In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Destenie Nock, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Nock shares insights from a recent paper she coauthored that shows how, on hot days, Black and low-income households wait relatively longer than other households to turn on their air-conditioning units, which puts them at a greater risk of heat-related illnesses. She examines the reasons behind this behavior and provides an overview of energy insecurity and energy poverty in the United States.
Listen to the Podcast
- Quantifying energy poverty in the United States: “In 2020, [the US Energy Information Administration] reported that 27 percent of US households had difficulty meeting their energy needs … Roughly 20 percent of households forewent their basic necessities … in order to pay their energy bill … About 10 percent received a disconnection notice … [and] another 10 percent kept their house at an unhealthy or unsafe temperature in order to afford their energy bill. This is really concerning, because that’s a lot of households, and those are just the ones that are self-reporting … We believe that there are more homes that are not self-reporting these indicators, because one thing that we know about people who experience poverty is that nobody actually wants to admit it.” (8:27)
- Low-income households are at greater risk of heat-related death: “When we were looking at the data from the health-care side, we were seeing in Arizona that, in a 10-year time period, 224 people died from heat-related death in one county in Arizona, despite all of those households having an air-conditioning unit. When we think about technology deployment, the big question is, We’ve deployed all this technology, but are people going to be able to use it to adapt to climate change? Are they going to be able to use it to adapt to these increasing heat waves?” (14:37)
- Designing equitable energy policies: “There are historic policies that have led to racial segregation. There has been racial profiling, there have been inequitable housing policies that have led to discrimination and for Black populations to be in worse-off housing, and we cannot forget those things when we’re trying to solve energy poverty.” (19:11)
Top of the Stack
- “Unveiling Hidden Energy Poverty Using the Energy Equity Gap” by Shuchen Cong, Destenie Nock, Yueming Lucy Qiu, and Bo Xing
- “Heat-Associated Mortality in a Hot Climate” by Sally Ann Iverson, Aaron Gettel, Carly P. Bezold, Kate Goodin, Benita McKinney, Rebecca Sunenshine, and Vjollca Berisha
- Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth
- How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
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.
Today we talk with Dr. Destenie Nock, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Chief Sustainability Officer for Devvstream, and Chief Executive Officer of Peoples Energy Analytics. Destenie has worked for years to uncover, quantify, and seek solutions to the problems of energy insecurity and energy poverty. In today's conversation, she'll share insights based on a recent paper that she coauthored called, “Unveiling Hidden Energy Poverty Using the Energy Equity Gap.” The analysis shows how, on hot days, Black and low-income households wait to turn on their air-conditioning units, putting them at greater risk of heat-related illnesses. We'll talk about why that matters and what the causes might be and get a broad understanding of the issues of energy insecurity and energy poverty in the United States. Stay with us.
All right, Destenie Nock from Carnegie Mellon University, welcome to Resources Radio.
Destenie Nock: Thank you so much for having me.
Daniel Raimi: We're going to talk today about the fascinating work that you do and have done on energy poverty and energy burdens, and we're going to define those terms and what they mean and why they're important. But first, we always ask our guests about how they got interested in working on energy or environmental issues, whether it was at a young age or later in life. What steered you into this line of work?
Destenie Nock: One thing that really interested me about energy was when I went to my first study abroad in Malawi, Africa. That was when I experienced my first rolling blackout. It was over the top when it happened, like, "What?" I went to the front desk and asked the hotel, "When are we going to get our power back?" And they said, "The power outage was supposed to come Wednesday, but here it's Friday. So, the government probably will bring it back soon."
“Soon” was the best I got. I was thinking to myself, in 2012, “Why are we still having countries with rolling blackouts? They don't even know when it will come back on.” It really opened my eyes to how hard it is to go to school or run a business when you don't have a reliable supply of electricity. That undergrad experience was the first time where I would pinpoint saying, "I want to design a better power grid."
Now, my foray into energy poverty happened when I was in grad school. I knew I wanted to plan better power systems, and I wanted to make them more sustainable and greener. But I had a specific energy poverty lens when I was in grad school, because I was struggling to pay my electricity bill. We had oil heating in the winter, and, for anyone out there that does not have oil heating, that's very expensive. We were making a choice between the electricity bill, heating bill, food bill, and general car maintenance. My car had broken down at one point, and it cost me like $1,000 to fix it. One thing about being poor is that it's very expensive.
We decided to pay our heating bill because it's the middle of winter, and we ended up getting disconnected from our electricity provider. When you get disconnected from your electricity provider, it doesn't matter if you had paid the heating bill because your thermostat doesn't work. My house became a tent. That's when I realized how devastating energy and a lack of energy can be, and that's when I started to really focus, hone in, and want to make my research about energy poverty from an affordability lens—but also from the lens of a hidden form of poverty.
It wasn't just about planning the grid to make sure people had supply access, but also wanting to make sure that they could afford it and, if they couldn't afford it, uncovering some other ways that might show up. The most common measure of energy insecurity is “energy burden,” which is the percent of income that you spend on meeting your energy bills, but my issue was I didn't spend that much on my energy bills.
Daniel Raimi: That was the problem.
Destenie Nock: That's why we have worked really hard to create data analytics tools that can identify who's not consuming enough, who's not spending enough, and then ask the question of why aren't they spending enough.
Daniel Raimi: I didn't know about that personal experience of yours, which sounds pretty terrible—but fascinating how it steered you into this career.
As I've already mentioned, and as you've alluded to, we're going to talk today about your work on energy poverty. You've already defined for us the term “energy burden.” Can you define “energy poor” and “energy insecure”? What's the difference between those two terms?
Destenie Nock: “Energy poor” normally represents a lack of access to modern energy services, whereas “energy insecure” might mean that you have access to those services, but you are insecure in your ability to maintain access. So for a quick example, energy poverty is a set of concentric circles. In the most core circle there are cost and expenditure concerns, which are typically what people think of when they hear energy insecurity.
One type of energy insecurity is energy burden. That assumes that you have supply, and you have a connection in your home that you can use regularly, but, maybe because of the cost, you are insecure in being able to use it and being able to use as much as you need.
In a slightly larger circle, you have the reliability concerns. Depending on the type of reliability concerns, this may lend itself more into poverty or insecurity. Reliability concerns could be like the Texas winter storm disaster—if you are receiving outages because you are in a shaky part of the grid, or because of weather, that'd be reliability-based energy poverty.
But if you are getting disconnected because you can't afford it, that leans more toward insecurity because you do have it, and it is reliable from a technical standpoint; but from a cost standpoint, you're not going to be connected all the time, so that's more insecurity. That's why it can get confusing. The same outcome is caused by different inputs.
Then, in the largest circle of energy poverty are supply concerns. If you don't have a supply of electricity, then you are energy poor, no doubt about it. That's typically what people think of first when they hear the words “energy poor” or “energy poverty”: developing countries that don't have a grid system. Because if you don't have the supply, you don't have reliability concerns, and you don't have affordability concerns.
Daniel Raimi: Now that you've defined these terms for us, “energy poverty” and “energy insecurity,” it'd be great to put them in context. Then we'll talk about some of your research. Can you help us understand how many US households fit these definitions of either energy poor or energy insecure?
Destenie Nock: The US Energy Information Administration does a residential consumption survey. In their most recent survey in 2020, they reported that 27 percent of US households had difficulty meeting their energy needs. This is self-reporting. For example—and this is mostly related to energy insecurity—in 2020, they say that roughly 20 percent of households forewent their basic necessities: food, medicine, potentially fixing their broken car. 20 percent forewent those in order to pay their energy bill. It's a lot of households.
If we look deeper, in 2020 about 10 percent received a disconnection notice, meaning that they are at risk of being disconnected from their electricity provider and getting their house turned into a tent. Another 10 percent kept their house at an unhealthy or unsafe temperature in order to afford their energy bill. This is really concerning, because that's a lot of households, and those are just the ones that are self-reporting, and the survey technique is to scale it up to the larger population. We believe that there are more homes that are not self-reporting these indicators, because one thing that we know about people who experience poverty is that nobody actually wants to admit it.
Daniel Raimi: I wonder also about the fact that the survey was conducted in 2020, which was such an extraordinary year for everyone because of the lockdowns and people losing jobs left and right—plus government assistance coming in. I could imagine 2020 was a weird year that could skew the data in either direction; it could tell a story that could go either way. Does that seem right to you?
Destenie Nock: It does. In 2020, during the COVID lockdowns, there were also moratoriums placed on disconnections. There are people that knew that their electricity service provider couldn't disconnect them at that moment in time, so you may actually have homes experiencing different behavior. But, in 2020, there's also a lot more job loss, and that could increase the feelings of insecurity during times before the moratoriums were put in place.
In 2015, when the US Energy Information Administration did the survey, 31 percent of households reported any type of insecurity. That lowered a bit in 2020. It might be that people were looking at these moratoriums like, "Oh, I can't be disconnected, so maybe I'm not feeling it as much right now." That can also be an indicator.
Daniel Raimi: That could be another research question to investigate in the future, for one of us or one of our colleagues. But let's talk now about some research that you have already done with colleagues: this fascinating paper called “Unveiling Hidden Energy Poverty Using the Energy Equity Gap.” It's one of many papers you've published in recent years, but we're going to dig into it today. What is it you and your coauthors seek to do in this paper, and what are the data you use to try to answer your questions?
Destenie Nock: Thanks for highlighting this paper. One of the things as an academic is, usually, only 50 people read my papers. The fact that over 5,000 people have read “Unveiling Hidden Energy Poverty Using the Energy Equity Gap” is still mind boggling to me.
In this paper, our goal was to ask the question, Who is not using energy and how much are they not using it? When we use the energy burden, the percent of income that you spend on meeting your energy bills, rarely do we ask the question, How much energy were you using in the first place? In our paper, we use smart meter data from a utility company in Arizona, the Salt River Project, and through a collaboration with them we determined when different households turn on their air-conditioning units.
We use some data analytics tools, we use regression tools, and we found that low-income groups wait four to seven degrees longer than high-income groups to turn on their air-conditioning units. We did that in terms of the outdoor temperature—our overall question was in terms of outdoor temperature: When do different households start to feel uncomfortable, and when are they willing to turn on their air-conditioning units?
If everyone in one region had the same housing infrastructure and same level of installation, then we would expect that people in the same region would start to feel uncomfortable at the same outdoor temperature on average, so we take the medians. But we noticed that low-income groups wait seven degrees longer in some cases, which is a big gap, and that doesn't even capture the full range: in some households they were waiting until it was over 80 degrees outside on average.
I want to remind people who are listening that 80 degrees in the desert on a daily average is going to be much hotter than 80 degrees. In the desert, the nighttime gets really cold, and the high of the day gets really hot. Even though the average daily temperature is 80 degrees, at some times of the day the high could reach over 100 degrees. That's something to keep in mind.
When we were looking at the data from the health-care side, we were seeing in Arizona that, in a 10-year time period, 224 people died from heat-related death in one county in Arizona, despite all of those households having an air-conditioning unit.
When we think about technology deployment, the big question is, We've deployed all this technology, but are people going to be able to use it to adapt to climate change? Are they going to be able to use it to adapt to these increasing heat waves? When I was talking to some researchers in Arizona, they were saying, "Well, with the deaths, you have to multiply it times 12 at least for emergency room visits due to heat illness."
We have one county. Multiply it by 12 to see emergency-room visits—and then you have all the counties in Arizona, plus all the states across the South, and now heat waves are coming into the North. With this paper, we were really trying to highlight that there are groups of people that feel like they cannot consume enough energy, they can't afford it—we were trying to put a number on the risk that they may be putting themselves at.
Daniel Raimi: It’s scary to hear those numbers. One of the things that I'm wondering is the 242 people you mentioned in the certain county. Do we know how many of those people were experiencing housing insecurity during that time? Do we know those people actually had access to the air-conditioning technology, or could they have been people who didn't have homes at that time?
Destenie Nock: In that paper that I referenced by Iverson et al. in 2020, the 224 people were all from households that had air-conditioning units. There were more households in their study that they looked at, and some of those did not. I would definitely recommend connecting people to that study because Iverson is doing great work. But for the 224 households that had air-conditioning units, a little over 50 percent of them were disconnected from their provider, and about 25 percent, turned off their working air-conditioning unit in order to save money. That's why that is a big challenge. It’s a big form of hidden energy poverty because people are turning off their systems because they feel like they can't afford them.
Daniel Raimi: Thanks for that clarification. Another really important piece of analysis that you and your coauthors carry out is looking at how these results vary in terms of income, race, age, and other important demographic characteristics. And one other technical note for listeners, you mentioned the Salt River Project, the service territory for the Salt River Project. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it covers a lot of Phoenix and the eastern suburbs of Phoenix. Did I get that right?
Destenie Nock: Yeah.
Daniel Raimi: Fantastic. So Destenie, can you tell us about how these results varied in terms of those demographic characteristics?
Destenie Nock: In terms of the demographic characteristics, we did see that, in general, the Black population was waiting much longer than non-minorities in order to start using their air-conditioning units. One question that comes to mind is, Is this a preference across the general population, or is it an inequity?
We looked within the Black population and looked across income groups. It's just the Black households, and now we're looking at income ranges across those Black households. We saw that the gap was increasing, and it can be pretty wide between the highest- and the lowest-income groups within the Black population. That signifies an inequity, and I believe that is really important for these types of discussions when we're thinking about who's vulnerable and who needs to receive assistance.
One of the things that I've noticed in the United States is that we don't typically like to bring race into the discussion, but we do know that there are historic policies that have led to racial segregation. There has been racial profiling, there have been inequitable housing policies that have led to discrimination and for Black populations to be in worse-off housing, and we cannot forget those things when we're trying to solve energy poverty.
That's one reason why we looked at the Black population, the Asian population, the white population, and the Hispanic population. One thing I will advocate for is that within the Native American population or the Indigenous population, we actually didn't have enough data to do a meaningful analysis. We know that there are concerns on Native American reservations about the access to energy services and the consistency of that access.
In the age category of our analysis, we were looking at elderly populations, who may have different concerns than the younger population. We also did an analysis there, and we were seeing that, within the age category, many people were also having really high inflection temperatures. That was a bit concerning because, if elderly populations are putting themselves at higher risk of heat-related illness and death—we don't want that to happen.
Now the question is, How do we make sure that we are addressing this? How do we determine if this is an inequity or an insecurity. It is a big challenge. Within the 75-year-old-plus category, these people are waiting until the average temperature in Arizona is above 70 degrees or 69 degrees Fahrenheit to turn on their air-conditioning units, and that is the highest that anyone waits within the age categories.
But when we look at the equity gap between the elderly population, they're all relatively similarly worse off, so they're all consuming at the same amount. But if we look within the youngest population, 18-to-24-year-olds—these are the college students, grad students, and young professionals—we see that a lot of them are turning on their air-conditioning units when it is at the lowest: 65 degrees Fahrenheit or 62 degrees Fahrenheit on-average temperature, so average outdoor temperature. Don't forget that the high of the day is going to be much higher than 65 degrees. But when we look across high- and low-income groups and within them, holding the 18-to-24-year-old constant, we see that sometimes the gap ranges as high as 18 degrees.
That means that those well-off 18-to-24-year-olds that are fresh out of college with the good jobs are really comfortable in their homes. The other ones that are working those bookstore jobs or as waitresses, waiters, or in grocery stores—they are potentially at risk of not cooling and not consuming enough. Maybe that's because there is a portion of our population where, if you do not have a college degree, then you are not going to be able to get or to have a decent living wage. That’s also concerning when we think about the social services that people will have access to.
Daniel Raimi: A couple of the points you made reminded me of things that I would love to point our listeners to.
We've done a couple episodes on the history of redlining and housing discrimination and how that's contributed to these issues of energy insecurity. We did an episode 18 months ago with Eva Lyubich from UC Berkeley, and we've also done episodes with Tony Reames where we've talked about this.
To the other point you made about the Indigenous peoples’ access to electricity, the service territory for the Salt River Project is fairly close to the Navajo and Hopi reservations, and those are reservations where there's a substantial number of people who aren't even connected to the electricity grid in those places. It’s a big issue there. Thanks again for all those points. Did you want to follow up?
Destenie Nock: One thing I would like to follow up on is your previous question about what data we use. We use the smart meter data at the household level, so one limitation is that we don't have appliance-level data. We don't know how much energy is coming from your air conditioner or your refrigerator, but we do know how much electricity is coming from the household with the smart meter.
You highlighted a great point: for people who are not connected, they are not even going to be within our analysis because this is a big, data-driven analysis on household-level energy use, and that ties back to definitions about energy poor. If you don't have supply, you do not have affordability and reliability concerns. We can't forget about that when we're trying to solve energy poverty issues, especially in the United States. Oftentimes, we focus the conversation on people who are already connected, and there are people who are not connected, whether that be through a disconnection, or they are living in an area where they are not connected to a utility provider.
Daniel Raimi: One more question before we go to our Top of the Stack segment, which is about the flipside of what we've been talking about. We've been talking about cooling, when people turn on their air-conditioning or other cooling devices. I'm curious if you found anything similar on the heating side of the equation. We're talking about the Phoenix area, so maybe people don't need to use heating very much, but I'm curious: when you look at that other end of the temperature spectrum, do you see a similar pattern or something different?
Destenie Nock: We have been expanding this analysis. That's one reason for the Peoples Energy Analytics spinout—we’ve been getting a lot of interest. We’ve been working with the ComEd data in Illinois to identify how this energy-limiting behavior varies in the summer and the winter.
For the definitions of energy-limiting behavior: if you have two households with different income ranges, and one household starts to use their air-conditioning unit when it is, on average, 75 degrees outside, and the other household starts to use their air-conditioning unit when it is 70 degrees outside—assuming that the second household doesn't have a budget constraint and the first household that has to wait a lot longer into the summer to use their air-conditioning unit does have a budget constraint—then, we would say that the one without the budget constraint sets the ideal comfort level. The household that waits until it's 75 degrees outside is exhibiting five degrees of energy-limiting behavior. They limit their energy consumption in order to save money and to meet other basic needs.
In Arizona, we looked at the gap in the cooling sector, but in Illinois, we've slightly changed our equation to be able to look at both the heating and the cooling sector. For the first year of our analysis, when we were looking across different income groups, we found in Illinois that the energy equity gap for the cooling side was about five degrees Fahrenheit. But when we looked at the heating sector, the gap actually is much wider: eight degrees Fahrenheit.
This is concerning to us because, one, since the gap is smaller in the summer, that might mean that people are trying to use their air-conditioning at the same time, but it's also Chicago and Illinois, so it's not going to get as hot as Arizona. But in the winter, because the gap is much wider, we can say that there is potentially the extra cost associated with it, because we notice that it reverses.
In the summer, low-income groups wait longer to turn on their air-conditioning units, meaning that they could potentially be putting themselves at a higher risk of heat illness or heat-related death. But in the winter, the low-income groups turn it on earlier in the winter. That is something where you're like, Wait a second, why would these low income groups be spending more money? That doesn't make any sense.
When we were digging through the literature, we found that there are recommended safety settings for households for the winter to protect your pipes from freezing, to make sure that your housing infrastructure is good. The insulation factor also is going to come in. So, one thing that could be occurring is that people have a higher tolerance for heat than they do for cold because in the summer, during the hottest time of the day, you might go to work, a library, a coffee shop—you don't have to be in your house at the hottest time of the day. You can stay out until nighttime and then you can open up all your windows; it'll be much cooler. But in the winter, during the coldest time of the day, you are stuck in your house, freezing cold, trying to go to sleep. That will lead these low-income households to spend more money in the winter to satisfy their energy needs because there's nowhere else to go. That is something really interesting from our preliminary analysis in the Chicago area.
Daniel Raimi: I'll be on the lookout for more data and analysis coming from you on the topic, because it is a fascinating dynamic and could connect with the issue of lower-quality housing stock among lower-income people, which is less efficient and could require them to use more heating when it gets cold out.
But Destenie, let's close out our conversation today with the same question we ask all of our guests, which to recommend something that you've read or watched or heard. It could be related to the environment or not related to the environment—just anything you think our audience might enjoy that's at the top of your literal or your metaphorical reading stack.
Destenie Nock: One of the things that I've recently read is called Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. I find it fascinating because it tries to attack the traditional way of thinking about economics, of tying in environmental and people concerns as externalities to the market. She argues that we need to integrate those things into our economy and calculations and that the idea that we can separate growth from environmental protection and protection of low-income communities is outdated. I stand behind that because there's evidence that—if we look at our energy system—because we just focus on minimizing cost and we're not considering the people, then that leads us to issues where electricity is tied to all of our basic needs, but you can be disconnected and people will blame you for not paying your bill. What are you going to do about it?
Always, it's “What are you going to do?” and not “What is the system going to do?” How is the government going to make sure that everyone can afford to pay its bills? How can we make sure that, when we are solving poverty issues that are tied to the way that our economy runs, we don't lose sight of the actual end goal, which is having a population that has a decent quality of life and enough money to live, and people in general can live a good life and get to where they need to be?
If the listeners have already got that one, I'll recommend another one by Ibram X. Kendi, which is How to Be an Antiracist. It looks at trying to help people determine how to make what he calls antiracist policies. A lot of times when we are talking about race in the United States, if someone says, “I felt like that thing was discriminatory,” then the conversation jumps to, “Well, I'm not a racist,” and then it becomes very defensive.
But in Kendi's book, he makes the argument that there's no such thing as not-a-racist. Your actions are either segregating people based on their race, or they're antiracist and not doing that. But he disconnects it from one person doing all racist things or all not-racist things. Focus on the actions, and let's focus on the policies, and let's design policies that take into account the historic racist policies and discriminatory things that have happened—you mentioned the redlining, for example—and let's not ignore those things, but let's actively work toward building antiracist policies by acknowledging that race has historically played a large role in our policies and then design better policies.
I really like that book. My students and I had a book club to read it, and I like it because he's putting the challenge on us to think of a better policy, to not run away from race, to embed it, and to understand biases and how those biases have impacted the way that the world has been run.
I have been trying to do that for myself as well, to focus on what part of the society I am trying to better. Then asking the question of, What's the risk? When people talk about solar panels and some people say, “Well, renters can't get solar panels,” that doesn't mean that solar itself isn't equitable, because solar does a great job. There are different policies that you can use to make solar equitable—we have community solar projects, so that the homeowner doesn’t have to buy the solar. But if we do these smart utility investments—buying the solar and putting the solar on the roof and the utility can do that—then that actually helps renters access solar technologies.
That's one thing that I really enjoyed about How to Be an Antiracist: it is challenging to not just say a technology is inequitable. No, the policy of the deployment of the technology is inequitable. How do we fix that? Technologies in and of themselves are not inherently unequal.
Daniel Raimi: That's a fascinating connection to the energy space.
Well, Destenie, it would be great to talk to you even more, and hopefully we'll have the chance to do that in the future, but we're going to have to close it out for today. One more time, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio and sharing your work with us. We really appreciate it.
Destenie Nock: Thanks for having me.
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