Video: Why do people in lower-income neighborhoods pay more for LED lightbulbs?

A conversation on energy justice with Tony Reames, a new adviser in the U.S. Department of Energy.

(Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
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Residents of lower-income neighborhoods in the U.S. are less likely to find energy-efficient LED lightbulbs in their local stores — and if they do find them, they tend to pay more for them than do people in wealthier neighborhoods. That’s one finding from groundbreaking research by Tony Reames, a University of Michigan professor who joined the U.S. Department of Energy in June as senior adviser to the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity. 

Reames recently sat down to discuss his research, his work at DOE and energy justice broadly with Jennifer Kho, senior adviser to Canary Media and VP of journalism and information equity at DoGoodery.

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Here are a few highlights from the interview, edited for brevity and clarity. 

Jennifer Kho: Was there a moment when you realized how lack of energy justice affects different communities of color, or witnessed or encountered this impact?

Tony Reames: Energy justice is core to the way I try to understand the world. I grew up in rural Bishopville in Lee County, South Carolina. It’s your quintessential environmental justice community: majority African American, while most of the politicians are not African American. It has that kind of imbalance between the population and its representation. 

It was a very heavy textile community, but those jobs left the county in the 90s. The county leaders struggled to figure out what to replace that tax base with and chose to replace it with the state’s largest landfill and the state’s largest maximum-security prison — things that most people don’t want in their town. 

Throughout my educational journey, I learned about the intersection between technology and society — understanding about the lack of political capital and how that leads to communities hosting LULUs, or locally unwanted [land] uses. 

Our energy system is situated in a similar way. The generating plants and the pipelines are almost always located in communities where people lack the political capital to say no,” while it bypasses communities where people get active and push back on those decisions. Now I have an opportunity where I can hopefully impact those policies. 

Canary Media's Jenn Kho (left) interviews DOE adviser Tony Reames (right)

Kho: I read your congressional testimony on equity and energy poverty from a year ago. The statistic from the U.S. Energy Information Administration that 25 million households had forgone food or medicine to pay their energy bills — I was really struck by that.

Reames: The 2015 survey shows that one in three households face energy insecurity, either being unable to pay for their utilities or keeping their homes too hot or too cold because they’re trying to pay their bills, forgoing food or medicine to pay their utility bills, or receiving a disconnect notice over and over again. 

It was exacerbated by the pandemic because people lost their jobs and people were at home more — so you’re using more electricity and natural gas to cool and heat your home. I would say we’re living in the United States of energy insecurity.

Kho: What are some of the systemic challenges that affect energy justice that you’re thinking about tackling?

Reames: One study that I did when I was at the University of Michigan, we called it our lightbulb study. I was riding in a car one day and I heard an NPR report that some drugstores were charging more for the same prescription drug at stores in poor neighborhoods than they were in more wealthy neighborhoods. 

We wanted to see if something as simple as an LED lightbulb was available across poor and wealthy neighborhoods equally and affordably. We went into about 130 stores in the Detroit area, and what we found was that LED bulbs were half as available in stores in poorer neighborhoods as they were in more wealthy neighborhoods. We also found that LED bulbs were twice as expensive in poorer neighborhoods as they were in more wealthy neighborhoods. 

One of the issues was that LED bulbs were rebated in the suburbs because utilities are more likely to partner with big-box stores than they are with smaller stores. Just that recognition of the disadvantage that communities face because they don’t have a certain store in their neighborhood, which connects to economic development — all of these things are interrelated. We have to start peeling back the layers to see the injustices that sometimes are staring us in the face.

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