Recognizing Energy-Related Inequities and How Energy Efficiency Programs Can Help

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, communities across Massachusetts and the country are discussing income and racial inequality. These discussions have caused the Cape Light Compact (Compact) to assess how these issues intersect with the Compact’s energy efficiency programs. It is our hope that this blog will provide context around these issues and offer insight into the role the Compact’s energy efficiency programs can and do play in addressing them.

The Intersection of Poverty and Race in Barnstable and Dukes Counties

Barnstable and Dukes counties – Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard – have income inequality across racial and ethnic communities. Based on 2015 Census data analyzed by the Community Action Committee of Cape Cod and Islands in their Community Assessment Report and Strategic Plan 2018-2020, the poverty rate for non-white and Hispanic peoples is more than double what it is for white people in Barnstable County and more than 10% higher in Dukes County.

Percent of Population in Poverty

  Barnstable County Dukes County
White, Non-Hispanic 8.0% 11.7%
Non-White and Hispanic 17.2% 13.1%

(Data Source: U.S. Census Bureau Data, 2015)

Inequalities of Energy and Environmental Health

As a public energy services organization, the Compact is sensitive to how energy issues can, and have, contributed to inequalities both locally and nationally, and how initiatives such as energy efficiency programs can help address some of these issues. Structural inequalities are linked to racial justice, public health, social concerns, and economic issues. Energy issues also play into these. Among other significant disadvantages, low-income households face challenges when it comes to energy expenses and environmental health:

  • Increased risk exposure: Lower-income households frequently face higher levels of indoor and outdoor air pollution, often because less expensive homes are more likely to be near sources of pollution, such as highways or fossil fuel power plants; this exposure can contribute to and worsen medical issues, such as asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Living in homes with inadequate heating or cooling, which is also more common among low-income households, can similarly affect the health of residents.
  • Less efficient homes: Low-income households often have less energy-efficient homes. These homes are typically not well-insulated, making them more expensive to heat and cool. They frequently also rely on older appliances and heating and cooling systems, which further increase energy costs and environmental health risks.
  • Higher energy burdens: A household’s energy burden is the percent of household income spent on energy costs. An ACEEE study found that low-income households spend three times more of their income than higher-income households on energy-related expenses, such as heating and cooling; this means there is less money available for other essentials, such as nutritious food and medical services.
  • Greater financial constraints: Many low-income households cannot afford the upfront cost of energy efficiency upgrades and, furthermore, can face obstacles in securing loans to finance these home improvements due to low credit scores.

How Energy Efficiency Programs Can Help

Because of the existing disadvantages related to energy expenses and environmental health that low-income households face, energy efficiency programs can be particularly beneficial. In order for this to happen, however, it is important that the programs are designed to reach low-income homes and overcome upfront barriers. Energy efficiency improvements – such as adding air sealing, improving insulation, and upgrading a heating system – can reduce energy waste, provide greater comfort, and improve indoor air quality. By saving energy, these upgrades can also reduce a household’s energy expenses: the same ACEEE study cited above estimated that the excess energy burden faced by low-income households could be reduced on average by 35% if the efficiency of these homes were increased to that of an average U.S. home.

Programs that incorporate clean energy initiatives, such as incentivizing the use of renewable energy (such as solar photovoltaics) and other low-emissions technologies, can also help reduce risks to environmental health, both inside and outside the home, by improving air and water quality. To realize their potential for addressing current inequalities, it is important that these programs are designed in ways that help provide access to low-income households and communities.

Cape Light Compact’s Income-Eligible Services

The Compact offers two tiers of income-eligible residential programs, available to both homeowners and renters. All qualifying households below the designated income threshold can receive a no-cost home energy assessment, as well as no-cost LED bulbs, insulation, air sealing, and additional weatherization. For households that are below a second income threshold, the Compact offers an Enhanced Residential Program.

In addition to the above offers, these customers are also eligible for certain energy-efficient appliance upgrades, including ENERGY STAR® certified refrigerators, clothes washers, window air conditioners, and portable dehumidifiers, and, in some instances, heating system repair or replacement. The Compact can also direct such customers to non-energy efficiency benefits that they can apply for, such as fuel assistance and reduced utility rates. It’s important to the Compact that we reach all our customers and provide tailored energy services based on customer needs. If you are interested in seeing whether one of our income-eligible programs may be right for you, you can get started by calling 1-800-797-6699.

The Compact coordinates with South Shore Community Action Council, the Housing Assistance Cooperation, and other local organizations to reach and assist low-income households on the Cape and Vineyard. We welcome your ideas on how else we can reach disadvantaged communities and invite you to share these ideas by sending an email to Thank you!