Growing Impact: In pursuit of energy equity

Growing Impact: In pursuit of energy equity

Cleveland, like many cities, aims to become greener in the coming decades by decarbonizing infrastructure and using renewable energy. However, implementing solutions has its challenges, from technological to financial. Add to this the challenges of ensuring equity, and the situation gets even more complex.

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INTRO: We need to create economic growth, address systemic racial and other inequalities, improve resilience to climate change, provide jobs, make people healthier, and renewable energy and the transition to it is being asked to do all of those things.

HOST: Welcome to Growing Impact, a podcast by the Institutes of Energy and the Environment at Penn State. Growing Impact explores cutting-edge projects of researchers and scientists who are solving some of the world's most challenging energy and environmental issues. Each project has been funded through an innovative seed grant program that is facilitated through IEE. I'm your host, Kevin Sliman. On this episode of Growing Impact, I speak with Emily Rosenman, an urban and economic geographer who researches the connections between finance, urbanization, and inequality. We discuss her seed grant project titled “Energy Retrofit Policy and Programs in Low-Income Housing Markets: Implications for Energy Equity in Cleveland, Ohio.” Through this project with her collaborator Esther Obonyo, she's investigating what an energy transition could look like in a city where there's a lot of segregation, low-income people, and rental housing.

HOST: Today on Growing Impact, we have Emily Rosenman, and we're going to discuss her research on affordable housing and energy. Welcome Emily to Growing Impact.

Emily Rosenman (ER): Thanks, It's great to be here.

"I don't think we can talk about housing without talking about energy anymore." Emily Rosenman, Assistant Professor, Geography

HOST: Could you just give a brief overview of your project and describe maybe some of the goals that you're looking at?

ER: So the project is looking at the drive to decarbonize buildings in Cleveland, Ohio. And Cleveland has, like many other cities, put forward for itself some pretty ambitious energy goals around clean energy. So by 2050, Cleveland is trying to switch to a 100 percent green or renewable energy. And I'm coming out this as a social scientist who's done a lot of work on housing in Cleveland but doesn't know a lot about energy. So that's why I'm working with my collaborator Esther Obonyo, to understand what do you need to do to decarbonize all these buildings? Like what are the technologies? Then I can contribute to the project information about how do we finance housing especially in Cleveland, where there's a lot of rental housing and a lot of low-income people? So the question or the project is really asking about that. In the city, which like many cities is segregated, has a lot of low-income people, has a lot of people living in rental housing, what does an energy transition look like in that kind of situation?

HOST: Could you explain the inspiration that prompted this project?

ER: First, as the impacts of the climate crisis are starting to unfold all around us, I don't think it's possible not to see the connections between energy, environment, and social justice. So the fact that we have in many ways ignored the social justice aspects of how we power our lives and what we think is essential to live with—what our understanding of a good life is—is kind of what got us into this mess to begin with. So I'm a social scientist, and it's my job to think about this kind of stuff. But in recent years I've seen a lot of natural scientists increasingly recognizing the urgency of the climate crisis, and becoming more engaged in social justice debates. So I think people used to think that simply providing evidence about the science and impacts of climate change would be enough to change the trajectory that we're on. But it's becoming clear that this is not really the case. Climate change is not so much a scientific problem as it is a political problem. And I think more and more scientists are recognizing this. And I'm really encouraged that an institute that supports research and energy environment is also encouraging and funding research with explicit social justice concerns. So I hope this priority continues. And I also think it's the perfect thing for interdisciplinary research. And I'm working with Esther Obonyo from the College of Engineering on these themes are so I can talk about a little more later. And then I think also thinking more specifically about energy and social justice, a big thing right now is talking about a green energy transition—something like 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings—so we really need to decarbonize buildings. But of course, it's not just that simple. There are all these questions like how are we going to do it? Who was being asked to do it? And what resources do they have or not have to do it? So right now, in the US and many places is mostly seen as a market problem. So how do you incentivize people to switch to low- or no-carbon energy? But if the aim is to build equitable and resilient and sustainable communities, a key question here is, who is given the responsibility to build these communities and which institutions control the conditions under which this is done? And then also who benefits or who gets left out or stuck with the costs?

“We are living in a changing climate and an economy that is fundamentally at odds with being sustainable. If we're looking at endless growth versus being sustainable, I think it's important for students to startto understandthose contradictions." -Emily Roseman, Assistant Professor, Geography

HOST: Could you explain how affordable housing is related to social justice?

ER: So first, I subscribe to the view that housing—affordable, stable housing—should be a human right. That's fairly basic. The problem is, in our society and in most capitalist economies around the world, housing is something that you have to be able to pay for in order to access it. So that means if you're going to have housing, you have to have money to pay for it. And this is a social justice concern because many people do not have enough money to pay for housing or do not have stable incomes that ensure they have enough money for their housing every month. I think housing is a perfect commodity to understand the social justice concerns of a capitalist economy. So housing is something we need to live in. It's a basic human need for survival and to thrive. But we also treat housing as a financial asset. And in many times, the value of a house in dollars has very little connection with its use as shelter. In the global economy as it's functioning right now, people and company with assets are companies with assets are parking these assets in the housing market, leading to a global crisis of housing costs that fewer and fewer people can afford. And we also live in a society where property rights are basically prioritized over almost anything else. So if you're a landlord and you own some housing as a financial asset, the fact that that housing is your property means that you are legally allowed to evict the tenant if they don't pay. And I think we can ask some really big questions about the priorities of our society when we look at it this way. So since we've organized our system in this way, it makes it really important to put in place programs, regulation, et cetera, to keep housing affordable for low-income people and even moderate-income people these days. Unfortunately, we've failed and many ways to do this, and also to have these programs keep pace with the impact of ever rising housing prices on people who either don't own their homes or don't have high enough incomes to keep up with rising housing prices.

HOST: What is the link between affordable housing and energy?

ER: The theory in the affordable housing world in relation to energy, is that reducing energy costs are going to make housing costs less in general. So your shelter costs and the costs of power in your home should be reduced. And also that if you have no green energy, you're going to have better health outcomes for tenants and people in housing, which are going to lead them to be better able to work and to thrive and to afford their housing. So this kind of really big theory that is connecting health, energy and affordable housing has led to federal, state, and local initiatives to either reduce energy usage or to decarbonize low-income housing. And that's great. I think what's challenging though is the implementation because of the incentive structure and also what we were just talking about with the structure of landlords, private landlords owning all of this housing. So if you reduce the cost of energy and rental housing, it often doesn't benefit the landlord directly. Even if for people who own their homes and are trying to decarbonize, there are often a huge upfront costs and government programs to offset this are pretty behind where we need to be to really get going on decarbonizing residential buildings on a large scale. So I'm lucky I own my home. I have a good university salary and I'm facing this myself and I try to figure out, okay, how do I get my house off of fossil fuels? So affordable housing finance is a really huge industry. Basically, it started in the 1970s when the federal government stopped building public housing directly and started trying to incentivize the private market to do this. So now they need to both continue to incentivize construction of affordable housing, which is often done through tax credits and rent subsidies. And also try to get this housing to be low-carbon or green. And so now you have your looking to the private market to do all these different things and to figure out like the incentive structures that are going to result in what you want to see. And there has been some success in doing this. So a lot of affordable housing development that's going on now is green and LEED-certified and really brings these things together. But the problem is it's not able to happen at a large scale because of everything that has to come together to get one multifamily or rent-subsidized building built is so many things. And so adding reduced energy use or reduce energy costs to the equation is even more challenging. So putting these things together is sort of the tricky thing at the moment.

We're being told we need to create economic growth addressing systemic racial and other inequalities, improve resilience to climate change, provide jobs, and make people healthier–and renewable energy, plus the transition to it, is being asked to do all these things. Emily Rosenman, Assistant Professor of Geography

HOST: Why was Cleveland chosen as your project’s focus?

ER: Cleveland is a place with very high levels of racial segregation and social marginalization of racialized neighborhoods. And also a high rate of rental housing in those areas, and also pretty old housing stock. So it's the city that had a really big industrial boom during the earlier part of the 20th century. And then went through that really familiar story of industrial decline and jobs leaving the city and struggling to make that economic transition to new kinds of service economies and other things. So it's a city that's had housing problems for a long time. Then you get the housing crisis. And there's a lot of evidence about predatory lending that happen in Cleveland, which if you look at the geography of that, it tracks with these racially segregated neighborhoods. Then you have high rates of foreclosure of housing foreclosure in these neighborhoods. And cities like Cleveland, where housing values dropped a lot, these neighborhoods were also the sites of actual demolitions of housing that was abandoned and really not able to be fixed. We have this long-standing history of segregation and disinvestment in Cleveland. And that's kind of what a lot of my past work has focused on. So now we're looking at Cleveland and similar cities trying to continue to emerge from this crisis by looking toward the future of renewable energy and trying to make the switch to green energy and green buildings that basically the entire world needs to make. And what I find interesting about what's going on is the many things that's a transition to clean energy is being asked to do in this context. So we're looking at Cleveland's plan, which was announced in 2018, that is committing the city to combat climate change and transition to a 100 percent clean and renewable energy sources by 2050 on top of this whole context, which I just laid out. And so we need to create economic growth, address the systemic racial and other inequalities, improve resilience to climate change, provide jobs, make people healthier and renewable energy and the transition to it is being asked to do all of those things. I think it's really important to understand what is actually happening behind all of this visioning. And we're looking at this energy transition as the linchpin that's supposed to pull us out of all these problems that we have. And also the very short cycles of city politics that are kind of doing this kind of planning. And you know, you have mayoral cycles and political cycles that are a lot shorter than the time it's going to take to make this transition. And that is, I think a really important thing to look at what's going on and how long do these various initiatives last doing that doing all this plan, 2050, 2050, green transition. There's going to be a lot of elections before 2050. There's going to be a lot of political changes. So we're trying to see what actually has staying power? What programs are working? What programs are left by the side? There are so many questions to ask in a place like Cleveland.

HOST: Why is it important to bring these conversations into the classroom?

ER: That's a really good question. So when I teach urban geography, we always have at least a week on urban sustainability. And we ask really fundamental questions about what does that mean. I think we all have a lot of inherited understandings of what sustainability is and you think like all green buildings and like riding your bike to work, all those kinds of things. And I think it's important for students to understand what cities are doing and the name of sustainability. So students learn about things like I just talked about, which neighborhoods are getting access to the bike lanes and the green buildings and which ones don't have trees. And to have them think really critically about what sustainability actually means in a city. And if you start to read all the different plans that cities are making around sustainability. They're often really connected to the new way we're going to do economic growth. And when we are living in a changing climate and an economy that is fundamentally kind of at odds with being sustainable if we're looking at endless growth versus being sustainable, I think it's important for students to start to understand the contradictions that exist there. When sort of like green energy, we look at sustainability as a thing that’s going to solve all of our problems, but continue to let us live the kind of lives that we're accustomed to living. So Cleveland, for example, in many of these programs that we're finding, they don't actually track energy savings. There is no attention or even trying to track, like you retrofitted your house. How much energy did you say? It's more like a checkbox. Like Oh, you retrofitted your house. Now, moving on to the next house. So I want students to think critically about this and ask is just saying that you did something actually part of a green transition? And I think students are often really surprised to start to understand the checkbox nature of sustainability. And It's kind of interesting two-step process. First, they get disillusioned, but then they start to understand what can be changed. And I think it's really important to empower them and that way because the last thing that students need is just more depressing facts about how the world is going in bad directions. And so what I think is really can be transformative for them to look at all this stuff and realize that we just made up definitions for what sustainability means, what green energy means, for all these things. And that we can make up new definitions and new ways of doing it. And when they realized how social and thus contingent, all of this stuff is, that they can be the ones to start giving it better meanings and start making it more equitable or more meaningful for the kind of world that they want to see.

HOST: How will this project and others like it helped bring equity to marginalized communities and people?

ER: I think this is where interdisciplinary research in this area is really important. So one thing I've learned from working with Esther is that only 1 or 2% of the low- or no-carbon energy technologies that are developed by engineers actually get implemented. So this is a fundamental question that Esther kept asking when she reached out to me about doing this kind of work. Engineers want to know why. They want to know what do we do to get all these amazing technologies they’re are coming up with actually out there actually helping the people that we want to help. You know, engineers are no different from the rest of us. They want to understand the social contexts of the work they're doing. They want to help marginalized people too. And there's this sort of disconnect between the technology and the implementation. So I hope that we can make a tiny contribution to this question by trying to figure out the governance context of how you actually have a technology or a solution and how it's used, or what are the impediments to it being used? Or what are the things that happened once it's in the marketplace or in the world that you didn't expect to happen? And oftentimes, this is kind of my expertise, it has to do with the way that it's financed. Because of the way we basically are looking to the private market to do all of the incentivizing of energy transition. And what I've learned from my work in affordable housing finance is when you try to use the private market and you're really focused on these incentives, you often lose the social goal. And I'm hoping that by doing this work, we can try to recenter the social goal of all these great technologies that were coming up with.

HOST: What are your future plans for this project?

ER: I'm really interested in bringing energy more into my research agenda. So this project has been a really great start in doing that because I get to work interdisciplinary and learn so much from people like Esther and learn a new literature because there's a lot being written about from a social scientist's perspective about energy transition. So for me, I'm really interested in bringing this into my future work on housing. I don't really think we can talk about housing without talking about energy anymore at all. So that's a sort of takeaway for me. And I also really have enjoyed working “interdisciplinarily” and sort of understanding, sort of like you were talking about before how we often have similar, we're talking about the same thing, but we're talking about it in different ways. And so for me, it's also been really inspiring to try to do more into interdisciplinary research on the kind of things that I'm working on.

HOST: Thank you Emily, for being on Growing Impact and having a great discussion about your research.

ER: Thank you. And anyone listening who would like to get in contact to talk about this more, I’d be so happy to talk more.

HOST: You've been listening to Growing Impact, a podcast by the Institute of Energy and the Environment at Penn State. I've been your host, Kevin Sliman. To learn more about IEE and to hear previous episodes of Growing Impact, please visit This has been season two, episode 12. Thank you for listening.

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