Why the Census Matters for Clean Energy Advocates

Accurate population counts are essential to the future of crucial energy efficiency and energy assistance programs, as well as essential to what energy advocates know about the connection between how people use energy and how people are impacted by power generation.

Heather Pohnan | March 26, 2020 | Climate Change, Coal, Energy Efficiency, Energy Justice, Energy Policy, Sea Level Rise

Next Week is Census Day: April 1, 2020!

April 1st, next Wednesday, is Census Day; and by now, most households have received forms from the U.S. Census Bureau with instructions about how to complete it online!

Recent news has shown how climate change can impact the census: unusual and unseasonal warming complicated crucial early count efforts in Alaska Native villages. But the connection doesn’t stop there. Although the Census is most well-known for counting the population in order to apportion political representation, it also has meaningful implications on energy policy and climate advocacy:

  • Census data deepens our understanding of the connection between how people use energy and how people are impacted by power generation.
  • Population counts are used as the basis for directing over $675 billion in federal funding, including many programs related to energy, housing, and transportation.
  • Detailed demographic census data makes it possible for local governments to center racial equity as a guiding principle in their climate and environmental justice goals.

Undercounts or poor data quality can compromise funding for community programs such as those that support clean energy, energy efficiency, and electrified transportation, and can undercut efforts by governments and advocates to protect our nation’s most vulnerable communities from the worst impacts of climate change.

Understanding the Relationship Between Communities and Climate & Energy

Researchers and advocates are always finding new ways to use Census data to gain insight into the relationship between energy and society. For instance, as coastal flooding due to climate change continues to worsen, accurate population counts can tell us how many people may be at risk. For example, in New Orleans the population living above sea level increased from 39% in 2000 to 45% in 2010 despite sea level change, potentially indicating a “proactive residential shift to higher ground”. This threat has also become real in places such as Miami, which is the first city in the region to explicitly identify sea-level rise and climate gentrification as a threat to residents’ wellbeing. Miami’s city council passed a resolution to formally study the topic and identify solutions. Given the large amount of coastline in the Southeast, and the potential for displaced coastal residents, it will become increasingly important to track population change in these areas to understand when and where climate gentrification may be occurring.

Additionally, the NAACP’s groundbreaking Coal Blooded Report uses detailed demographic information collected in the Census to analyze the public health impacts of the biggest coal-fired power plants in the country through an environmental justice lens. Key findings from the report indicate that many of the worst plants were located in areas where the surrounding population was mostly low-income or African-American residents. Findings from reports like these are incredibly valuable because such assessments of power plants performed by utilities often fall short.

Federal Energy Assistance for Low-Income Households

Census counts are used to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding to states based on population needs. The list of programs that rely on this data is pretty long and includes several energy-related programs that are essential to the wellbeing of families in the Southeast. Many utilities in our region do not set aside significant efficiency program funding for their low-income customers. For many of these families, the only energy-related assistance available comes from federal grant programs such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). Accurate population counts are essential to the future of these programs because the level of funding for each state is determined according to its population.

Both programs have been around for more than 40 years, but the current administration proposed slashing LIHEAP’s budget to a whopping $0 just a few years ago. Thankfully LIHEAP is still operating on 2017 funding levels due to a continuing budget resolution, but this is still concerning for two reasons. Firstly because LIHEAP is already a tragically underfunded program in our region, with some states like Florida only having enough funds to reach 7% of their eligible population (U.S. average is 20%). The second reason is that situations like COVID-19 highlight the crucial social safety net that programs like LIHEAP provide: preventing utility shutoffs during a time where Americans are confined to their homes for public health reasons.

SACE wrote to Congressional leaders requesting that the COVID-19 package include supplementary LIHEAP and WAP funding so that all Americans can live, learn, and work in their home without losing electric service due to missed payments. Congress stepped up and approved $900 million in further funding for LIHEAP. However, ensuring proper funding for these programs doesn’t have to be confined to efforts at Congress. Since this program depends on data coming out of the Census, making sure that everyone is counted is a critical step to lay the groundwork to bring funding to communities who need it most.

Local Government Climate & Clean Energy Planning

A growing number of cities in the Southeast are moving to adopt climate and/or 100% renewable energy goals. Municipalities undertaking this task stand to gain from not only federal funds, but from access to Census data as well. Many smaller and mid-sized cities and counties do not have adequate resources or staff to perform population counts or survey residents on their own. Officials in these cities can leverage Census Bureau survey efforts to inform government planning and organizational decisions, including those related to climate and clean energy goals. Access to detailed demographic census data can also empower local governments to center racial and social equity in their climate goals and plans. A deeper dive into the topline numbers can provide a stronger understanding of how climate goals relate to race, class, and geography. Such equity assessments can also reveal information that is lacking or where there are barriers to participation such as language, both of which may require more direct outreach to citizens.

Census data also impacts local governments because (in some cases) it is also used to draw political districts and boundaries for state legislatures, city councils, and even public service commissions in addition to dictating political representation at the Congressional level. (In fact, Louisiana PSC districts are synonymous with boundaries for the U.S. House of Representatives.) As interest in energy policy as state and local government grows, SACE looks forward to connecting residents with their representatives at all levels of government.

Leveraging the Census for More Detailed Data on Energy

In previous decades, the “long” form Census would ask more detailed questions about income, transportation, and even heating fuel type. The topic of home energy use in the Census questionnaire goes all the way back to 1940! However, these detailed “long” form questions have now been rolled into something called the “American Community Survey” which is also issued by the U.S. Census Bureau. The ACS is sent to fewer people on a rolling basis rather than once every ten years. However, the ACS still relies on decennial Census numbers to ensure that the population being surveyed is representative of the overall American population. You can look at some examples of how SACE has used ACS data about the housing stock, income levels, and monthly energy expenditures in this presentation. Given the richness of detail in the ACS, some of the information is distilled or used to create other, more targeted datasets. Here are a few of SACE’s favorites:

  • Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS): Provides information on residential energy consumption based on annualized billing data obtained directly from utilities, including end-use modeling and household energy security (quantifying how many people are in a “heat or eat” situation).
  • Low-Income Energy Affordability Dataset (LEAD)Uses ACS response to estimate household energy burden (percent of income spent on monthly energy costs) by occupancy status, building type, and income level according to several different geographies (state, county, and census tract).
  • State and Local Planning for Energy (SLOPE): Estimates and projects electricity and natural gas consumption by economic sector (residential, commercial, and industrial) at the county level. (Currently under beta testing).

Shape a Clean Energy Future and Get Counted!

Remember to complete the 2020 Census online! This month, all households received directions on how to complete the census online, saving time and money for government officials during this challenging and unprecedented time.

Heather Pohnan
In her role of Senior Energy Policy Manager, Heather supports SACE’s regulatory strategy through policy research, and data and geospatial analysis. Her work will focus on projects that support the…
My Profile