PSU Study Shows Transition to Renewable Energy Could Increase Energy Poverty

Efforts to move away from fossil fuels and swap coal and oil with renewable energy sources can help lower carbon emissions. However, according to a new Portland State University (PSU) research, to achieve this will be at the expense of increased inequality.

Solar panels atop a roof. (Image credit: Portland State University)

Julius McGee, assistant professor of sociology in PSU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and his co-author, Patrick Greiner, an assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, found in a research of 175 countries conducted between 1990 and 2014 that consumption of renewable energy lowers carbon emissions more effectively when it takes place in a context of increasing inequality. On the other hand, it decreases emissions to a lesser extent when occurring in a context of decreasing inequality.

Their findings, reported recently in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, support earlier claims by scientists who debate that renewable energy consumption may be indirectly triggering energy poverty. Energy poverty is when a home has no or insufficient access to energy services such as heating, lighting, cooling, and use of appliances because of a combination of factors: increasing utility rates, low income, and inefficient appliances and buildings.

McGee said that in countries similar to the US where fossil fuel energy is replaced with renewable energy as a way to decrease carbon emissions, it happens at the cost of increased inequality. That is because the transition to renewable energy is accomplished through incentives such as tax subsidies.

This decreases energy costs for homeowners who have enough money to set up energy-efficient appliances or solar panels, but it also serves to hike the prices of fossil fuel energy as utility companies work to recapture losses. That means higher utility bills for the rest of the customers, and for a number of low-income families, greater financial pressure, which causes energy poverty.

People who are just making ends meet and can barely afford their energy bills will make a choice between food and their energy.  We don't think of energy as a human right when it actually is. The things that consume the most energy in your household — heating, cooling, refrigeration — are the things you absolutely need.

Julius McGee, Assistant Professor of Sociology, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, PSU

Alternatively, in poorer countries, renewable sources of electricity have been used to ease energy poverty. In rural areas in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, a solar farm can offer a farming community access to electricity that never had access to energy in the past, McGee said.

"That's not having any impact on carbon dioxide emissions because those rural communities never used fossil fuels in the first place," he said.

The research proposes that policymakers consider executing policy tools that are targeted at lowering inequality as well as decreasing emissions. McGee and Greiner said such policies would both incentivize the executing of renewable energy resources, while also safeguarding the populations that are most exposed to energy poverty.

We really need to think more holistically about how we address renewable energy. We need to be focusing on addressing concerns around housing and energy poverty before we actually think about addressing climate change within the confines of a consumer sovereignty model.

Julius McGee, Assistant Professor of Sociology, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, PSU


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