Energy Efficiency Deserts: Mapping Out the Equity Story in Your Community, An Interview with Lisa Obear of ILLUME - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Interview]

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Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Jan 14, 2019

Lisa Obear will be presenting at AESP’s Annual Conference on energy efficiency and demand response (taking place in San Antonio from January 21 to 24). She's titled her session “Energy Efficiency Deserts: Mapping out the equity story in your community,” and she'll be presenting the work she, Liz Kelley, and Amanda Maass of ILLUME have been doing in energy and equity. I was lucky enough to ask Lisa several questions about this important and too often overlooked topic as they prepare to share with attendees of the AESP conference.

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Specifically for the Energy Central community, I’m happy to bring you, as a part of our Power Perspectives™, a preview of their presentation as Lisa shares their vision for how to measure and ensure equity is a key component of energy efficiency strategies and utility programs:

Matt Chester: Thanks so much for agreeing to answer some of my questions as a preview of your presentation at the AESP Annual Conference. It sounds like your topic is a really important one that utilities should focus on, but to start basically for people who haven’t heard the term before can you please give a brief overview of what an ‘energy efficiency desert’ is?

Lisa Obear: An ‘energy efficiency desert’ is one way to conceptualize diversity and inequity in our industry, which borrows from a term used widely in other industries. Most people by now have heard of ‘food deserts,’ a concept that has been in the news frequently over the past five of six years. Food deserts are geographical areas, either neighborhoods or communities, where access to fresh food—often via traditional grocery stores—is limited. Frequently, these deserts are located in communities where inequity exists, low-income communities or communities of color.

This takes that same idea but applies it to a topic of interest in our industry, energy efficiency, by layering Census demographic data like race, education, income, and language over program participation or delivery date to understand who a program is reaching and who it isn’t.

The end result is a visual, geographical map that shows who and where your customers and participants are and, more importantly, where they are not.

MC: And what drew you into studying this topic in the first place? What reasons do you, and other people, have to pay attention to these results?

LO: ILLUME has been the research partner of Georgia Power for almost two years, and the particular example we’re sharing in our talk relates to some research we’ve done with their upstream lighting program and how the stores they’ve chosen to be a part of the program impacts who is able to access them. Georgia is an incredibly diverse state, and a major priority of Georgia Power is to continually examine and improve their engagement of multicultural communities in across all their products and services, so much of our research has included explorations of this topic.

From social research done for decades, we already know that where you live has an impact on your social outcomes, quality of life, and access to many things, so using GIS (i.e., Geographical Information Systems or mapping technology) as a tool to explore this question made a lot of sense to us.

More broadly, diversity and inequity has been a rising topic of interest in our industry for some time, and I think it’s come to the point that many utilities are pushing harder to determine where they can improve their reach and service to customers that have historically been underserved.

MC: Those are all thought-provoking points. It’s definitely true that questions of equity have become key to the energy industry, especially the idea of environmental justice. How do energy efficiency deserts relate to other issues of environmental justice?

LO: There’s absolutely overlap. Many other topics in environmental justice look at their issues geographically. We already know that environmental justice issues like smog, clean water, and toxic waste disproportionately affect low-income and communities of color. We also know that fuel or energy poverty also affect these communities—and communities who are struggling to pay their energy bills are the ones who can benefit from energy efficiency the most, to free up money to cover other living expenses and increase overall quality of life.

MC: Can you talk a bit about the sort of technology that goes into the study of energy efficiency deserts?

LO: The reason I’m a big fan of thinking this way about inequity in our industry is that it can be as straightforward or as complex as you want it to be. You can layer participation data, billing data, Census data, demographic data—whatever you want to look it, you can do so in a very visual way. It does require GIS software, which has paid and free versions available for download. It is nice this conceptualizes the information in a way we’re all used to interpreting, as many of us already use maps in our daily lives thanks to GPS directions.

MC: Have you found many other people looking into these topics? Were you able to build upon any previous work on energy efficiency deserts as an idea, whether or not under that term?

LO: I’m not sure if the exact term is new or has already existed, but I do know that if you Google ‘energy efficiency deserts’ you get a lot of websites about installing swamp coolers in Arizona!

However, there are many people in our industry already working very hard on equity and diversity in the utility space. So, this isn’t necessarily a new a idea by any means—just potentially a different way to conceptualize and explore it.

MC: If people are interested in this field of study, where can they learn more (besides obviously attending your presentation at next week’s AESP Conference)?

LO: Definitely come to the talk, and of course we at ILLUME love to nerd out and talk about these type of things at any time!

One article I cite in my talk is from CityLab, where they mapped inequity in Atlanta around amenities; not just food, but banks, parks, fitness centers, etc., which are things that we know affect quality of life. It’s a great starting point to familiarize yourself with the concept, but there is a ton of information out in the world about ‘deserts’ in general.

If you’re interested in doing some of this exploration specifically for your programs and you have research partners or evaluators you work with, then raise the topic to them about incorporating this type of analysis into the work they are already doing.  

MC: That’s great advice! As we finish up, is there anything else you think people should know about this important and fascinating topic?

LO: When it comes to using GIS to create maps, I think it’s a tool in our toolboxes that sometimes gets overlooked. Like much of the research we do, I think it works best when done in conjunction with other research to triangulate findings.

I also want to emphasize that doing this exploration is just the first step—there’s much more work to do afterwards to determine why you aren’t reaching certain customers and what you can change in your marketing, outreach, or program design to better engage them, which is something we hope to continue to work with Georgia Power on as we conduct more research. However, I think there’s a use-case for embedding this type of research into every step of a program’s life—design, marketing, delivery, and evaluation—that helps us all keep a pulse on what’s going on in our unique communities.

If interested in learning more about energy efficiency deserts, be sure to check out Lisa Obear’s special session on this topic at AESP’s Annual Conference (in San Antonio from January 21 to 24). You can learn more about the agenda and register for the conference here.



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