Equalising Energy: Taking Action to Include Racialized Disadvantages in Fuel Poverty Research

In an era of unprecedented transformation in the energy sector it is vital that we address the intricate intersection of fuel poverty eradication and racial justice. While there is extensive research on fuel poverty in the UK and much discussion on energy justice, a profound gap remains in our understanding of how racialized disadvantages intertwine with fuel poverty.

Only by urgently closing this research gap can we drive change and ensure equitable access to sustainable energy solutions for all. This will help us shed light on the disparities and inequalities that disproportionately affect marginalized ethnic minority communities.

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A boy walks through a street with his grandfather. They are both wearing a kurta/salwar kameez.

Research Gaps and Inequalities

Racially marginalized communities, statistically, are more likely to endure inadequate housing conditions, reside close to air pollution, and grapple with energy inefficiency. Within these communities, there are significant challenges to accessing energy-efficient solutions, such as retrofitting, due to financial constraints and limited homeownership. The persistent lack of comprehensive data, historical underfunding, and insufficient recruitment of researchers interested in addressing these issues exacerbates the problem.

A spotlight has been shone on these research gaps – not least by organizations like the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions and the Runnymede Trust in their workshop series. In order to secure just and equitable energy systems, they seek to develop a research agenda that explores the complex intersection of vulnerabilities related to fuel poverty and the manifestation of institutional racism within energy systems.

Understanding Racialization in Fuel Poverty Research

To ascertain whether fuel poverty is racialized, it is crucial to comprehend how racialization operates within this context. Racialization refers to the structural mechanisms that assign varying meanings to people’s identities, resulting in unequal access to opportunities and services that ultimately disadvantage certain groups. Existing data demonstrates unequal access and disadvantages experienced by racialized identities in comparison to their non-racialized counterparts. Although it reveals these trends, the data is not sufficiently comprehensive to provide a thorough understanding.

Narayan (2023) identifies some key questions that we need to pose in fuel poverty research, including:

  1. Who is assumed to be a typical fuel poverty ‘household’ or willing adopter of energy efficient technologies? What are the implications for those who do not fit this assumption?
  2. Do we have a comprehensive understanding of the diverse fuel poverty needs and energy saving practices of racially disadvantaged communities? How adaptable are these practices to low-carbon lifestyles?
  3. Are there adequate opportunities for racially minoritised individuals to participate in fuel poverty policy decisions? How might this influence how problems are defined and solutions are designed?

Crucially, we need to strengthen an understanding of where fuel poverty research needs to be developed to be racially sensitive, responsive and fully racially just (Narayan, 2023).

Side view of mid adult woman in headscarf and tunic face to face with her laughing 5 month old son as they enjoy time together in living room of family home.

Racially sensitive, just and responsive research

The racial justice continuum provides a guiding framework to assist energy researchers and practitioners to proactively consider the racial justice agenda in their efforts. The categories presented need not be achieved in a sequential manner, and are to be interpreted as suggested guidance to consider the intersections of energy and racialization, in an explicit manner.

Racially sensitive research represents an initial step in acknowledging the racialized nature of fuel poverty. However, it often remains limited in scope, treating existing ethnicity characteristics as an additive characteristic, among other variables rather than understanding how the interaction between these variables contributes to fuel poverty. Examples include incorporating ethnicity indicators or collecting disaggregated energy-use data among different ethnic minorities.

While racially sensitive research is essential, it alone cannot achieve racially just research, which aims to eradicate racial injustice and tackle its systemic root causes. It is only an initial step. It is important to note that much fuel poverty research, including that commissioned by the UK Government, does not meet even this threshold since it fails to collect disaggregated ethnicity data.

Racially responsive research delves deeper into the dynamics between various characteristics of social divisions that influence fuel poverty and well-being. It goes beyond static categories of race and ethnicity, exploring the multifaceted processes of racialization that perpetuate discrimination and deprivation. This research demands innovative methodologies to understand different forms of racialization and their connection to fuel poverty across various contexts, such as applying an intersectional analysis to understand how the interactions of different social characteristics is contributing to people’s fuel poverty conditions.

Racially just research aspires to eliminate racial injustice comprehensively. Achieving this requires concerted efforts across different actors and scales to structurally challenge racial injustices and transform the entire social system. Therefore, fuel poverty researchers must commit to racially responsive research as a crucial step towards racial justice, given that most factors requiring such research are within their sphere of influence.

Diagram showing levels of racial justice

Diagram from Narayan 2023

Crucially, racially responsive and racially just research will necessarily include engaging with the lived experience testimonies of those in fuel poverty. It is crucial to approach research through a lens that remains mindful of risks associated with epistemic exploitation. Epistemic exploitation could occur when the experiences and insights of research participants experiencing marginalization are used solely to advance academic or societal goals without genuine consideration for the well-being of participants. We must ensure that research projects are non-intrusive and non-extractive. By fostering a research environment grounded in respect, empathy, and genuine collaboration, we can make progress without extracting insights in a manner which perpetuates injustice. Closely working directly with existing community groups and peer researchers, supports this aim. This approach has been at the heart of initial projects seeking to close the research gap regarding the intersection of fuel poverty and racialized disadvantages (National Energy Action, 2023; REPAIR, 2023; PRIME, 2023).

Senior woman and man sitting at the table at home and going through bills. Elderly lady holding documents in hands. They are planning budget.

The Urgency of Furthering Racial Justice in Fuel Poverty Research

Racialized communities in the UK are statistically more vulnerable to fuel poverty (DENZNZ, 2023) and often face mislabeling as ‘disengaged’ in energy policy making, such as the Net Zero agenda. Top-down policy interventions often fail to consider the diverse needs of racially minoritized communities. These communities disproportionately experience fuel and transport poverty, reside in subpar housing, and face challenges such as pre-payment meters and even criminalization due to challenges with paying energy bills (Bouzarovski, Burbidge, et al., 2022).

As we navigate an era marked by remarkable shifts within the energy sector, it becomes increasingly imperative to confront the complex interplay between fuel poverty research and racial justice. Despite the wealth of knowledge on fuel poverty in the UK and the burgeoning discussions surrounding energy justice, a profound void persists in our comprehension of the intricate relationship between racialised disadvantages and fuel poverty. We need to urgently and comprehensively address this research gap and illuminate the stark disparities and injustices that disproportionately burden marginalized ethnic minority communities.

Bouzarovski, S., Burbidge, M., Sarpotdar, A., & Martiskainen, M. (2022). The diversity penalty: Domestic energy  injustice and ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom. Energy Research & Social Science.  doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2022.102716

Narayan 2023 Guide to racially just energy research https://www.creds.ac.uk/guide-to-racially-just-energy-research/

National Energy Action, Plugged in: Strengthening Energy Advice and Support for Gypsies, Travellers, Roma, and Nomadic Communities 2023 https://www.nea.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/Plugged-In-Final-Report.pdf

Repair – Research on energy through participatory insights from community representatives

PRIME – Protecting Minority Ethnic Communities Online (PRIME)

DESNZ. (2023). Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES) 2023: Chapter 1 Energy. London: Department of Energy Security and Net Zero.