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Why Effective Energy and Social Justice Go Hand in Hand

Green energy is a quality of life issue for many.

Almost everyone would agree that exploring clean energy solutions is important. With the effects of climate change becoming more pronounced, it’s clear that we need to change the way we use energy in order to reduce our impact on the earth.

Yet effective energy sometimes takes a backseat to humanitarian issues that seem more pressing. The country is dealing with many social justice issues ranging from police brutality to institutionalized racism and sexism. It might seem like these things are more important to address right this moment than sustainable energy.

However, RETI believes effective energy is a social justice issue. While environmental issues and the protection of natural resources are important, we also realize that increasing access to affordable, sustainable energy improves quality of life for real people.

Here are 6 reasons why effective energy and social justice go hand in hand:

1. Energy costs disproportionately effect the poor.

In most middle and upper-income households, energy costs take up 5 percent or less of the budget. However, low income household can spend more than 20 percent of their income covering things like electricity and heat. Energy poverty is defined as a family spending more than 10 percent of their income on energy costs. To have households spending double that amount puts a massive strain on families.

2. Energy costs take from other areas of the budget.

When people are spending more than a fifth of their income on electricity and heat, they’re cutting back on other essentials including food, medicine and transportation. That can leave parents choosing between feeding their children three meals or keeping the house warm. In America no one should have to chose between a full belly and warmth.

3. Energy Poverty Can Lead To Homelessness

People who can’t afford their energy bills are often faced with shut-offs. Many of these households owe just a few-hundred dollars, but that can be out of reach for low-income families. Alarmingly, researchers have found that energy shutoffs are one of the primary factors that can lead to homelessness.

4. There are real health implications.

It’s easy to separate sustainable energy from human suffering. However, not being able to afford energy can have dramatic health effects, particularly for kids and teens. High energy costs take money away from medical and food budgets (meaning people often sacrifice nutrition), and increase stress in a family. Living in under-heated homes puts teens at double the risk of respiratory issues and five times the risk of mental health problems.

5. Wage stagnation makes matters worse.

We’re all familiar with energy costs rising over time; chances are your heating and electric bills are higher this year than last. However, many low-income people see very slow income growth, or even real income decline (meaning wages stay the same but cost of living rises).

From 2004 to 2014 average U.S. electricity costs rose a stunning 39 percent. During that time, average adjusted income rose just 0.9 percent. That left low-income people spending a higher percentage on electricity even if their usage remained the same.

6. Systematic issues contribute to energy poverty.

Energy poverty isn’t just caused by energy costs. Systematic failures also contribute to the energy burden that low-income families carry. Many low-income families live in homes that have inefficient heating systems, are poorly insulated and have inefficient appliances that consume a lot of energy.

This all means that low-income families start behind when it comes to cutting energy costs. The fact that there are insufficient supports for people living in energy poverty just exacerbates the issue. There are few programs to help with paying bills or increasing efficiency of homes, and those that do exist are often hard to access. In fact, last year 1.5 million North Carolinians were in need of energy assistance, but only 6 percent got the help they needed.

RETI focuses on reducing energy costs for low-income families by helping them adopt clean-energy solutions. This work is an important park of easing the burden of poverty and eventually helping families break the poverty cycle.

RETI is a 501(c)3 nonprofit working to increase energy equity. Visit their website to learn more.

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