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As temperatures rise and fall seasonally, consumers are faced with the decision of when to use cooling and heating in their homes and its associated expenses. As extreme temperatures become more prevalent due to climate change, this decision can cause particular distress for low-income households as they seek comfort in their homes.

Recently published work from a team led by Destenie Nock, an assistant professor of engineering and public policy and civil and environmental engineering, and Luling Huang, a Carnegie Mellon Libraries postdoctoral fellow, aims to better understand energy-limiting behavior in vulnerable households.

Building upon previous work, which defines the energy equity gap as the difference in the air conditioning turn on points (i.e., balance points) between low and high-income groups, Nock studied energy-limiting behaviors in low-income households in Chicago pertaining to heating and cooling usage. The findings showed that as temperatures increased, there was a significant difference in the threshold at which air conditioning was utilized, with a cooling energy equity gap between low- and high-income groups at 3°F.

While this effect was expected, the assumption that this same group would delay using heating systems was disproved. The lower income households had the highest median heating balance point, with the electric-based heating energy equity gap at 6°F. This difference in behavior could be attributed to poor insulation in these homes or lack of alternative places to reside during high heat or high cold events.


“This work highlights the challenges low-income communities face. Not only are they at higher risk in the summer, but in the winter they have to spend a lot more money to protect their pipes from freezing,” noted Nock. “The financial stress of heating homes in winter can also lead to broader inequities.”

In the past, income has been used to determine if someone was experiencing energy poverty, but studies such as this one further support the notion that other behavioral factors must be considered. Among low-to-middle-income households in this study, 20% in the cooling sector and 24% in the heating sector may be neglected by the traditional income-based energy poverty measures that would lead to financial assistance. Further inequities were illustrated for households living in black-majority census block groups, where the cooling gap was 17% wider than households living in white-majority block groups.

The metrics developed in this study using smart meter data can guide both government entities and utility providers as they aim to assist vulnerable households. Utility providers can conduct analyses using consumption data from their customers, which can better identify signs of unhealthy indoor environments.

By using energy equity gaps to identify households at risk for inability to reach comfortable indoor temperatures, energy poverty and its associated negative health effects could be minimized. In addition to policies addressing systemic inequities, investments in infrastructure can improve living conditions in energy-insecure households to improve energy efficiency.

This work has been supported by the Council on Library and Information Resources, the National Science Foundation [grants: 2121730 and 2049333], and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.