Friday, May 8, 2009

Energy & Equity

Austin is known for its progressive politics, especially in regards to municipal environmental policies. For example, Austin has a goal to make the city carbon neutral by 2020, in part through the savings of 700 MW of energy in energy-efficiency and conservation. As the infrastructural leader in this plan, Austin Energy runs many key programs such as solar rebates, green choice, weatherization, and others. Green incentive programs are good transitional interventions in the market, and are an effective way to encourage the adoption of technologies that increase energy efficiency. But, if those incentives are provided disproportionately to advantaged communities—by accident or intentionally—they serve to widen the gap between the most and the least privileged. So how does AE’s incentive programs disproportionately benefit advantaged communities? (Note: this blog is not suggesting that AE is doing so on pupose).


Austin has experienced large growth as of late, as well as changes in the population. It is now a “majority-minority” city, meaning more than 50% of Austin’s citizens identify themselves as Non-Caucasian. This is important to mention because of our history and issues of segregation and equity of minority populations.


In the 1800s, freed Black residents of Austin, about a 1/3 of the pop, had established communities, businesses and schools across Austin.  But in 1928, the “Plan for Austin,” created a “negro district” to segregate the city. Aside from commercial/business zoning areas mapped on the plan, the two residential districts were listed as white residential and miscellaneous residential. Services were not provided to black residents on the west side, forcing them to move to the east side where the city said they would provide infrastructure. Essentially, they enforced segregation through the allocation of sewers, water, electricity, paved streets, street, lighting, and schools. But even after 1928, disproportionate services were still an issue. Large portions of East Austin remained unpaved through the 1960s, while Clarksville (formerly a black neighborhood on the west side) wasn’t paved or adequately provided with sewage until the mid 70s.


Though it was segregated, it remains geographically segregated along lines of race, class and socioeconomic status (most obviously with I-35 as the dividing line).  Some have even claimed that the smart growth movement in the 90s, and thus the 2005 map of priority environmental conservation areas in Austin, for aquifer protection, pushed development to the east side causing gentrification and forcing minority populations to move even farther away from central Austin.   


In 2008,  through qualitative and quantitative analysis by several thesis projects in the school of architecture, data and maps demonstrated that the shifting demographics show the majority Black and Latino populations living east of 35 (20-80%) compared with under 20% on the west side. Median family income in 2000 was $70K for Anglo; $35K for Black and $36K for Hispanic. When examining education levels, less than 20% of the population on the west side has high school or less while east and far east Austin, 60-80% of population has a high school degree or higher.

However, something interesting arises when you compare these maps to the geographic distribution of participants in the Austin Energy rebate programs from 2004-2007. These maps indicate clearly that most participants live on West side. In particular, the solar photovoltaic program has a much higher participation rate in West Austin than in East Austin; however, participation in the free weatherization program is concentrated in Central and East Austin.

There are many reasons for the disparity in the solar rebate program: education, access, finances. One, it’s a cost issue. The solar rebate program requires money upfront. Two, it is perhaps the most technically difficult to understand of the rebate programs. Three, AE doesn’t do any real marketing of their solar rebate program, as they can meet their goals without it, meaning, clients are in effect self-selecting. And lastly, renters are not eligible for many of the programs offered and many east Austin residents are renters when compared with west Austin.

But these reasons don’t excuse efforts to make these programs more equitable. So what to do? If anything?  Policy, such as these rebate and incentive programs, need to not just be applied equally, but equitably. That is, with a recognition that certain city residents are not being served, and that be serving them, not only are we addressing an (implicit) unjust issue but also increasing the amount of participants thereby helping AE reach their goal sooner.

Incentive policies need to shift to address these issues: more emphasis, education placed on minority pops so that they can essentially reach their target. Low-income residents already pay a proportionally larger amount of their total income to utilities than their higher income neighbors, and the inequality of this burden will only increase with the cost of energy if they are not able to take advantage of energy improvements in their homes or installation of solar technologies while wealthier members of the community receive public financial resources to do so.

The fact that a large portion of the participants in these programs are from a certain area of town is not necessarily indicative of a lack of equity. And I am not incriminating Austin Energy as having unethical policies. But the maps clearly indicate that a higher percentage of residents of west Austin are participating in AE rebate programs. So while some programs are more equitable, others are not. And the answer is not easy to find as no maps or written policies explicitly state purposeful unfair distribution of service. Nor do I personally think that they did it implicitly. Though not AE’s direct fault, they should target resources specifically toward outreach to members of the east Austin community in order to even begin to move toward widespread adoption of green technologies, which again, will help them reach their target (especially as large solar arrays are limited in geographic space but there are a lot of roofs in Austin). 

1 comment:

lima charlie said...


First off thank you for discussing issues of inequality as it pertains to energy and efforts towards a greener Austin. Before I begin to comment, I also have to agree that it is not Austin Energy's fault that these programs have not bee used by residents on the east side of Austin, who are predominately low-income families, African Americans and Latinos. However, what I liked about your blog is that you pointed out that there is an imbalance in who uses these rebates. My issue, or lack of interest, towards energy and environmental policy had always been that they hardly include all populations when designing new policies or programs. Again, not to say that it is intentional, but it does happen, as you have documented it on your blog. Nevertheless, environmental and energy policy does effect everyone, and I have come to realize its importance and how utility companies, consulting firms, and policymakers have the power to include all residents. I believe your blog could serve as a foundation for more researchers or consultants of utility companies to take a second look and ensure that all their programs are equitable. Outreach is key in communicating to East Austin's customers about these rebate programs. I'm glad to see that someone is discussing this issue and I hope more conversations emerge from this post.