As the climate changes, Midwestern communities are more frequently experiencing the threats of extreme weather. Storms can damage infrastructure and disrupt services. The effects of increased average temperatures, such as increased daytime temperature, more days of elevated temperatures, reduced nighttime cooling, and higher air pollution levels associated with heat events can affect human health. At the same time, energy costs are becoming more burdensome as residents grapple with heat waves and cold snaps. Some residents are relatively underprepared for these financial impacts.
It will become increasingly critical for local communities to create programs and policies to ensure access to clean and affordable energy, and set goals to reduce energy burden – defined as the percentage of a household’s annual gross income that goes toward payment of annual utility costs (electric, natural gas, or other heating fuel). The financial challenges associated with energy burden can force households to forgo necessities such as food and healthcare. Additionally, utility bill payments are the most common use for high-interest payday loans, contributing to long-lived conditions of poverty in the United States. Unaffordable energy can lead to utility debt or utility shut-off, which both contribute to housing instability issues.
High energy burdens also exacerbate long-term health-related concerns that result from living in dwellings that are either too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter. When residents make the decision to reduce utility costs by keeping temperatures at an uncomfortable level, it can aggravate or trigger conditions such as asthma and heart disease. Furthermore, unhealthy indoor conditions can lead to mold and associated health concerns and structural damage.
All these issues in the U.S. disproportionately impact people of color, low-income populations, and renters. According to the Urban Energy Justice Lab, a “just energy system fairly disseminates both the benefits and costs of energy services, and has representative and impartial energy decision-making." As local governments prepare for climate change, policies and programs must recognize energy injustices affecting specific populations, account for distributional inequities, and improve access to participation in the energy decision-making process.