The quest for energy justice

Ramit Debnath outlines research showing the importance of linking energy demand with occupants’ wellbeing to establish energy justice in the system.

My research investigates such ‘invisible’ indicators of residential energy demand that can aid in creating better energy policies for people living in poverty.

Ramit Debnath

An increase in household energy consumption is often associated with a rise in income and living standards. However, will everyone want a refrigerator, television and washing machine as their incomes rise?

The answer remains uncertain. Slum rehabilitation housing in Mumbai provides an excellent opportunity for examining this question, as it is associated with moving slum dwellers from their temporary shacks to formal state-owned houses.

The slum dwellers are displaced to these new housing units in tall, vertical structures reminiscent of high-rise apartments. These occupants tend to remain in poverty during this transition. Common sense says that the occupants should have low household electricity consumption as they own fewer household appliances due to their low incomes. However, in our ongoing investigation, we have found that household appliance ownership has little to do with income status in the slum rehabilitation housing of Mumbai.

The decision for appliance ownership is driven by their household practice and the changing constructed environment. The change of the built environment from horizontal slum to vertical structures changes occupants’ daily household practices. It shifts their daily outdoor activities like washing, cooking, and socialising to indoor ones, since vertical housing does not have enough communal space. Not only do the occupants feel compelled to buy appliances such as washing-machines, the usage of entertainment devices such as televisions, music devices, smartphones and computers also increases. All of this results in higher electricity bills. Increasing bills remain a grave concern for the occupants. For example, a female respondent mentioned in a household survey that she finds it difficult to socialise due to the lack of community spaces and that she tends to spend most of her time indoors watching television.

She said: “…lack of space here makes us spend most of our time indoors watching television…. the corridors are very dark. There are no real community spaces in these vertical houses… I miss the community feeling.”

Energy decisions are subjective and change with the social, environmental and economic context of the occupants. It is especially so when energy services are not equitable to everyone. Mumbai has a huge income disparity across its population base, and so not everyone can afford these services equitably. The slum dwellers live in poverty, and the current slum rehabilitation process affects their community orientation, as an occupant mentioned: “…in here, all of our daily activities like cooking and cleaning moved indoors which used to be an outdoor-social activity in our horizontal slums… Now we have to spend most of our time indoors…”

Such practice-based changes affect their daily routines and activity patterns, which has its consequence in higher electricity usage. This results in higher energy bills that they cannot pay, and this cycle continues. Change of household practices represents a critical invisible indicator of energy demand that remains understudied. My current research investigates such ‘invisible’ indicators of residential energy demand that can aid in creating better energy policies for people living in poverty.

A clearer understanding of such drivers of energy demand is essential for informed policy making for people living on low incomes. These invisible drivers also establish the link between energy use and well-being that ensures equitable distribution of resources across the income classes in the Global South. The current state-of-the-art research in demand side management of residential electricity use also stresses approaches that can enhance the current understanding of occupants’ social practices that dictate their energy demand and its effect on their overall well-being.

Global North is extensively developing better policies through this pragmatic approach that links energy demand with occupants’ wellbeing to establish energy justice in the system. Countries like the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Sweden are actively stressing the inclusion of such invisible indicators in the mainstream demand side energy bye-laws and regulations. However, it remains a theoretical concept in the Global South partly due to the infrastructural and institutional gaps in the energy sector. I think that these gaps are the silver lining for such contemporary policy applications that provide a broader bandwidth to the planners and policymakers to realise the goals of low-carbon energy transition in emerging markets.

*Ramit Debnath [2018] is doing a PhD in Urban Design. This article is published in the current edition of The Scholar magazine.