Stranded on a Heat Island: The Cost of Energy Inequity
Last week, the Washington Post reported on what most of us in the energy industry already know: energy burden is not created equal, and our most vulnerable neighbors pay a disproportionate price in a rapidly warming world. The District is an urban heat island, both city-wide and at varying intensities within its borders.
Here in the District, heat impacts specific neighborhoods in different ways. Socioeconomic factors combine with variations in temperature and vegetation to create increased risk of heat-related health risks for vulnerable residents. City sprawl and decades of growth and development can lead to vast "heat islands" that can create drastic temperature differences from neighborhood to neighborhood. Today, nearly 40 percent of low-income Washington residents live in areas with fewer trees and more empty space - spaces where a lack of vegetation and an abundance of asphalt and concrete surfaces result in spikes in daytime and nighttime temperatures unseen in more well-off communities. Residents of the most heavily effected neighborhoods - Buzzard Point, Edgewood, and Washington Highlands (among others) - have a disproportional lack of parks, movie theaters, and other amenities that can offer a reprieve from the summer heat. The resulting ultimatum illustrates the often cruel reality of energy inequity: residents must choose between racking up costly air conditioning bills or leaving themselves vulnerable to heat-related illness and discomfort.
So where do we go from here? Luckily, the DC government has strategic plans in place during extreme heat events and is adept at prioritizing resources such as temporary cooling centers and increased educational outreach in high-risk neighborhoods where facilities are otherwise lacking. The District is also home to innovative policies and a longterm sustainability plan that marries energy efficiency with social equity goals. Here at the DCSEU, we are proud to be the only energy efficiency utility in the country to focus on alleviating energy burden for the District's low-income and other vulnerable communities, alongside energy savings. As we move into FY 2019, the DCSEU is looking forward to launching neighborhood-focused initiatives that will help to address these inequities in Wards 7 and 8. Long-term, it will take fundamental change in the way cities are designed and an increased focus on the importance of energy equity to address these issues.