Guest Blogger: Michael Reiner, MS (Sustainable Systems and Mechanical Engineering) ’18 (EDF Climate Corps Fellow at Texas Energy Poverty Research Institute)
When I first stepped into TEPRI’s (Texas Energy Poverty Research Institute) office on day one of my summer internship, I was thrilled to discover that there were nine other employees. (Looks around office.) Minutes later, I realized that TEPRI is housed in a joint office, and that I was, in fact, the only person solely dedicated to my specific project. As part of my EDF Climate Corps summer fellowship with TEPRI (a small-nonprofit organization based in Austin, Texas), I was tasked with beginning the initial stages of a landscape analysis on energy poverty in Texas. I felt like David going up against Goliath, if Goliath were the energy industry of Texas (sorry for the cliché).
I was equipped with the support of TEPRI’s three other staff members and all the publically available data I could find. Initial days of sorting data, reading past reports, and refining methodologies eventually led to a work plan consisting of two parallel projects: a stakeholder analysis and an energy burden assessment report.
One part of my summer has been spent conducting stakeholder interviews. We have already interviewed over 17 different stakeholders, including Community Action Agencies, Retail Electricity Providers, Municipalities, the PUC, the TDHCA, and TDUs. With more interviews scheduled in coming weeks, we hope to fully capture and analyze how energy assistance varies within Texas’s unique, deregulated market structure (which feels like the Wild West of electricity service). This stakeholder engagement task has further emphasized to me the importance of multilateral support in combatting energy burdens and informed what type of information/ deliverables can support low-income energy assistance programs.
My second project has been to identify publicly available data sources that can be used to capture energy burden indicators. We have identified housing and sociodemographic characteristics, health hardships, economic opportunity, and household makeup as the 5 categories that further define energy burdens, reinforcing the notion that energy vulnerability percolates to broader challenges faced by households (such as health, food, or other social costs). Through this work, we hope to later produce interactive maps that identify vulnerable populations, distribution of energy assistance services, and other variables of interest.
What started as an overwhelming endeavor has turned into a project that will be hard to let go of. It has been incredibly rewarding to apply the skills, resources, and methodologies I have developed during the academic year in a professional setting. I
have also gotten to enjoy my share of Texas BBQ and Topo Chico. In a state defined by opposing forces, as evident in its energy, geographic, and economic politics, there are undoubtedly gaps in assistance to underserved spaces (For more info read this New Yorker article: America’s Future is Texas). But in as such, Texas, sitting at the forefront of renewable energy, industry, and population growth in the US, has the opportunity to redefine energy access and affordability.
Understanding how little is known about the households that experience high energy burdens has validated the need for this type of work and research at large. My work this summer will feed into a year-long research project between TEPRI and the University of Texas’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. With three weeks left in my fellowship, it has been exciting to see my ideas and work come to fruition.