Do Americans have access to energy? Many believe the answer to that question is an obvious yes. The average American does not have to worry about the availability of electricity to power their daily routines. But what if access means more than simply supply? If we were to define access in terms of not only availability, but also price, a measure of affordability, and quality, the condition of the source and its externalities, perhaps we would come to a different conclusion.
Implications of electricity prices indicate that access is not universally affordable. For low-income households, electricity costs make up a much larger share of their budget compared to more affluent families, even though lower-income users consume less electricity on average. Electricity costs account for about 5.7% of the median low-income family’s budget versus 1.9% for the average family. If an impoverished household were to adopt solar as a source of power, their funds could be allocated to more critical investments, such as education. Additionally, renewable energies are particularly attractive for poor families because they have the potential to become an additional source of income if excess power generation can be sold back to the utility. The problem is these households often do not have capital at hand to finance the installation. Although the government spends approximately $6.3 billion on energy costs for federally-assisted housing, these expenditures often do not include renewable energy investments.
Likewise, in terms of quality, consumers do not have the capacity to dictate how their energy is produced. If I wanted to power my home without releasing billions in CO2 emissions or risking the world’s next oil spill, I could install solar panels on my roof. That is, assuming I have enough income to secure a mortgage, finance the installation, and reside in a suburban setting. The reality of the matter is that most Americans do not have the luxury of these prerequisites. In fact, lower income earners are more likely to be renters in multi-family buildings with deferred maintenance that prioritize other upgrades before considering renewable power.
After considering socio-economic repercussions, universal access to electricity in the United States becomes a goal our nation has yet to reach. The next question this issue raises concerns the stakeholders responsible for our energy inequality. Obviously, the government plays a crucial role in implementing policy and legislation that reduce the financial hurdles placed on low-income renters. In the new era of the Trump administration, attaining comprehensive energy access becomes even more of a challenge. The newly elected president has already appointed Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, an adamant opponent of Obama’s Clean Power Plan. In the coming weeks, significant cuts are expected in the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, which provided millions in funding of clean technology research and development and solar-backed programs throughout the previous eight years.
However, the government is not the only contributor to energy equity progress. Utilities play an indispensable role in creating incentives for distributed power generation and cooperation among homeowners, solar companies, and technology providers. This is not a problem that offers an easy solution, but with the collaboration across private and public sectors, significant progress could be achieved for equitable energy access.