In an example provided by the research team, the energy equity mapping tool displays information including unemployment rates, housing burdens, wildfire risks, and more for a census tract in South Carolina. Credit: University of Michigan / Courtesy

Michigan team unveils ‘first-of-its-kind’ energy equity framework and mapping tool

A University of Michigan team is unveiling its “first-of-its-kind” national, standardized energy equity framework and interactive mapping tool to track and advance equity in the clean energy transition. They’re holding two webinars to introduce the framework, and soon they’ll seek partners to apply the concepts in local communities.

The researchers are part of the Energy Equity Project, an initiative that launched last year at the university to help frontline, low-income, and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities have a greater voice in the clean energy transition and realize its benefits. The roadmap will help users like government agencies, utilities, regulators, and community groups assess equity in clean energy policies, programs, and investments. 

“We spent a lot of time working on guiding principles and what we thought decision-makers and planners should be thinking about and how they structure these engagements with communities,” said Justin Schott, project manager of the Energy Equity Project. “If you set a guiding principle that everybody has continuous access to safe, reliable, affordable energy, then that should guide a lot of the decisions that you make.” 

The roadmap isn’t intended to dictate a firm, universal, step-by-step process for incorporating equity. Rather, it guides users in improving their understanding of existing inequities and adaptable processes for improvement within local communities.

“So much of energy equity needs to be about transforming how we’re thinking,” Schott said.

“We’re not going to have a roadmap or flowchart that addresses every single potential situation that people are in, so I really do think it’s about understanding the fundamentals of working authentically, not extractively, with frontline communities.”

In an example provided by the research team, the energy equity mapping tool compares areas' BIPOC population and hurricane risks. Credit: University of Michigan / Courtesy
In another example provided by the research team, the energy equity mapping tool compares areas’ BIPOC population and hurricane risks in Texas. Credit: University of Michigan / Courtesy

Building the framework and mapping tool

This work originated from discussions at a 2018 American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy summer study session focused on equity, where participants addressed the lack of formal measurements and processes for inclusivity and equity in the energy space. University of Michigan Associate Professor Tony Reames, who is on leave to serve as the deputy director for energy justice at the U.S. Department of Energy, spearheaded the effort. 

The framework is one piece of the Energy Equity Project’s work and took 15 months to develop. The team began creating their document after researching how other frameworks had been developed and receiving funding from the Joyce Foundation and Energy Foundation.

Researchers held listening sessions with more than 400 stakeholders, including utilities, regulators, nonprofits, academia, and grassroots organizations. A 45-member working group determined how to represent equity through data, metrics, and best practices. 

They developed guidance around four key areas and 12 sub-areas. The project team initially identified 148 potential energy equity metrics and whittled that down to the 26 that are now included in the quantitative database and interactive, open-source map. 

Map users can choose which metrics to include in each visualization to explore the intersectionality of energy equity data. For example, users could include datasets that show energy burdens by race or others that show low-income households’ access to solar technologies.

The map also expands the energy equity focus to include related areas, such as climate risk and environmental equity. A map user could visualize wildfire risk by race, for instance, or track exposure to heat waves for seniors or people with disabilities. 

“We care about indicators of household and community well-being that are intersectional with energy,” Schott said.

“I think we’ll start to see connections between a lot of these — what were previously thought of as non-energy variables or data — and how those are strongly connected to what people experience in their homes, and more broadly, in the energy system.”

The researchers envision the map as an assistive tool for setting baselines and identifying communities where energy equity concerns are most prevalent in addition to thinking about how to best allocate funding and other resources. The release of the framework and mapping tool is timely because it could help with equity accountability for funding from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, Schott said.

“How do we actually make sure that these massive clean energy investments are truly transformative in frontline communities?” he said. “How might we look to the framework to help us think about that, to help us define what benefits our own local communities care about?”

In an example provided by the research team, the energy equity mapping tool shows wildfire risk across the United States. Credit: University of Michigan / Courtesy
In a third example provided by the research team, the energy equity mapping tool shows wildfire risk across the United States. Credit: University of Michigan / Courtesy

The road ahead

The team held a webinar on Sept. 21 and will hold another on Sept. 29 to introduce the framework and demonstrate the interactive map. Later this fall, they anticipate making the map publicly available; they’ll also put out a formal call for partners to use the framework and provide feedback on what is useful and where improvements could be made.

“We’re really interested to see how people are using the map, once it’s available,” Schott said. “We’re asking people to submit screenshots of whatever kind of data mashups they’re doing with the datasets that we’ve provided.”

The Energy Equity Project plans to hire a full-time data scientist in the next few months to make sure the system contains the most current data and to fill in the current data gaps. Already, the researchers have identified 16 high-priority datasets to work on, including utility shut-offs and how renters are accessing clean energy services. 

“Equity is not something that we achieve by checking a box … and saying, ‘OK, we made it,’” Schott said. “It really requires this deeper thinking and deeper understanding and people constantly asking, ‘Okay, what’s next?’”