According to the U.S. Census, nearly 14 million US households have unpaid utility bills while another 2.2 million households have had their utilities disconnected. A major utility hardship for many households is the inability to afford reliable energy energy services, also known as energy poverty. One strategic solution to address energy poverty has been to improve a home’s energy efficiency. However, the absence of readily available data on household energy use and efficiency presents an impediment to effectively targeting programs to those most in need.

We have published two studies that use publicly available data from the US Energy Information Administration’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) to model and explore disparities in residential heating energy efficiency. The studies, exploring heating energy efficiency in Kansas City, Missouri and Detroit, Michigan, both find significant spatial, racial, and socioeconomic urban disparities.

Map of Kansas City area heating efficiency (in darker areas homes are less efficient)

The first study, published in Energy Policy in 2016,  shows disparities in the relationship between heating EUI and spatial, racial/ethnic, and socioeconomic block group characteristics in Kansas City, Missouri. Block groups with lower median incomes, a greater percentage of households below poverty, a greater percentage of racial/ethnic minority headed-households, and a larger percentage of adults with less than a high school education were, on average, less energy efficient (higher EUIs). Results also imply that racial segregation, which continues to influence urban housing choices, exposes Black and Hispanic households to increased fuel poverty vulnerability. Lastly, the spatial concentration and demographics of vulnerable block groups suggest proactive, area- and community-based targeting of energy efficiency assistance programs may be more effective than existing self-referral approaches.

Map of Detroit area heating efficiency (in red areas homes are less efficient)

The second study, published in Energy and Buildings in 2017, illustrates spatial disparities in energy consumption and efficiency in Detroit, Michigan. While the analysis shows no statistical relationship between race/ethnicity and energy consumption, energy inefficiency is correlated with racial/ethnic makeup. As the percentage of White householders increased, so did the modeled energy efficiency of homes in that area, relative to the efficiency in areas with greater percentages of African American or Hispanic householders. Income and housing tenure (own or rent) reveal inverse relationships with consumption and efficiency. While areas with higher median incomes and homeownership exhibited higher consumption, they also benefit from greater energy efficiency than areas with lower median incomes and a greater percentage of renters. This study provides evidence supporting approaches for conservation and energy efficiency program targeting that recognizes the significance of race, ethnicity, place and class.