September 12, 2023

New Tool Shines Light on Energy Equity Gaps

The new tool will help policymakers understand who may not have the resources to update their homes

Photo shows the Seattle city skyline

Photograph by Josh Fields | Pexels

In Seattle, Washington, people who live in predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods are more likely to have installed heat pumps and air conditioners compared to people living in less wealthy areas with a higher proportion of non-white residents, a new report from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) finds. As the nation strives to ensure that energy efficiency initiatives are applied equitably, it’s more important than ever to understand who is accessing energy-efficient technologies—and who is being left behind.

The United States is facing a future of debilitatingly hot summers, which means that more people need access to cooling technologies, whether it be air conditioners, heat pumps, or homes built for passive cooling. To that end, the the federal government enacted Executive Order 14008, called Justice40, which sets a goal for 40 percent of the investments into energy-efficiency programs to go to disadvantaged communities.

“We wanted to explore energy-efficient home upgrades like heat pumps, as well as other cooling technologies like air conditioning, because historically many buildings in the Northwest haven’t had cooling systems,” said Adrienne Rackley, an economist at PNNL and lead author on the report. “All this infrastructure has been built up, but now we're facing climate change and extreme heat waves, and people are needing to upgrade their homes to withstand the hotter summers.”

However, there’s a challenge in understanding whether deserving homeowners have benefited from the Justice40 initiative: the sheer number of homes in the United States. Currently, there are 140 million residential buildings in the United States, including houses and apartment buildings. Researchers and policymakers must understand who is already upgrading their homes and who may not have the resources to do so.

Mapping energy equity

To help tackle this problem, PNNL researchers are building a tool that city planners, researchers, policymakers, and regular people can use to find installation data. The researchers recently published a case study for the new tool, looking at building permit data in Seattle, Washington.

“This study is an attempt to bring building data more out into the open, organize it in such a way that we could ask questions like: Who is doing home upgrades? And is it equitably distributed?” Rackley said. “We're trying to mold this building data into something that can tell us information about the quality of the buildings, the technology in them, and who is accessing it.”

The tool shows what neighborhoods—down to the building level—have adopted energy-efficient technology like heat pumps, as well as where equipment like air conditioners or gas furnaces have been installed. Overlaid with demographic data like income, race, education, and age, the tool can show users whether incentives like government rebates for heat-pump installation have been distributed equitably across a city.

To create the new dashboard, the team dug into the City of Seattle’s Open Data Portal, which contains permitting information for electrical work, construction, land use, and more. The team looked at data from 2003 to 2022. In particular, the researchers were looking for energy-efficiency improvement projects in single- and multi-family residential buildings. Testing the tool for Seattle, the researchers found that energy-efficient upgrades like heat pump installations occurred earlier and with higher frequency in neighborhoods with a majority white, wealthy population.

Improving access to energy upgrades

Rackley says that this information could be useful to city planners and policymakers. For example, some utilities offer rebates for homeowners adding heat pumps to their homes. With the new dashboard’s data, utilities could evaluate if they are doing enough to make sure people outside of white, affluent neighborhoods understand that the rebates are available and how to access them.

The data are also presented in an accessible way that can be useful to groups like nonprofits who advocate for energy efficiency.

“We really made a conscious attempt to make the data accessible to the people who are affected by policies and decisions. Science and decision-making power should not be exclusively available to people who have college degrees or people who speak English,” Rackley said.

However, Rackley noted some caveats to the tool in current form. For instance, unpermitted work wouldn’t be in the open data portal, and there’s no way to track whether homeowners or renters are using workarounds like portable heaters or air conditioners. Additionally, while the housing data goes back a few decades, the demographic data is just one snapshot in time (future work could develop demographic data in a time series that is reflective of the permit year).

In the future, Rackley and her team hope to add new data to the tool that represent other cities and that city planners and utilities use the data to improve the equitable distribution of resources.

This work was supported by PNNL's Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program.

Published: September 12, 2023