Valuable Lessons From This Summer

My time as a Building Science Engineer in Program 204, Advanced Buildings at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) instilled in me many valuable lessons about this field. First, research requires one to challenge the canon. Before I began my internship, I only understood the housing crisis through my experiences from a low-income family. The more I explored the low-income residential sector through an energy-oriented lens, the historical inequities disadvantaged communities experienced only became more apparent. These inequities were created and maintained by poor housing policies, regulations, and institutions – but in this decarbonization movement, they do not have to continue. The electrification of the building and transportation sector is imminent and presents an opportunity for society to resolve both the climate and housing crisis. Here’s a powerful excerpt from an article our very own UC Berkeley professor, Daniel Kammen, co-wrote:

“[…] in order to solve the climate crisis, we have to solve the housing crisis. Numerous climate researchers have a similar conclusion. In an assessment of the carbon footprint of 700 California cities, experts with the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, including one of us (Dr. Kammen), found that, for most coastal California cities, “infill” housing — that is, housing built in urban areas, near transit, jobs and services — can reduce greenhouse gas pollution more effectively than any other option.

Other research has confirmed this work, and bolstered the case for using denser housing and public transportation as weapons against climate change.

The relationship between housing and transportation emissions is not complicated. The housing crisis in our cities and job centers — California is short 3.5 million homes, according to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute — is forcing more workers to “drive till they qualify,” the term used by real estate agents for what a growing number of Californians have to do to find housing they can afford. As cities that are job centers make it hard or impossible to build housing — for example, through de facto bans on apartment buildings in areas zoned for single-family homes — people who are priced out move further away, resulting in sprawl that covers up farmland and open space, clogs freeways and increases greenhouse gas emissions.”[1]

Second, the variation in LI households makes engaging them in the decarbonization movement highly complex. There are many differences in their infrastructure and energy needs so engineering solutions and policy have to be designed with these communities at the forefront. There is no silver bullet solution, but with climate change there never is. While there are few and far in between efforts, it’s critical to continue developing them.

Finally, I was reminded about my passion for research. Research is "creative and systematic work undertaken to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of humans, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications”[2]. By its nature, it requires collaboration across all realms of expertise and constant innovation. I am grateful to be part of the Cal Energy Corps 2019 cohort and have this incredible opportunity to grow as a researcher. If you are interested in an overview on the research I conducted, I have provided an abstract below.

Nationally, low-income households spend a larger portion of their annual household income to pay their energy costs (e.g., electricity, heating and cooling) than non-low-income households. This measure is referred to as a household’s “energy burden,” and according to the Census Bureau, the average energy burden for low income households is 8.2%—three times higher than for non-low-income households. With their high energy burdens, low-income families are making difficult financial tradeoffs about which basic needs to fulfill, such as medicine or education expenses. One way to address high energy burdens is by implementing cost-effective energy efficiency measures, which will reduce household consumption of electricity and other fuels. Increased efficiency can reduce household energy costs regardless of climate, heating fuel, or energy price factors in a state. Since there are unique barriers to achieving energy savings in low-income households, I hosted two webcasts titled, “Lessons Learned in Designing, Developing, and Implementing Efficiency Programs to Enable Healthy and Affordable Communities” and Providing Solutions to the Affordable Housing Shortage Through Energy Efficient Manufactured Homes. This prompted a discussion amongst national, state, and local entities on their current and future approaches to enabling energy efficiency within this hard to reach market segment, opportunities for national and state collaboration, and where they see programs going next. From long-standing programs to pilot programs, each organization offered great insights into how efficiency programs serving low-income customers can be thoughtfully designed and implemented for an inclusive, comfortable and affordable future.

Thank you for following me on this journey!