April 4, 2024 

By Rachel Morrow, UNC Gillings School Communications Fellow 

Cooking, water heating and indoor temperature control – all types of household energy consumption are critical activities for basic living needs and personal health.  Yet each of these activities comes with a bill based on usage.  

The percentage of household income spent on these various energy bills creates a metric referred to as energy burden. Higher energy burdens could lead to households making trade-offs between living needs fueled by electricity and other necessities such as food and health care. 

Dr. Noah Kittner

Dr. Noah Kittner

A recently published study in Environmental Research Letters by two researchers in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s environmental sciences and engineering department analyzed the relationship between outdoor temperature and vulnerability to energy poverty. Environmental Sciences and Engineering doctoral student Ying Yu and Assistant Professor Noah Kittner, PhD, found that extremely low-income groups are about six times more adversely affected by temperatures than high-income groups and that hot and cold temperatures have exacerbated the disproportionate distribution of energy burdens across both regions and vulnerable populations

The Gillings research team found that temperatures could leave marginalized groups, including those less-educated, unemployed or living in energy-inefficient old houses, at a higher risk of falling into an energy poverty trap. Kittner says that “this might look like a cycle of debt attributed to late bill payments or other lack of affordability that prevents households from meeting their energy needs.” 

The study fills a gap in existing research by using a more detailed dataset, including data across an eight-year timeframe, and pays particular attention to the additional burden of temperature among vulnerable groups. 

Ying Yu

Ying Yu

This research is critical, as temperatures are the primary factor determining whether households can meet their basic electricity needs. To improve energy equity, the research team recommends more inclusive ways to provide electricity to homes and financial support for communities with the greatest energy burden. 

Looking ahead to the future, Kittner notes that “climate change will exacerbate disparities in household energy burdens – unless policies are enacted to more equitably adapt to these systems. Energy poverty, in many ways, is a policy problem more than a technological fix. There needs to be better, targeted assistance programs and assistance for increased expected cooling demands during the summer.  

“Additionally,” he continued, “energy efficiency upgrades are often inaccessible – either because they are complicated, require too much upfront payment or because benefits accrue over a longer time period than the monthly energy bill cycle.” 

If you or someone you know is experiencing higher energy burdens, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has a resource called the Low Income Energy Assistance Program that can be accessed. 

Read the full story online. 

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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