Energy Justice & LIHEAP

How the Urban Energy Justice Lab is Opening New Households to LIHEAP, Weatherization, and Energy Assistance Help

Writing and Reporting Jake Brown

Green infrastructure initiatives and solar farms in urban environments are a reflection of a new wave of exciting energy efficiency pilot programs launching all around inner-city neighborhoods.  With an important coalition forming between leading universities, utilities, and energy ambassadors, programs like LIHEAP are gaining a new generation of allies in the war against these communities having to make impossible choices like 'heat or eat'. 

By combining old-school tools like door-knocking to connect communities with cutting edge energy saving technologies like weatherization, traditional barriers are lowering along with many of these households' utility bills as the aim of long-term energy independence comes into focus in an exclusive, in-depth conversation with one of the leading minds and voices in this new revolution, Dr. Tony Reames. Professor in the new School for Environment and Sustainability  at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and is affiliated with the Center for Sustainable Systems, the Energy Institute and Poverty Solutions initiative, and founder of the ground-breaking Urban Energy Justice Lab, Professor Reames takes on a tour through his exciting world of innovations using geographic information systems to better pinpoint where energy assistance is most needed within urban communities. First, Dr. Reames, thank you for sharing a bit of your time with us...

Dr. Reames: I am a fan of  I signed up for your newsletter, so I read it when it comes out. (Not currently receiving our newsletter? Sign up here!) Please begin by telling us a bit about your background leading up to the launch of this exciting project?

Dr. Reames: I'm a Civil Engineer in Engineering Management by training, spent some time in the Army as a Combat Engineer, then came out and worked for a consulting firm, and went from there to Government Project development and review. I noticed there was a disconnect between engineers and planners and the City council and planning commission. I wanted to study Public Administration and did my PhD there, trying to understand particularly sustainability-oriented issues from these different perspective: what the decision-making process is, what's the coalition building, and that was going to be my dissertation.  Looking at sustainability plans from these different perspectives of city council members and developers and engineers, but we were going through the recession and so Congressman Cleaver of Missouri's 5th District proposed this project called the Green Impact Zone in Kansas City, and wanted to create what he was calling a Live/Work/Play community that was oriented around green development, sustainability, all of which was a big focus of the new Administration at the time.

He wanted to see if he could use that money to create jobs in the green industry because he recognized there were disparities in who were getting green jobs, and saw that as a way for this urban community to come together and take advantage of this opportunity, and a big focus of that was energy.  That's how I ended up getting into looking at energy assistance and energy equity issues because throughout that project, talking to different stakeholders and understanding that a majority of people's household income was going to energy beyond their rent or mortgage.  So I really got interested in this idea called Energy Justice and found this concept in the U.K. called Fuel Poverty where as far as this issue being codified in law and being a major focus, were further ahead than we were and I wanted to explore that issue here in the U.S.  At the time I was in Kansas City and was doing alot of work researching urban areas, and decided that my research agenda when I got out on the market as a Professor would focus on Urban Energy issues.

I think one of the interesting things that really got me looking at this was a goal of this green impact zone was to be innovative in implementing the Weather Assistance program, and so the idea was to implement this program from a community-based perspective.  This Green Impact zone was about 150 blocks, 5 different neighborhoods that were co-located in one area, and the Congressman proposed weatherizing every house in the zone - which added up to about 6000 houses - and that wasn't actually possible because there wasn't enough funding to do that.  They did get enough funds to do about 659 homes, and ended up only doing 329, so I think that difference between the proposal and the actual implementation is what made me interested in this issue, and understanding what those barriers were to that other half of the homes that didn't get weatherized, and also what opportunities and challenges had to be recognized and overcome to at least weatherize those remaining houses. Innovations more often than not come from experimentation, and your Doctoral work was just that in the fast-growing field of Energy Justice, which your lab describes as investigating "fair and equitable access to affordable, reliable, and clean energy technology."  Could you please describe a bit about how your research first inspired you to launch the Urban Energy Justice Lab?

Dr. Reames: My dissertation was looking at this green impact zone and I did some modeling of cold weather states and the need for heating, and could we identify areas based on house hold characteristics, characteristics of the housing in a certain area, income levels, etc.  Then using some energy data from the Dept. of Energy and Energy Information Administration, and can we identify areas within a metro that show up as less efficient as other area, and thinking about that as a way to target LIHEAP and weatherization.  So if you know areas where houses are less efficient, incomes are lower, and so understanding the socio-and-racial demographics of the area, can we target those programs using LIHEAP as kind of a temporary fix to help people with their bills, and then pushing them into weatherization to improve their homes. 

Using Michigan and Detroit, the goal was to at least try within a Great Lake or Cold Weather state in the Midwest, understanding what the dynamics are here, to meet students and alot were interested in this intersection between energy and equity, and we had (students?) coming from different utilities where they'd managed low-income energy programs or low-income bill assistance programs, and once I had a good cohort of students, we decided to launch the Lab.  I had alot of research ideas, and the first year I spent making connections with the Community Action agencies and a few people at DTE and some other energy service providers , and community activists, and then started to talk to them about "What can we do focusing on shut-offs where we don't upset the utility but we help them with their programs?", because that's a fine line.  Some of that stuff can point to tensions between utilities and customers, or utilities and activists, and so I see my role as just providing the facts and then helping everybody figure out where the plan of action is.  So I wanted my students to be in the community talking to people on the ground, and that's a mix of interviewing and surveying households, but also understanding the institutional implementations of these programs. Given Detroit is your research backdrop, I'm sure you've encountered the utilities up close and personal from both the corporate and customer side.  Where have you found them to be helpful in your pursuit of energy justice for the households they serve that you're trying to help achieve greater energy efficiency?

Dr. Reames: DTE, because of their stature in the community, is recognized as kind of the hometown utility company and what their foundation does as far as philanthropy, but they've also partnered with Walker-Miller Energy Services - which is an African-American, female-owned energy services company .  So bringing them on board to be an outreach arm when it comes to the energy efficiency assistance programs, and the relationships with other activists here in town like Eco-Works - which is an organization that does alot of energy education programming.  So those types of relationships help - especially with people who've experienced shut-offs - when you have other entities that can vouch for you or be the face for the utility and form connections with community groups and residents, I think that's a positive, instead of the utility company always trying to do that themselves or not recognize that there are those tensions there.  So I do think DTE has recognized how they can collaborate  and really reach the target markets.

You can look at other utility companies and see they're all or nothing, and I understand utility companies have to make money, but I think it would be better if they helped people develop a self-sufficiency plan, but as far as investor-owned utilities, some more progressive states require things like that.  But alot of times, you don't find that unless its a co-op, but having something like the L.S.P. program in place by an investor-owned utility is very progressive.

I think the unique thing about Michigan is we do have a Alumni from University of Michigan that, when they do go into industry, they always try to keep their relationship with the University, and the development groups really maintain that relationship with Alumni, so I think the opportunities for students to leave U of Michigan and come back and work with old Professors is there.  We have a really strong Energy Institute that bridges technology, policy, and social science, and a great Policy school where alot of people are interested in energy.  Then my school - the School for Environmental and Sustainability - we're looking at Energy from Environmental perspective, and also social activism.  So I think its a perfect storm of all these different areas that tie really heavy to energy, along with DTE and Consumers Energy, who employ alot of University of Michigan alumni who continue to work with us at the University, and the fact that we are a public institution and want our research to have an impact on communities, so I think every Professor that comes here is told "We want our research to have impact.  We want to connect with practitioners," and I think all of that just makes us a little more focused on "How can we do meaningful research that has impact not only at home," because we are a Michigan public institution, but then providing examples for other places. One of the traditional barriers to connecting households with help, we've consistently found, has been the challenges of outreach within inner-city neighborhoods, whether its an issue of mistrust or pride or just awareness itself.  What are some of the ways your Lab is working to reach those households, and what are some of the underlying reasons why you've encountered resistance when you have gotten a chance to speak to these homeowners?

Dr. Reames: One thing that came up was the relationship and trust between households and the utility company.  This was in a majority-African American, low-income area where people had experienced shut-offs, so I got alot of comments from people when I did interviews talking about the relationship with the utility company,  and whether they trusted the utility company, and so messaging became a big part of it: Who is the trusted messenger about energy assistance?  Is it the utility company who shut you off before or your local Community group who you trust a little more to give you information?  With the whole idea of an energy audit - sometimes you don't think about terminology and the meaning of words - so in an area where alot of people had experienced code violations from the city, and the idea of somebody coming in your house and doing an audit made people really fearful.  People talked about just the time and process of applying for energy assistance, going to an office and not having the right paperwork and having to go back and take off time from work, and so the challenges of the process came up as well.

I'll never forget talking to a lady in Kansas City who talked about how her heart rate goes up when she sees the utility van come down her street, and asks herself "Is it me today?  Or is it my neighbor and am I going to have to give my neighbor an extension cord so they can use my power?", so those challenges in communities are some of the things that can prevent people from applying, because if the utility company sends you a letter about applying for a program like Smart Meters, for instance, where people were afraid of but was really ground-breaking because it was basically a two-way device so you could see the utility bill in real time, so people were saying "Well, that just makes it easier for them to shut me off if I'm going to see my bill and know I can't pay it, then that just means they're going to shut me off next month."

Another part to this whole equation is "How can you educate people on what programs are out there?", how to use energy, because a lot of people don't understand their energy bill, so they don't understand there's a base rate for just having access to energy.  So if you need assistance to pay your bill, then how can this person reduce their energy consumption and be more conservative in their energy use the next month to be able to pay their bill without the assistance?  So what can we teach kids in school that they can take home?  You might remember when we were in school, they had the little sticker reminding you to turn the light off when you walked out of a room, and I think some of that conditioning around how we use our energy has fallen out of society and I think bringing that back and going into public housing complexes who are upgrading because HUD requires them to update now, and teaching people how to use their new energy-efficient washer and dryer or energy-efficient dishwasher, is a part that's missing from the program. Many of this program's most valuable players have been the boots on the ground on  he front lines of the fight to get more families connected with available funding, and your Lab has added a groundbreaking new division of troops to that battle with your Energy Ambassadors.  Please talk a bit about why you feel these new foot soldiers will be more effective in reaching new households that might have previously ignored a knock on their door?

Dr. Reames: So this whole idea of Energy Ambassadors - which was first implemented in Kansas City and a couple organizations in Detroit are now trying the same thing - and finding that trusted individual in the community that either is hired by the utility or the third party collaborator, that can go to neighbors and say "Hey, I participated in this program and it works, and you're not going to be embarrassed."  Because we sometimes think that low-income people just want assistance, but there is a pride issue there, and to have to put down all this information on an application about your household and who's disabled, etc...   So to find someone who can make that process less invasive and traumatizing I think is one way to overcome that.   The Ambassador is knowledgeable because they've been trained, and maybe in some cases because they've experienced it themselves, and are enthusiastic and actually live in the area. 

People have used these kinds of Ambassadors for a myriad of different types of programs - whether its been to get people on board to approve new zoning laws and all kinds of different things - so its been used, but I didn't see it being utilized alot for energy until people had to be innovative during the stimulus.  So because at the time there was this need to get money out there, get programs out there and spend the money really fast, the public health industry for instance used community liaisons alot, so other organizations were borrowing the idea from public health and what you saw was that alot of people who received stimulus funds recognized that if they wanted a new program to have legitimacy, it had to have faces of the people in the community, or t least people that look like somebody in the community.

So in Kansas City for example, when they first tried to roll the program out, they employed alot of college students and volunteers, and being it was an African American, low-income community, you had alot of white students from near-by colleges coming in, trying to knock on doors, and people were like "I don't know what's going on?", and students were discouraged because nobody was opening their door or taking their information.  So then the staff that was running the program revamped and said "Let's hire block captains, and have them do small neighborhood meetings or block meetings," and then the utilities actually hired some people from within those communities to run the energy assistance center for this Green Impact zone, so now it was somebody that people knew, or they knew his Grandma and had that local connection, allowed them to add additional legitimacy to the program.  So looking at that kind of set-up, and with applying that model to my students, thinking about "Can you shadow somebody?" and maybe then train new ambassadors on the program, and incentivize those ambassadors by paying them with a free audit or some weatherization, all in an effort to try to add legitimacy to the program.  So somebody can say "Yes, I'm  part of the neighborhood, I went through the program, its not as bad as you think it is, here's the information you need," where you can send an ambassador to somebody's house to make sure before they go to the Community Action Agency that they have all the paperwork they need to have, for instance, all the records they need to have before they go up there, and because that ambassador has a place on the ground in the community, they can maneuver the community better than trying to send somebody from the office.

Back in early September, 2017, they did their first front-porch walk through of the pilot neighborhood in Detroit, and we're helping them track who else signs up because of these champions, and its really about finding either third-party participants or community groups who are interested in this idea.  I've had lots of conversations with different groups, and alot of them are interested.  The faith community is a big player too, and in Kansas City, which still has alot of local community churches, and in Detroit, there are ALOT of churches, and they were a very integral part in Kansas City of the Green Impact zone's success.  Its about utilizing folks who are faith-based, as well as using community schools and giving information to kids to take home to their parents. Community Action Agencies have proven an invaluable resource for connecting communities with resources like LIHEAP and weatherization to help in the short and longer term with energy assistance, where have they played the biggest role in your research?

Dr. Reames: One of the organizations I study because of their important role with energy assistance and all other kinds of assistance programs, and if they're really a community based program where they're beyond the walls of their offices, then you do see this positive perception of the organization.  A colleague and I did a survey actually of all the Community Action Agencies that were a part of the Community Action Partnership and we got about 400 surveys back and we were asking them about how they perceived their role in creating sustainable communities, and had a question in the survey about how they defined sustainable communities, and alot of them talked about energy assistance, and making homes better for people because they understood this whole "Heat or Eat" phenomenon.  When that connection is made between improving lives vs. just providing services to low-income populations, that you really see the impact of Community Action Agencies.

In interviewing Community Action Agencies here in Southeast Michigan, they talk about the different reporting structures for the two programs and how that makes it difficult to recognize someone who that's been getting LIHEAP every year that might need to go into weatherization and then the percentage of the state that allots for LIHEAP vs. Weatherization varies, so I think coordinating those programs could be a positive change. Where do you feel the Lighting and Heating Assistance Program has and continues to play the greatest role in helping the homes you study and seek to help?

Dr. Reames:  Just reading the history of when LIHEAP has been attacked, its because its been viewed as a social welfare program, but its not, its an energy assistance program and so in some of my work, I've argued that LIHEAP should be viewed as an energy assistance program.   I think one of the positives is knowing that assistance is there to allow that person to make sure they can pay their rent or their able to pay for lunch for their child at school.  With another demographic, the Elderly, if you look at the stats of who are the users of LIHEAP, its elderly households who may have to choose whether they turn the heat on or put a blanket on and being able to pay that bill.

One thing that's interesting about vulnerable populations is that people have a resiliency to adapt to situations, and so being able to recognize when they can supplement their income or household does allow them to find resources for some of the things they might have sacrificed earlier, and I think that's one of the positive things LIHEAP and weatherization provide is that ability to then shift funds to something else. Looking ahead,  what would you identify as some of the priority changes you'd like to see achieved via the work of your Urban Energy Justice Lab in how to reduce the number of homes who have to rely upon energy assistance?

Dr. Reames: I do think trying to understand the root cause of shut-offs and understand the people who've been able to overcome that, and how that's impacted the areas of their lives is my next area of research.   My research I want to be practice-based, and be implemented as a policy prescription, so that's a big part of what we do.  We look at some of the theoretical work that has been done, alot of the actual quantitative analysis from measuring and actually being on the ground.  Alot of the Energy Justice literature or theory and concepts are coming from the U.K. - there are alot of scholars in the UK looking at this and putting out what tenants should be, and we want to take that theory and try to measure it on the ground and identify what the challenges are - especially from an institutional perspective ,and what are the opportunities at a local level, and how can they be expanded?

Particularly this idea of community-based approaches, because especially in urban areas, with the way development has happened  and the way we live, we still have segregated areas - housing was built at certain times and so there's building codes for certain areas - and really understanding the uniqueness of place is a big part of how I train my students, and how I conduct my research.  So working with some community activists, as the city of Detroit tries to do what are called "20 Minute Neighborhoods," is there another part of that that could focus on housing and energy?  The big question is: How do we impact a targeted community-based approach that is focused on housing with energy and water, and how can we help people identify programs?  Often, people don't know that these programs exist, or they don't know the requirements or regulations, so are there opportunities to have Energy Ambassadors in the neighborhoods that help people identify what they qualify for and the best way to go about applying for, and then set them on a path to energy sufficiency?

We've spent the past 3 years building relationships between the University and Community Groups, because you want to make sure you're not just studying them and leaving,  so Walker-Miller Energy Services for instance - they operate the energy efficiency assistance for DTE- started the "Front Porch Initiative," and some of my students and I are working with them on this pilot.  So right now, they're trying to make themselves known around the neighborhood, and the first round is to talk to people who are out on their front porch.  So again, not being invasive at first, and if you see somebody, trying to engage them to say "Hey, let me tell you about some of these different programs that we provide," whether they use DTE's name or not," and through that process identifying people within that community who are really excited about it and those are the people you can then offer the program to and ideally turn them into ambassadors or champions for the program to their neighbors. Where has the University of Michigan been most helpful in advancing your research in Energy Justice?

Dr. Reames: I'm really blessed that I'm in a place where practice-based research is encouraged but also rewarded.  So when I approach a community group or an organization, I try to find out what their needs are and people are pretty open when you do it that way.  So, for instance, I have students who do GIS work, and with the Community Action Agencies, the first thing I propose is "I can help you map where your assistance has been going, so if you give me information, we can plot the houses, and they you can look at the census data, and we can show you where you're vulnerable populations are based on the criteria for the program, and we can show you where your funds have been going in this county so you can identify gaps."  So we've been trying to do that first as a way to build a relationship, and so for instance, in Waukesha County, we created maps of where the vulnerable populations are and where LIHEAP and weatherization funds have gone over past 5 years, just so they could see "Oh, we've concentrated in this area, but is there some problem in the other area that we need to identify?" Or  "Do we need to send information to those community groups in that area so people know the program is there?"   So its about trying to find the mutual benefit for me, because I have to write papers, and get data for them that they need to implement their program.  I also see the need for all these existing energy-related programs to work together, that's where my engineering and public administration backgrounds come together: How can we implement programs that are more effective and efficient, but think about it from a systems perspective where all the avenues to make this happen are working together in a cohesive and coherent way. 

Our School for Environment and Sustainability here at University of Michigan- Ann Arbor, is a graduate program, and so we're training practitioners and students who may have not made the connection between energy and justice and equity issues, and to see that light bulb come on, and that these students may go out and work for the utilities and work for other organizations that are operating different types of programs, or go to government and say "Okay, maybe the program could be improved this way," is really inspiring to me.  For instance, a couple of my students who graduated last year are now working for policy advocacy agencies and will send me some of their policy briefs and say "Look, I'm using some of the stuff you told me about," so I really do think my role is to create a cadre of practitioners who are going to make sure that the connections between household energy consumption and programs and how we design our energy system really include a justice lens so vulnerable populations aren't left behind - either in the transition or just in everyday electricity costs. Finally, in closing, what recommendations have you developed already through your research to date about how to improve the overall future of the inner-city communities you work with where both existing programs like LIHEAP and longer-term solutions like those you're studying now work better together to achieve long-term energy independence for these vulnerable households?

Dr. Reames: I view this from a systems approach, from my engineering background, I view it in stages, and we are in this energy transition to more renewable sources, so from our project, we're looking at how do we expand Solar access to low income households?   A big part of that has been that low income households have poor electrical systems that aren't even conducive to solar, are inefficient, and people already can't even pay their utility bills.  So again I see LIHEAP as a front door to helping people get on track with their utilities and other costs, so if you can help people with their utility bills, they then have money to perhaps make some of the improvements that they need to to make it to weatherization and make their house more efficient.  Then they can make the transition to a renewable energy like solar or geo-thermal, so its kind of this phase-in process of helping people be more energy-secure. 

Learn more about Dr. Reames' Urban Energy Justice Lab online at and