Shift-Catalysts is a nonprofit organization working to create an equitable, regenerative, and democratic energy system grounded in belonging. In this opinion piece, they argue that systems thinking is a critical tool to improve energy equity.
Achieving equitable energy systems has many challenges
There is no doubt the global transition away from fossil fuels is gaining traction. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that a number of communities not do equally benefit from the advantages of clean energy programs and climate change mitigation.
The energy sector suffers from many of the same systemic and historical disparities seen in housing, economic development, and education. As such, racialized and low-income households are more likely to live in older, energy-inefficient homes with various energy challenges. Such challenges include:
- Faulty building envelopes
- Substandard insulation
- Inefficient, or malfunctioning energy systems,
- More difficulty accessing financial support to make energy upgrades
As such, these communities inevitably are more prone to experience energy poverty.
Although many of these households have access to energy, they struggle to pay for it. In addition, living in energy poverty negatively impacts both physical and mental human health.
Can systems thinking improve energy outcomes?
The transition away from fossil fuels often focuses on the technical and economic changes required – but today’s energy system is complex. It requires us to be aware of the of the relationship between energy systems and social, ecological, economic and other institutional systems.
Taking a systems approach often involves asking many questions in order to interrogate our subjective view of a situation. For example, questions that are useful to help create a more equitable energy system include:
- Why does energy inequity exist today?
- How do we define energy equity for different communities?
- What do we value as a global and local community?
- How should resources be allocated to address energy equity?
- Which communities should be prioritised (i.e Who is included in our “circle of concern and care”?)
There is a very large opportunity to change the values and the identity of our energy system to spark change.
Our definition of energy, and who has the right to access it, is at the heart of this much-needed transformation.
Related reading: Is $3.1B enough to combat energy poverty?
The problem with energy efficiency programs today
Many energy efficiency and conservation programs in North America are designed, administered, or incentivized by utility companies.
These programs are inevitably built upon the same systemic inequities and views of energy that are now considered flawed.
Research has shown that most energy efficiency programs aimed at reducing energy poverty have not achieved significant greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Furthermore, they have also failed to significantly reduce energy burdens for under-represented communities.
The absence of systems thinking during the design stage of energy efficiency programs often widens the gap between affluent households and historically underrepresented communities.
Related reading: Challenges facing energy efficiency programs
Community-centered decision making can improve energy equity and efficiency
Years of research from resilience scientists and climate activists tell us that innovation and decision-making at the community level are the most effective way of designing impactful policies and programs.
In a democratic society, it is imperative for decision-makers to center the voices of communities and respect the inherent right of all community members to self-determination.
Decentralized, local energy production and community-driven energy conservation programs can shift the existing power dynamics within the energy system.
Related reading: How does community solar work?
Energy equity relies on the democratization of energy systems
Reclaiming community power can potentially challenge the embedded inequities within the
structures and relations that control the energy system and create space for redefining energy
as an ecological resource and a human right.
This democratization of the energy system can lead to the co-creation of Belonging cultures within communities. At Shift-Catalysts, we believe all community members – regardless of their race, gender, status, or wealth – have an inherent right to access affordable and clean energy sources.