Energy poverty affects millions of Americans. In this episode, Robert talks to Dana Harmon of the Texas Energy Poverty Research Institute about how the February snowstorm increased energy insecurity among low-income Texans, why weatherization of homes helps increase resilience, and how energy, in her words, should be a “tool to help address poverty and socioeconomic disparities in our system.”
Robert Bryce 0:04
hi and welcome to the power hungry podcast i’m robert bryce on this podcast we talk about energy power innovation and politics and i’m happy to have a new guest on the show dana harmon she’s the executive director of the texas energy poverty research institute dana welcome to the power hungry podcast
Dana Harmon 0:22
hi robert thank you for having me
Robert Bryce 0:24
so then i warned you that i’m gonna ask you to introduce yourself so if you don’t mind give us a 30 or 60 seconds of who you are
Dana Harmon 0:33
sure happy to and again thank you so much for the opportunity to to come on the show my name is dana harmon i am the executive director of the texas energy poverty research institute we’re a 501 c three nonprofit based in austin texas covering the state of texas with a mission to inspire lasting energy solutions for low income communities across our state we work with utilities with affordable housing providers social service organizations and others to try to use data and evidence based solutions to address energy insecurity in texas
Robert Bryce 1:10
well so let me follow up on that so what was your your instinct your group’s name is the about energy poverty but you mentioned energy insecurity and the other term that i hear is energy burden and all of them are descriptive and all of them have slightly different meanings but let me let me bring it back to what the recent events that obviously affected the whole state the blizzard the blizzard is there a way to understand the blizzard underscore the issue of energy and security energy burden and if so how
Dana Harmon 1:42
it’s a great question and if i may i’ll start out with just a few kind of clarifying definitions on what we mean when we say those terms so broadly that the term energy poverty refers to a condition where a household does not have access to the essential services required to maintain a healthy and productive lifestyle through energy this can be caused by energy a lack of energy access like for example we what we experienced with the outages or by lack of affordability or inability to access or energy services when we talk about energy insecurity really what we’re talking about is the wider view of the physical behavioral and economic factors that contribute to difficulty maintaining essential energy services and then you also mentioned energy burden burden which i’d like to clarify quickly and and that is the most kind of concrete indirect of these terms because it’s a metric that is basically the percentage of household income that is needed to cover home energy expenses and energy burden alone doesn’t doesn’t fully give the full picture of energy poverty or energy insecurity but it’s important that we can measure and just to kind of put that in context i’m in texas about 41% of the population is considered low income which represents to be
Robert Bryce 3:14
clear so you’re saying 41% of texans of texas considered low income
Unknown Speaker 3:19
that’s great if i could
Robert Bryce 3:20
just follow that on because the i’ve been following what’s going on in california and the percentage of people living in poverty in california is considered the highest in america but so but low income 40% 41% are low income but how many of those would be typified that is living in poverty or do you know that number
Dana Harmon 3:37
it’s a great question and i should clarify that when we the population that we serve we typically consider as zero to 80% ami or area median income which is a really dependent on on locale type the the federal poverty line is often used as a metric of the federal poverty measure often low income can be considered twice the federal poverty line so it is it is a portion of the population that is that is greater then than just people living in poverty we have expanded our definition to include all low income people because really this group is indicative of folks who may have trouble paying utility bills and maintaining essential energy services in our data we do segregate socio economic classes and we do classify populations as non low income low income very low income and extremely low income which is also the very extremely low income is usually part of the poverty population
Robert Bryce 4:50
sure okay so those that as you would go from very low income through those grades that you just mentioned that energy burden would be progressively greater Or rather, moving up from the bottom would be decreasing then as people get wealthier,
Dana Harmon 5:05
exactly as as a percentage or as a share of wallet, so to speak. And like I like that term.
Robert Bryce 5:11
So then if I don’t mind if you don’t mind to just bring it back. So then what did the blizzard reveal here? Did it and how did it How did it underscore the issues that you work on?
Dana Harmon 5:20
It’s a great question. And so we are still collecting data to to really understand exactly who was affected by the outages and how so. And there’s a lot of our team and other researchers are, are analyzing those data sets so that we can say, conclusively who was affected. But what we do know is that households that are already in positions of financial strain, have a harder time rebounding from events like we’ve seen from the blizzard. And we’ve heard anecdotally from several folks in our network that are working, providing direct services for folks that, you know, some of what they’d seen from the blizzard is that in addition to being without power, in many cases for several days, and the the discomfort and troubles of the blizzard, many families were also dealing with food spoilage with lost wages from unable to being able to go to get to work, and with a sort of a series of cascading events that are very difficult to recover from. Additionally,
Robert Bryce 6:28
if you don’t mind me interrupting there because that, to me, when you say all that I what pops in my head is, Will Yeah, these may that makes perfect sense because energy is central to everything, right. And it’s and so it was not it was the lack primarily the lack of electricity. And then that had cascading effects on refrigeration, on heating on these other things that we generally take for granted. But we’re and I saw that in the survey that this food spoilage was a real problem.
Dana Harmon 6:56
It has been That’s exactly right. And I think one of the key messages here, you know, we were talking earlier about the the energy cost burden metric that we track. And it is certainly common for anytime there’s an extreme weather event whether it’s hot or cold. You know, when a services service remains connected and stays on, people do see spikes in their bills as a result of greater consumption, which causes it can cause challenges in in maintaining, you know, a good bill payment history. And so that is that is often the case, what we’re seeing as a result of the outages, in addition to increased bills from the energy that people were able to consume during the extreme weather events. There are these other financial strains that households are dealing with at the same time. And, you know, on top of the coronavirus pandemic and the the economic effects that many households are facing in the current pandemic. So it’s, you know, as many, many have said, a crisis on top of a crisis that makes it very difficult for some families to get by.
Robert Bryce 8:05
So I’m familiar with federal programs that can help people and in looking at your website and your work, it appears that most of your focus is on the electricity side of things, not on natural gas, not on motor fuel, although those are Is that Is that a fair assessment?
Dana Harmon 8:19
It is certainly fair to say that the majority of our work does does focus on the power sector. However, natural gas, we really look at home energy consumption. And so in a lot of our data, we will look at in the energy burden metrics that we were just referencing, we will look at natural gas as well. Typically, we don’t include transportation fuels in the energy burden, really the residential energy burden calculation that I just mentioned. However, we are finding that our work is venturing into the mobility space. And that’s another important part of this puzzle as
Robert Bryce 8:54
well. An issue for particularly in California, because they have higher motor fuel taxes, and that’s a regressive tax. Right? It affects low and middle and low and middle income consumers more than wealthy ones. Right. But and you said, you’re thinking that you’re going to look at the mobility part more in the future because of the because oil prices are going up. Why is that?
Dana Harmon 9:17
Well, the reason we’re looking at the mobility piece is really when we I think to take a more holistic view of households relationship to energy, and what that means and what that looks like. And one of the interesting things that we found in our work and I think we can tie this back to what we’re seeing as a result of the storm as well, is energy as you said, energy is essential to everything, but there are so many important relationships between energy and housing, energy and health, energy and, you know, economic opportunity and education. And when we say this, you know, we need to take a more holistic view of how can we use energy to help Families thrive and succeed. And we believe that transportation fuels energy through transportation is a very important component of that discussion as well.
Robert Bryce 10:10
It’s interesting that you mentioned the health part of that, because I in in my book that came out last year, I’d looked at Puerto Rico and some of the posts, I hesitate to say, post mortem. But after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, there was a lot of excess mortality that occurred in the months, it wasn’t necessarily from the storm itself. But it in fact, it was from electricity shortages, after the storm where people weren’t getting dialysis, they weren’t, you know, they didn’t have access to drugs that need to be refrigerated. And these were knock on effects that weren’t immediate effects of the storm. But were effects that were long term energy poverty issues that led to mortality among, you know, different estimates. But you know, several 100 people died because of that lack of basic electricity availability.
Dana Harmon 10:57
It’s such an important concept and a way to, for us to look at how we provide energy services. And you know, they’re they’re very direct connections, like you just mentioned with with dialysis and access to, you know, medically necessary treatments. But there are also longer term implications. For example, in some of our recent data, what we’ve seen is people will, basically, self meter energy consumption in Texas, including, you know, in in July, August, September, and and we do have evidence of heat exacerbated health effects caused by energy insecurity, so not, you know, being able to find cooling stations and things like that. So they’re really important health implications associated with with energy use, and we need to think about it holistically.
Robert Bryce 11:50
I’m glad you mentioned that, because one of the things that in your survey that was released just a few days ago, I thought this part was really interesting. You wrote, it’s not yet clear how many people died during the storm event. But in Harris County alone, which is where Houston is, more than 40 people died, and most of those are from hypothermia, which exceeds the death toll of Hurricane Harvey and 2017. So I’ve thought about this before, but why do more people die from cold than from heat?
Dana Harmon 12:21
This is a very interesting question. And I will not claim to be a health expert, in terms of of the health implications. But I will say it’s something that I think that we’ve we’ve seen over time. In fact, I will also say that it’s one of the reasons that traditionally, the federal funding through the low income Home Energy Assistance Program or light heap that is intended to support families in crisis to help keep connected to utilities, traditionally, has actually gone more to cold weather States than warm weather states, like traditionally, Texas. And the reason for that really is largely because of health implications. I think that we are beginning to realize while those colds related health implications are very serious, they’re also extreme heat related implications that we need to be mindful of. I think it’s incredibly important, though to to, you know, kind of from an energy perspective, to appreciate the need for resilience in this conversation. And and really understand how you know, as whether it’s Harvey or what we just saw with winter storm youri or droughts or unifiers other other extreme weather events, we do need to make sure that we were prepared from a resiliency perspective and that there are places that can maintain maintain power for people to go from for resiliency. And I think really winter storm Yuri highlighted that need as well.
Robert Bryce 13:57
Yeah, yeah, I haven’t seen those explanations. I’ve seen figures that say more people die from winter cold than from summer heat. And it’s also one reason why and after someone explained it to me, Well, why energy demand in the winter is so much greater than generally in the summer, because the degrees of difference between what you we like 70 degrees or so, right? If it’s zero or 10. Below, well, that’s 70 or 80 degrees that you have to make up in terms of space heating and or cooling. And then but from 70 to 110. Well, that’s only 40 degrees. I mean, it’s not only 40 degrees, but that that span in degree change is far greater in the winter. And it’s one of the reasons why that idea about resilience was the one that I wanted to follow up on, which was it a few weeks ago, a couple months ago, I was talking to a group and one of the people in the group said, Will reliability and affordability on energy go hand in hand and if you don’t have reliability, the affordability becomes a big problem. And I thought about that, especially on now after hearing because I just Solar vendors saying, hey, buy solar panels and batteries, and then you have reliability. But I’m guessing that the the populations that you’re studying, they’re not going to be buying Tesla battery packs and putting solar panels on their roofs because they can’t afford it. So how do you view that? It’s a long speech there that I just gave, but how do you? How do you use in some of your work? You’re talking about renewables and low income people? How do you make them more affordable, so that they have more reliability?
Dana Harmon 15:30
It’s a great, it’s a great question. And I think I’d like to start by recognizing that the complexity of the system, because you’re exactly right, we are doing what we can to maintain affordability. But in some cases, and I think what we’re seeing as a result of of the blackouts we saw in February, in order to ensure right reliability, greater investment will be required in our energy system, right? There’s a lot of discussion about the weatherization of infrastructure, and etc, that that conversation. And I’d like to come back to, in a moment, weatherization, also of homes being a very important part of this discussion. However, I do think we need to look at this this challenge holistically, and look at how we ensure that both the cost and the benefits of our energy system are equitably distributed. So when we’re making investments of our energy system, making sure that everyone has access to the benefits of those investments, we are actively working on a couple of different projects, to really try to understand what are the appropriate applications of distributed energy resource technologies. So in some cases, rooftop solar, but mostly community solar models, or, you know, battery storage on community centers, that you know, can can Island themselves and things like that, that can encourage access to those distributed energy resource technologies. So that the the benefits of those technologies from resilience perspective will will in fact, be there. But you’re
Robert Bryce 17:14
absolutely right out there just to make that point, because what you’re saying then is that what I’m interpreting you to say is that putting rooftop solar on a low income house is just not going to work. But if you had a community array or at a community center, where you can put in an array and some batteries where low income folks can gather, then that’s a more appropriate solution. Is that what is that where you’re going with that? How
Dana Harmon 17:38
do you almost so I want to stop short of saying putting rooftop solar on a low income house isn’t going to work, because it’s very situationally specific. But what we do know is that there are, you know, models like community solar community centers, can circumvent some of the traditional barriers to access to solar, right. So those include access to capital required to put it on your roof, making it, you know, include homeownership or quality of housing stock, which can also often be challenges with regard to rooftop solar. And then coming back to the weatherization comment that I made a moment ago. You know, I think the vast majority of the literature will still point to energy efficiency as a least cost resource, right, and making sure that the homes which are appropriate for for technologies, like rooftop solar are weatherized and do have energy efficiency investments, you know, kind of kind of first, before thinking about technologies like like rooftop solar, I think it’s worth mentioning, perhaps here that we tend to see energy poverty interventions as really a continuum. And really a case management approach that’s very much focused on on the individual or the household. So you know, first starting with crisis mitigation, so making sure people are able to, to stay connected to the grid, they can keep their lights on. And, you know, that often takes the form of utility assistance, just helping people you know, pay their bills. Next, we look at opportunities for weatherization and energy efficiency. So you know, building envelope, and basic services like that, which are offered through a variety of programs, including here in Texas, there’s a comprehensive energy assistance program, which combines the lykki program that I mentioned earlier, and weatherization, as well. And many utilities offer weatherization assistance for low income families as well.
Robert Bryce 19:48
And so if you can kind of think sort of if I can just sort of wrap because it seems to me when I hear you say that what, when you’re talking about weatherization, then you’re in fact in for the homeowner, it’s a form of resilience, right? Because that’s going to be Pay off both in the summer and the winter. Right, exactly. So that insulation and caulking and weather stripping and the rest of those things, that those are things that you would do before you’d replace a furnace, or that those are things that are going to be valuable to the homeowner, because they’re going to reduce the energy burden, but they’re also going to make the home more livable all year round. Is that is that fair?
Dana Harmon 20:20
That’s precisely right. And, you know, there there’s this concept of passive survivability. And so you know, in events of like what we saw with the with the blackouts when homes don’t have access to electricity, you’re exactly right, that a properly weatherized home can keep that home warmer longer, then, you know, seeing the extreme temperature drops as quickly as as many families experienced during the storm.
Robert Bryce 20:48
Sure. So also, when you say that when you’re talking about that weatherization and rooftop solar, there’s been a lot of work done, especially by some researchers at Cal Berkeley, finding that when you look at subsidies for rooftop solar for TVs, they primarily skewed to wealthy people, not poor people. And in And that, to me, that just seems Well, okay. You could argue, well, those rich folks, they’re using more electricity, they have a pool, they have this, they have that. So if we cut their consumption, then that’s better for everybody. But there’s a basic unfairness here that in terms of who’s able to claim who’s able to afford the the Tesla or the rooftop solar, I have rooftop solar on my house, I got three different subsidies for it. But does that stick in your craw? Is there a way to fix that? Or how do you think about it?
Dana Harmon 21:39
Well, it the way that I think about it is fundamentally it comes back to that access issue that we were describing, right? So those rebates are available to you know, to most customers, customers have a utility, but many people don’t have the ability to access rooftop solar rebates for a variety of reasons, whether it’s, as I mentioned before, the access to capital, homeownership, etc, or really just, you know, the, you know, kind of where, where that would fall on on a family’s priority list. And so I think it is really important when we talk about making sure that the cost and the benefits of this energy system are equitably distributed. I think that’s that’s exactly what I mean, and making sure that we are providing pathways and access points for people who do choose to to participate in technologies like solar, how might they do so in a way that fits their needs and their lifestyles in the in their budgets? That is also solves the challenges that we’re trying to solve collectively with our energy system?
Robert Bryce 22:40
Yeah. I want to step back for a minute because I didn’t write this down. But as I thought about this, I thought, Well, okay, you know, Bryce, you need to pay attention to who’s talking? How did you come to this? I mean, I know that when some of your colleagues have been on working on, Rebecca Klein has been working on some of these issues for a long time was on the Public Utility Commission in Texas. How did you come to this job? It’s Was this something that has always been an interest to you? How did you get where you are?
Dana Harmon 23:07
It’s a it’s a great question. And you know, like so many of us, my path has been winding and I’m very grateful for it. So you’re right. So I am, I’m the first executive director of temporary, but I’m not the founder. It was founded by Becky Klein, who, as you mentioned, was the former chairman of the PC here in Texas. I’ve been in the energy space for a while, but I actually came from an oil and gas backgrounds. And, you know, I worked with several exploration and production service providers work with a couple of technology startups. And I have been here in Texas. That’s, that’s correct. And I have been for many years, just fascinated by energy. You know, I think energy is incredible, as we mentioned earlier, in terms of being connected to everything, and its ability to lift entire countries out of poverty, and in the technological advancements that are enabled by energy, which I think is a fascinating subject and worthwhile place to spend one’s career. That being said, I think I got to a point in my life, and part of this was after I met Becky, where I started really thinking about socio economic disparities in our system broadly. And that’s not just in the energy space, but but moreover, across the board, and also really understanding the disparities that exist, you know, right here in our state of Texas. You know, when I when I thought of, or when I would have heard the term energy poverty previously, I would have thought of, you know, third world countries or those countries that you may not have reliable grid access and those sorts of things. But to understand that there are people you know, our neighbors are friends that are struggling in ways that we don’t necessarily understand or appreciate or talk much about, really made me think that this is something that needed needed attention. And I’ll say when when I started doing this work back in 2016, it was so interesting that, you know, concepts around energy and equity and energy poverty, these were very foreign concepts at the time. And, you know, one of the things that I think we’ve seen over the course of the past year or so with the the pandemic, the focus on on, you know, really, energy transition more broadly. And, importantly, the focus on equity, socially. You know, this is, I think, really an important time to be having these conversations. And as I mentioned, to think holistically about how do we ensure that our investments in the energy system, serve everyone?
Robert Bryce 25:55
Yeah, well, I think that that particularly now after the blizzard, because when it’s important, and I and one of the focal points that I’ve had after the blizzard is, well, what’s going to happen with rates? And what’s that going to mean for consumers? And we’ve already seen some price hikes in some cooperatives and so on. But I, I fear that we’re going to see more coming. Let me come back to that. But I just did a quick station break to remind listeners, I’m talking to Dana Harmon. She’s the executive director of the Texas energy poverty research Institute’s You can find out more about them at t x energy poverty.org. That’s TX, energy poverty.org. Dana, you wanted folks to go there, and they can sign up for your newsletter, your blog, don’t tell them what they can get there?
Dana Harmon 26:37
Absolutely. And we have several remote access to several resources on our website. The studies that I’ve mentioned, as we’ve been talking in this conversation are largely available on our website. If you sign up for our blog, our newsletters, you’ll be able to see our recent releases and be able to track the data that we’re collecting, as we’re working on on issues addressing energy and security in Texas, and
Robert Bryce 27:01
you’re on Twitter, is it temporary? At temporary at tbri. On Twitter, that is correct. Okay, so on twitter at temporary t pri on the web t x energy poverty.org. So let’s talk about that survey. Because I was looking at that and and looking in particular at the issue of natural gas was one of the points that you serve that you highlighted there, and I was blacked out. I’ve live in Austin, and I was really thankful that I had a gas hookup. How important is fuel diversity then in energy? So in addressing the issue of energy insecurity? How important is it to have more than one network connection for the gas network, that electric network?
Dana Harmon 27:45
It’s a really good question and one that I’m not sure that we at this point necessarily have the full answer to, especially with regard to the recent outages. But one of the things that I will say is that I believe that it you know, specifically highlighted the interdependencies between our natural gas system and our electric power system. And and how closely related those two things are. You know, there are certainly many, many stories of people who may have not had access to power but had access to natural gas. And it was, you know, the thing that got them through the storm. And so I think that that is a lesson for us. And we need to think about how you know what, what services was gas providing, and how did that work? And what is that right fuel mix that you know, can ensure affordable, reliable, clean energy service to our households. So it’s something that we will be continuing to study through through our work in our research. Sure.
Robert Bryce 28:48
Well, I just there was one comment that you had, or was in the survey, you said as many as 27% of the people who responded and you had over 900 respondents on the survey, use their ovens to stay warm. And even a participant cheered. I had to use my stove and oven to keep warm all along worried about inhaling carbon monoxide. Even access to the most basic need clean water anyway you but you highlighted me here respondents were saying Well, we’re certainly sure glad we had the gas because we and I was too I had hot, you know, we were heating water on this on that stovetop so we can have a little humidity and they made a lot more agreeable inside the house even though we didn’t have electricity.
Dana Harmon 29:28
You know, I think I’m glad that you brought up the that particular quote from the respondent, because I think that is also something going back to the health conversation that we held previously. And I think that that quote really struck me as something that shows just how bad it was for many people during during the storm. And the fact that people you know, knowingly were exposing themselves to dangers, including, you know, carbon monoxide, potentially carbon monoxide material. Beside poisoning, I think is really something that we should be mindful of, and how do we make sure that we can ensure that we ensure reliable, safe energy is is also an important component there as well?
Robert Bryce 30:14
Sure. So I know you’re focused on Texas, but is the energy poverty? Can you provide any context in terms of what energy poverty means? Or how prevalent it is in Texas versus other states? I mean, we’re a southern state, you know, the southern states it, you know, we think of poverty in America like Mississippi, rural Alabama, it, is the problem different in Texas and other states? Or is there commonality and energy poverty, energy insecurity across all the states in the country?
Dana Harmon 30:44
That’s a great question. Um, and you know, it is very interesting in Texas, because we do tend to have relatively low electricity prices in our state. But we also do have fairly extreme weather here that causes increased consumption. And that is a commonality really, between Texas and a lot of the parts of the southeast, as you mentioned, in fact, we’re we have a project going on right now with the southeast energy efficiency Alliance, really trying to standardize on our measures of energy poverty in our approaches, across Texas in 11 states in the southeast. Texas is among the worst in the US in terms of energy, poverty and energy burden, not the highest. But I do think it’s worth mentioning that energy poverty is experienced very, very differently across the US, depending on many factors, including climate, as I mentioned, but also, you know, regional quality of housing stock plays a really important part and how energy poverty is experienced. Also, and you know, this is unique to Texas, in many ways,
Robert Bryce 31:55
interrupt here on the housing stock. So when you said that, in my head, I’m thinking well, people who are living in manufactured housing that that may not be as resilient as weatherized as people living in a in a more conventional home with a regular foundation and so on. Is that, is that where you’re what you’re referring to?
Dana Harmon 32:12
Absolutely. And, you know, we see very stark differences even within Texas in how energy poverty is experienced in urban populations versus rural. And even you know, single versus multifamily housing can make a huge difference. multifamily housing tends to be more energy efficient, just due to the nature of the construction and multifamily housing. So apartment buildings and such, where it thinks Sure, they’ll have shared walls or roofs or or that’s, that’s an interesting point.
Robert Bryce 32:43
And just to follow on that, because it just popped in my head, one of the analyses that came out after the blizzard was done by some researchers at Cal Berkeley, and it ties in with this manufactured housing or trailer homes or, you know, however you want to the right label for that. But they pointed out that some 61% of Texas Homes just rely solely on electricity. And that that an electric heat is far more expensive than natural gas heat. And that that was they pointed to that as one reason why the peak was so high peak demand was so high was because people were heating their homes with electricity instead of gas. But I’m just making that point. Because it seems to me that follows along with the issue of urban versus rural, which I wanted to you were about to touch on. But I wanted to make that point because in the the rural areas and people living in manufactured homes are the ones who are by and large going to be relying solely on electricity for their heating. Is that right?
Dana Harmon 33:39
It is a good question. And I can’t say from the analysis that we’ve done that I could answer definitively. Regarding the fuel mix, especially for manufactured housing, I can certainly speak to the efficiency of manufactured housing is generally being much much lower than that of single family, you know, more traditional brick and mortar homes, or multi family multi family homes. But I guess the other point in the urban versus rural context, also has to do with what programs and services people have access to. In terms of you know, what local agencies providing utility assistance or weatherization assistance. We do see quite commonly that a lot of the the weatherization implementation measures are concentrated in urban areas, and often not getting out to some of the more rural areas. And there’s a whole host of complex reasons for that, including, frankly, cost of reaching more rural populations. But it’s something that we do need to be very mindful of going forward.
Robert Bryce 34:49
Is you say that, and when you talked about the issue of weatherization and a home when you’re really talking about a very high touch intervention, right or You’re gonna have to have people, you’re gonna have to know how to swing a hammer, you’re gonna have to have an initial assessment, you’re gonna have to follow up. I mean, it’s a very, it’s not a one touch thing where you’re done with the client, right, is that one of the things that it would seem to me just thinking out loud here that that that’s one of the things that makes this challenge of addressing the energy poverty so much more difficult is that is on the right track here.
Dana Harmon 35:25
I think that that’s fair to say, and in most, weatherization or energy efficiency programs, we’ll look very closely at what they call the SCR, the savings to investment ratio, meaning over over the life of you know, the over the life of a measure will its you know, save more in energy costs than the cost of the the installation of the measure itself. So that is a very important metric by which most programs are measured. Generally, what we see is those programs that do provide that savings get implement, or excuse me, those measures that provide the savings get implemented, and insulation, insulation, or that calc or the weatherization that
Robert Bryce 36:07
the dollars, you’ll pay it off in five years or eight years, or you’ll do some kind of a return on the capital. Right? And that’s correct as a metric. And is there a rule of thumb on that in terms of what that what the proper back is,
Dana Harmon 36:21
it will, of course, depend on the program. Usually, it’s the life of the measure. And usually the the savings has to be greater than, excuse me, the ratio has to be greater than one. So it has to pay for itself, I think, ultimately, is the goal of utilities, or program administrators will judge those metrics, I think differently by program, but that is generally the case. But I should also mention that there’s also there’s challenge in identifying the homes that qualify, and also challenges, frankly, with Eligibility Verification, and making sure that those programs are in fact serving the intended audience. So that
Robert Bryce 37:04
there’s a lot of having applicants who even know the program exists that they can apply for that would seem that the knowledge gap, if that’s the right term, I think it is that that? Well, how does an elderly woman living in a rural part of the county in Harris County or tribes even know that there’s some help if they can find it? And then do they have all the documents on the forms? Can they fill out all of that stuff to know that they’re going to be able to qualify? And then run all the traps to make it all happen? I mean, it goes back to this high touch challenge. Is that is that fair?
Dana Harmon 37:36
Is that that is a fair, fair statement. And I think it’s it’s, you know, frankly, pervasive across energy programs, broadly. In fact, a study that we conducted back in 2018, showed it This was Texas wide of low income participants showed I think it was something like 25% of people that responded to the survey, were aware of utility systems programs that even existed, and much fewer percentage of people, you know, engaged with those programs. And, and the awareness and engagement of energy efficiency or weatherization programs was even lower something like 12%. So there, you’ve got a whole universe, a population, rather, of people who don’t know, these programs are out there.
Robert Bryce 38:24
And so they can’t take advantage of them. And so their energy burden stays the same, or it has no chance of being reduced, because they’re not informed about what that possibility is.
Dana Harmon 38:34
That’s exactly right. And we’ve been working with several of our partners, including utilities and social service organizations and others, to really try to think through how can we raise awareness and meet people where they are and make sure that people are aware of programs that they can take advantage of, and, you know, additionally, how, what opportunities are there to streamline these processes, so that the the paperwork and the, you know, appointments, and all of those things aren’t barriers to to actually engaging with the programs, but they could be administered in a way that, you know, that serves serves their intended purpose. And, you know, these
Robert Bryce 39:10
aren’t, you can’t reduce the energy burden unless you reduce the administrative burden.
Dana Harmon 39:15
In some cases, I think that that is safe to say, these aren’t new problems. I should also mention, you know, this, these have been challenges with our system for a while. But I think what I think the advancements that we’re making is now that with the access to data that we have today, at levels, unlike what we’ve had in the past, even, you know, the survey data that we’re collecting the the advanced metering infrastructure data that utilities are collecting, that the housing datasets that we have, we do have the ability to get smarter about how we raise awareness and target those programs so that they can, you know, we can we can match the right solution with the need
Robert Bryce 39:59
and that and that knowledge gap i guess could be dependent on internet access on whether they have broadband on you know are they you know on the google and that you can target them more specifically right then in terms of outreach or whatever you may have to resort to direct mail or how do you reach those people
Dana Harmon 40:17
i think though all of the above all of all of those channels are appropriate and you know i think we’ve collected data that shows different communication preferences among you know different segments of the population you know based on age based on geography based on several different preference types which i think are important for us to take advantage of or to to utilize those datasets in our outreach and communications i’d also like to not gloss over though the the concept of trust with these programs you know in an interest in the utility and really making sure that that people do think that the services that are out there and can be provided are going to be beneficial for them and can be helpful and help solve problems that they have a lot of the research we’ve done and other literature points to really the need to use trusted channels you know community based organizations to try to communicate those messages and also the importance for this to be a two way conversation with communities not you know those of us you know sitting in austin saying okay how can we make sure to design programs that people need but really having a you know co developed solutions by which the community is involved and engaged in the conversations from the beginning and part of part of the needs assessments part of the communication strategies so that we can deliver more effective services for people
Robert Bryce 41:49
you know it’s interesting it what comes to mind is the distrust among some minority communities on on the vaccine right that there’s just kind of a distrust of the man right whoever that is and that you even though you may be saying well we can make your house better there may be some is that is that fair that there may be just some distrust of the system like well why are they coming to me is that or am i stating it too broadly
Dana Harmon 42:13
um well i think that was a rather broad statement
Robert Bryce 42:17
fair enough we can move on that’s yeah so what about one of the questions i wanted to put to you was in terms of the the push for decarbonisation because there’s been a lot of focus on that and there’s been a lot of focus on it especially in the wake of the blizzard is affordable or the issues of decarbonisation of affordability are how do they go together because the from some of the things that i’m seeing a lot of the decarbonisation efforts renewable mandates are resulting in higher prices not lower prices how do you think about that
Dana Harmon 42:51
it’s a very interesting question and you know i think the the approach that tepary has taken so far is we work i mentioned that we work with utilities we work with city governments local governments and others and really what we are trying to come to is a situation whereby if you know the city of austin adopts its climate equity plan are the city of houston with its climate plan have certain goals with regard to decarbonisation and emissions reduction from the energy system again how can we utilize the technologies available to us to make sure that we are meeting or finding ways to help offer solutions to meet those goals without increasing energy cost burden or be mindful of energy cost burden for the people which it was intended to serve which is not an easy easy challenge and and i think you know first and foremost really what we’re saying is we’ve got we’ve got to look at this whole picture and think about how the again the costs and the benefits of that transition are those decarbonisation goals are equitably distributed and that the communities who are most impacted are being thought of first in terms of the decisions and the changes that we’re making
Robert Bryce 44:13
so that leads me to the question about electric vehicles how do you one of the i’ve written a lot about electric vehicles over the years that wrote in a book i published 11 years ago i you know talked about the history of electric vehicles and how there’s always been a lot of promise and they’re all just on the horizon will now we’re seeing a lot more emphasis on electric vehicles electric charging stations is there what’s your view on the equity of energy access or evie charging stations with low income people because right now e v’s are just really a choice for wealthier people is out of those figures or is that even on your radar in the work that you’re doing
Dana Harmon 44:56
it’s such an interesting conversation and you know As I mentioned, really temporary is just beginning to get into the mobility space. We are hosting a working group now through an organization that we have called the energy opportunities coalition looking at exactly that question. And, you know, really what are the opportunities for electric vehicles, electric vehicles, micro mobility, you know, electrified public transit to to serve the low income population
Robert Bryce 45:26
micro mobility, I don’t think I’ve heard that what is that term
Dana Harmon 45:30
scooters, e bikes kind of last mile, the type type solutions, which often are electrified, but really looking at the problem of, you know, transportation needs of the low income population? And how can emerging technologies help serve those transportation needs, which includes electric vehicles. So there’s really some interesting data coming out, showing both in terms of the, the used Evie market and the affordability of you know, electric vehicles have been around long enough now that, you know, in some cases, they can be at affordable price points for low low income families, as compared with the, you know, internal combustion engine vehicle. And, you know, so to what level is there access to those vehicles? And what does that look like? And, you know, importantly, really looking at the lifetime operations and maintenance and fuel costs of those vehicles, because there are studies coming out showing that ETS can be comparable, if not lower in terms of operations and maintenance costs over the life of the vehicle. And so really, I think the challenge becomes how do we, you know, make that technology just like the the other technologies we’ve described accessible to people who may not have, you know, the access to capital, that some of the, you know, early adopters of EBS have had.
Robert Bryce 46:59
But what I’m hearing you say, though, is that right now, right now, I mean, you’re really much more focused on the residential consumption issues than the mobility because that’s something that’s more immediate, and it’s something that is not going to require nearly the capital outlay as Evie or something else. Is that is that accurate?
Dana Harmon 47:16
Oh, our team has focused largely on on the residential energy, poverty issues in you know, to date. But as I mentioned, where you know, that EBS are coming, the transportation sister system is changing. And so we do want to be mindful of the role that that, that energy and electricity play in the Eevee evolution. And, you know, I should bring it up here, because I don’t know that we have to this point. You know, earlier, I was talking a lot about the energy burden metric, as a percentage of household income. Most of the conversation so far has been about the the numerator, or the you know, energy costs. But there’s a really important denominator component there, which is household income. Another area that we’re exploring is what are the opportunities for the energy sector to provide good living wage jobs for people that may not otherwise have had access to it? And what are the pathways that are available for people to you know, to get into energy efficiency to get into weatherization to get into solar to get into electric vehicles? And, you know, how do we make sure that as those sectors are growing, there are pathways for for people to to have living ways wage jobs, which is another way to address the energy burden issue?
Robert Bryce 48:39
Sure. Gotcha. So you talked a little bit about this. And you said you’d worked in oil and gas? So is are you a geologist, you’re a scientist by training, what what are what is that? You don’t mind?
Dana Harmon 48:49
Of course, engineer, my background is Industrial and Systems Engineering, which is probably why you hear me talking a lot about these systems approaches. And I tend to think of things as complex systems where that are interconnected. And so my background is engineering,
Robert Bryce 49:05
mechanical then or
Dana Harmon 49:07
Industrial and Systems Engineering.
Robert Bryce 49:09
Okay. So just a few more questions, because we’ve been talking about an hour and again, my guest is Dana Harmon. She is the executive director of the Texas energy poverty Research Institute. She’s on the web, and temporaries on the web at t x energy poverty.org. They’re on twitter at temporary t pri. So you gave us a little bit of flavor on your attraction to this, but why do you care? What do you care about this?
Dana Harmon 49:36
Oh, great question. Um, well, you know, I care about this because I care about people. And I care about this because as I mentioned earlier, I do believe that there are Stark in growing inequities in socio economic disparities in our system broadly. And, you know, frankly, I don’t think it’s okay. I think we need to find ways to address that. I also mentioned my, you know, my my personal attraction to and love of energy, which is long standing, which I think is so incredibly fundamental to our society. But I think perhaps the thing that I didn’t say a moment ago, is that the challenges that we’re facing right now are so big in so complex in terms of the the economic disparity, the disparity in terms of these efforts towards decarbonisation, and an energy transition in terms of, you know, how do we provide jobs for people and access to essential services. So I really think that this particular niche, although quite unique, you know, energy poverty isn’t necessarily a booming field. But I think it’s a really important opportunity to, frankly, raise awareness about the way that we’re thinking about these issues, and how we’re thinking holistically about how energy is a tool to help address poverty and socio economic disparities in our system.
Robert Bryce 51:11
I like that idea that energy is a tool to to address poverty and inequality, inequality. That is my fear, though, is that that that that inequality issue is going to is being glossed over in some of these other efforts, and that the cost issues aren’t going to be front and center. But nevertheless, let me let me finish by just asking a couple last things. So a couple of questions that I like to ask all my guests What are you reading for your nonfiction reader fiction reader? What what do you what do you read when you’re not? Not on the clock?
Dana Harmon 51:46
Oh, that’s great. I’m actually at the moment, I’m reading Dan rather’s recent book, what unites us, which I think is a really interesting one. And I would recommend, I’m also, I usually have two or three books open at the same time. I have cast as well as a couple of Harvard Business Review, leadership books, which are always on my rotation.
Robert Bryce 52:14
Okay, and finally, what gives you hope?
Dana Harmon 52:19
Oh, my goodness, what gives me hope, um, I have two daughters, they are eight and 10 years old. And you know, it is really incredible to me to watch those two young people and the young people around them absorbing this crazy time that we’re going through together right now with open eyes with a dedicated heart and with resilience You know, I think that that our the future generations are our future and going to save us and you know, the idea that we have a generation of people coming up for who for whom all this work is worth doing. I think it gives me a lot of hope. So that’s probably cliche to say to say my kids, but my kids
Robert Bryce 53:09
know cliche in it what you hope is what gives you hope so well listen, Dana Harmon you’ve been very kind with your time. Unless you have something else you want to add. We’ll sign off here. Many thanks my guest Dana Harmon. She’s the executive director of the Texas energy poverty Research Institute. They are on the web TX energy poverty.org on Twitter, at tepary. So follow up with her. Dana thanks a million for being on the power hungry podcast.
Dana Harmon 53:36
Thanks so much for the opportunity.
Robert Bryce 53:38
And do all you podcast listeners out there. Tune in next time for the next edition of the power hungry podcast. Until then, see you later.