5, which is one of the climate scenarios, which is not the most optimistic by any means but is kind of the norm in the climate science community of investigating these types of things. So there are certainly things that we could do to offset some of those climate change impacts, and I'm sure we'll get to those later in the questions.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, absolutely. And for people who want to dig deep on climate scenarios, we did an episode maybe a couple months ago with Zeke Hausfather, who's a climate scientist from the Breakthrough Institute. And we talked a lot about RCP 8.5 in other scenarios. So one other question about the way you measure how households respond to heat and how they use air conditioning and consume other energy services. You use this metric called temperature sensitivity, which if I remember correctly, measures the amount of additional electricity households use in response to changes in temperature. When we look at that measure, temperature sensitivity, what do we learn about the way that different types of households use energy in response to differences in weather?
Kelly T. Sanders: Yeah, so you described that indicator perfectly. And so what we were doing is we were quantifying this electricity temperature sensitivity, and basically what this indicator is looking at is at the household level, what is the temperature at which we see some sort of sensitivity to cooling? So for me, I'm a person that runs pretty cold. So I might not turn on my air conditioning until it's 90 degrees outside, whereas another household might decide to turn on the air conditioning when it's 75 degrees. So one of the compelling parts of our methodology is we could actually create this very personalized metric for every household that we analyzed, and using that, we can see one, at what ambient temperature do you turn on your air conditioning, and two, what is the intensity of that energy usage?
So just like you said, what is the increase in electricity use that we use per degree warming that we see? And what we found is that in climate zones where you have a higher average daily temperature, you see a lot more sensitivity to electricity to cooling, right? So that's a pretty intuitive finding, the hotter the climate zone, the more cooling that a household would be expected to show. But within those climate zones, we saw a very large sensitivity to poverty level. So what we did is we basically took all of the climate zones that we were analyzing, and like I said before, the beauty of analyzing Southern California is you do have this diversity of climate zones. And so within each one of those climate zones, we looked at this relationship between poverty levels and air conditioning use.
And what we found is that households in more affluent census tracts, which is small little subdivisions of the population that we analyzed, and they generally have higher electricity temperature sensitivities than those in less affluent census tracts. So in more layman's terms, the electricity usage for more affluent households is typically more sensitive to those ambient temperature changes. And again, that's a very intuitive result, but putting some quantitative rigor, we thought, was really important from a policy perspective in terms of identifying the actual neighborhoods where you have these concentrations of vulnerable populations.
Now, one of the limitations to this study is we didn't have a lot of information about the households themselves. This is really just looking at the amount of electricity that a household uses against the temperature that was measured at that particular day or at that particular hour. Now what we're doing is we are developing more sophisticated methodologies to use machine learning techniques to really understand how things like home vintage and home size and occupancy impact some of these tensions between electricity and temperature changes.
Daniel Raimi: Right, that makes sense, so you can get to that more granular level of understanding how different households are responding. But you're right. That does make sense. But it's really important to sort of demonstrate it, that sort of major finding. I think sometimes, at least for some folks, there's an assumption that because electricity is relatively cheap, that turning on the AC wouldn't be a big barrier for a lot of folks, but one of the things that comes out really clearly in this study is that when it gets hot outside, the census tracts with the higher income, they crank up the AC more. So it seems to demonstrate, to me, at least, pretty compellingly that income level does make a difference when it comes to access to actually using energy.
Kelly T. Sanders: Oh, absolutely.
Daniel Raimi: So Kelly, you mentioned a few minutes ago, one of the estimates for the impacts of climate change by the end of the century in Los Angeles. Are there other implications of climate change that you think about when you think about this work?
Kelly T. Sanders: Yeah. So I think that one of the big takeaways for me in this work is this inherent tension that we have between climate change mitigation policies. So those are policies that try to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that we put into the atmosphere, and then climate change adaptation policies. Those are the policies that try to help protect us from some of the worst consequences of climate change. And in some cases, those interventions or those policies might be mutually beneficial.
So a good example of that might be wind turbines. As we install more wind turbines, we are increasing renewable energy, so we can offset some of our fossil fuel usage, and wind turbines also aren't sensitive to temperature, like our big thermal fossil fuel power plants and nuclear power plants are. They also don't utilize water for cooling as our thermal power plants do. Our power plants actually use a lot of water for cooling. So as it gets hotter and as our water resources get more scarce, you can actually have vulnerabilities. So wind turbines and also solar panels are mitigation strategies that are also conducive to being good for adaptation.
Now, one of the tensions that this study unveils is that some interventions have conflicts. So air conditioning is one of the leading reasons that we use energy. And as I mentioned before, we're expecting our energy usage to go up quite a bit globally because of these increased needs for cooling. So it's not going to be great from a mitigation standpoint, because the majority of our global energy system and our United States energy system is still dependent on fossil fuels.
But at the same time, as we're showing, extreme heat events is a huge public health concern. So people need access to air conditioning. So there's this tension between what's good for adaptation might not be good for climate change mitigation.
Desalination is another really good example of this. Desalinated water—taking water from the ocean, for example, and turning it into drinking water—might be really good for drought proofing our water supply, but at the same time, treating that water has an enormous energy cost. So again, that might be good for adaptation, but not so good for mitigation. So we really have to think holistically about these issues, because sometimes the silver bullet in some communities are exactly what other communities really worry about. So I think we have to think about some of these policies that we consider a little bit more holistically so that we don't solve one problem by creating another.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's really well said. Well, let's think about some of those solutions now and talk briefly about some of the policy implications of this work. We talk a lot on this podcast about climate mitigation policy and environmental policy to reduce impacts on wildlife or natural ecosystems, but are there any policies that come to your mind when you think about ways to make it easier for low income households to pay for air conditioning or other energy services?
Kelly T. Sanders: Yeah, there are federal programs that exist to try to get people that might not have the economic resources access to cooling, and also heating when it's very cold. And so the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is a good example of that. That's a federal program that helps low income households get access to things like weatherization. That could be things like fixing leaky doors and leaky windows, installing insulation to make their homes more energy efficient, fixing broken and inefficient furnaces and air conditionings. It can also help them pay for heating and cooling in their homes, so directly offsetting some of those energy costs and avoiding shutoffs. So that's a federal program, and it varies a little bit from state to state, as many federal programs do.
There's also a Weatherization Assistance Program, which also helps low income families reduce their energy bills. And there are also a lot of policies at the state level that try to prohibit utilities from cutting off electricity to people that can't pay their energy bills. And I think this is a really pertinent discussion at this moment, because right now we're obviously dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, and because of that, there are a lot of families that are going into this summer in a really precarious financial situation. And so luckily, there are some federal assistance programs that are thinking about this a little bit. The state of New York has implemented some policies. But this is really something that we need to get our head wrapped around.
So the CARES Act, which is the Corona Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, implemented by the federal government, does have about $900 million in funding for home energy assistance. So that helps families with some of these challenges related to paying their energy bills. And I think at the city level, New York City has really been a leader in this. So what they've implemented is a COVID-19 heat wave plan to protect vulnerable New Yorkers, and the city is actually planning to provide tens of thousands—over 70,000—air conditioners, in fact, to low income seniors, so those are seniors that are over 60 years old, and also modify some of their cooling centers to accommodate some of these social distancing concerns to help New Yorkers be a little bit more protected from these extreme heat events that we're expecting.
So this is really important for cities to start thinking about, because typically what a city will do when it's really hot in the summer is to create these public cooling centers, whether they be public libraries and public spaces like that. In the summer going into COVID, we have this issue where we have social distancing. And so this is going to be a huge challenge for cities and other communities to think about how, on one hand, do you protect people that don't have access to air conditioning from these extreme heat events, while also trying to prevent the spread of COVID? So this is really a coupled challenge that we are seeing some response to in some regions, but it's going to be a pretty big deal as we move into the hot months of July and August.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. And what that makes me think about is the overlap of demographics, where the people that may need cooling centers the most, particularly if they're more elderly or are in lower income groups, might also be the same population that could be most vulnerable to COVID, as we've seen over the last few months. And so that amplifies the challenge, I would think.
Kelly T. Sanders: Yeah, absolutely.
Daniel Raimi: So one last question, before we go to our top of the stack closing question, which is just asking you to think broadly about these policy issues, and you mentioned a couple policies that California and New York have started to implement. We talked about some federal policies. Are there other policy approaches that you think might be useful to either add to the mix or expand to try to reduce the risks of not having access to air conditioning when it's really hot outside?
Kelly T. Sanders: Yeah. Well, one of the big policy pushes that I think we just can't do enough of is energy efficiency programs. Energy efficiency programs tend to be cost beneficial and pay for themselves. And they're good for both adaptation and they help us use less cooling or less energy for cooling. So I think as much as we can do for energy efficiency and energy efficiency codes would really behoove us. Of course, over the long term, what we really need to think about is climate change mitigation. How do we actually offset some of the worst impacts that climate change has in store for us? And those interventions are well-discussed, like increasing renewable energy and those types of programs.
But again, I made this point before, but I think it's really important. We need to think about these mitigation strategies and also act where can we get the coupled benefit of mitigation and adaptation. And so some of the neat academic work that's going on in the realm of urbanization is thinking about, you know, how do we actually cool down our cities? How do we actually offset some of those impacts of urban heat island? So for example, my coauthor on this study, George Ban-Weiss, is doing a lot of work to understand how you make cool cities. How do you make reflective roofs and reflective pavements that can actually reflect some of the heat such that it never enters the city or affects our body temperature? … As we increase green spaces, our city cools down and you also get this extended benefit that plants capture CO₂.
So there's a lot of things that we can do to offset climate change, but also increase our own resilience to the impacts of climate change, and I think those are the policies that are really going to give us the bang for the buck. And maybe kind of a broader point is often we look at climate change in this environmental community. So we look at it as an environmental problem or a problem for sustainability, but just like COVID-19, it's really going to challenge every element of our society. So we really have to get out ahead of it and think about how are we going to protect our most vulnerable communities from some of the largest economic consequences of climate change. How do we protect vulnerable communities from bigger hurricanes, more wildfires, more extreme heat events?
And that's probably going to take a lot more social programs, and I think that might be one of the opportunities of the moment that we're at. We're seeing this confluence of conversation at the intersection of both public health, access to healthcare, and then also racial injustice. And those are going to be two critical elements to address as we think about how climate change is going to impact our society. So I really hope that one of the unintended benefits of 2020, for as crazy as it's been, is maybe we get some of those social policies into place so that we have more of a safety net for people as we see some of these more extreme events related to climate change.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. That's a really great point and a great one to end on. And I think we're all going to be watching those policy developments over the next months and years to see how we address those problems and hope that we can address them in a way that is smart and actually protects people. So let's go now to our final question, that again we ask all of our guests. It's asking you: what's on the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack? So something you may have read or watched or heard recently, related to this topic or anything else really that you think is interesting and you'd recommend to our listeners.
And I'll just briefly recommend a book that is, it's literally on the top of my actual, my literal stack on my bedside table. It's a book that I think came out a little while ago, but it's new to me. It's called These Truths. It's a history of the United States. So it's kind of a big book, but I've gotten some recommendations from people I trust who say it's really fantastic. It's written by Jill Lepore, who writes for The New Yorker and is a historian at Harvard, and I'm really looking forward to digging into it. In these times when we're all kind of reflecting on the state of our nation, I thought it was a good time to revisit the history a little bit. So that's what's on the top of my stack. How about you, Kelly?
Kelly T. Sanders: Yeah. So one of the books I really enjoyed during my quarantine is a book that was published last year by a scholar named Vaclav Smil, who is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba. And I mean, he's a prolific writer in the area of energy and energy history, and last year, he came out with a book called Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities. And he really grapples with this question that I think is the elephant in the room when it comes to how we deal with some of the environmental and climate change challenges that we have moving forward, and that is that we have this economic system that is kind of dependent on sustained growth over time, but we have limited resources.
So he kind of steps through technological advancement throughout history and particularly through the lens of how we've manipulated, produced, and consumed energy over time, and some of the advances that we've had when it has come to agriculture all the way to today, discussing how artificial intelligence and some of our computational advances have scaled over time to think about, into the future, as we're dealing with urbanization and population growth and climate change, what can we expect based on looking at technological advancements of the past? How can we deal with this environmental crisis going forward, when we do have these finite resources? I guess I'll say that it's not the most optimistic book I've ever read, but I do think it gives a lot of really good insights into some of the things that we need to key into as we think about solutions.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, absolutely. And it's interesting, both of us sort of thinking about big picture questions and we're turning to the past and turning to history to help us try to make sense of it.
Kelly T. Sanders: Absolutely.
Daniel Raimi: So Kelly Sanders from the University of Southern California, thank you so much again for coming on and talking to us about this fascinating work, and also thinking about policies and implications for the future. We really appreciate it.
Kelly T. Sanders: Yeah. This has been so fun. Again, thanks for having me on.
Daniel Raimi: You've been listening to Resources Radio. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason, with music by me, Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.