Anticipating Adaptation in Philadelphia’s Energy Assistance Sector

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Contributed date

July 2, 2021 - 7:16am

Critical Commentary


Many thanks to the symposium organizers, our session moderator, and technologist. The research that our group is presenting today formally began eight months prior to COVID-19, with the launch of The Energy Vulnerability Project in August 2019. The Energy Vulnerability Project is a three-year NSF funded study of energy assistance in the US MidAtlantic. (00:40)

[Ali - SLIDE 2]

Our focus today is on the city of Philadelphia and how the spatiality of neighborhood-based organizations enables energy assistance, or, in the context of a pandemic, hinders that assistance. 

[Briana - SLIDE #3]

In the social science literature, energy vulnerability is defined as a condition where people or quote “household[s] [are] unable to achieve sufficient access to affordable and reliable energy services, and as a consequence [are] in danger of harm to health and/or wellbeing” (Day & Walker, 2013) end quote. According to Day and Walker, energy vulnerability has three dimensions: first, it is an assemblage of social, technological, and natural processes; second, energy vulnerability fluctuates across space and time, both in its composition and production; third, energy vulnerability is inherently tied to the times in which it is analyzed and can either be dynamic or constant (Day & Walker, 2013). The broader literature also describes individuals’ own coping mechanisms and the practices they devise to address what’s called energy poverty. Some scholars also look at the ways in which energy assistance programs make it possible for families or individuals to meet their monthly energy expenses through budgeting or cash assistance. Prior to COVID-19, the greatest barrier to energy assistance in the US context is reported to be a lack of awareness of these programs, a point we’ll touch upon in our discussion. (1:10)

[Briana - SLIDE #4]

According to geospatial analyses conducted by the Azavea mapping firm, in the year 2015 25M US families gave up food or medicine to cover utility costs, another 17M received utility shutoffs, and another 13M went without heat because they could not afford their payments (Watt, 2018). Overall, 37M households in the United States experienced energy or utility vulnerability based on its narrow economic definition. Are these statistics reflective of the Philadelphia context?  

[Briana - SLIDE #5]

These two maps represent the number of households that applied for Philadelphia’s specific grant program, the Utility Emergency Service Fund (UESF), which provides financial assistance for bill payment (Wyatt, 2018). Although the data here relates specifically to UESF and is not entirely reflective of utility insecurity in the city, it does provide some insight into some of the factors of energy vulnerability (Watt, 2018). As shown in the overlaid map on the right, greater levels of poverty, percentage of people of color residing in a neighborhood, and higher levels of food insecurity can increase utility insecurity drastically (Watt, 2018). (2:16)

[Andrew - SLIDE 6]

Since the 1970s at least, energy assistance organizations have been working to reduce energy poverty in Philadelphia, by and large with great success. Energy assistance organizations comprise a wide array of social service and community organizations that administer both governmental and utility programs that address energy poverty. The three most common programs are customer assistance through utility companies, bill payment assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program or LIHEAP, and the Weatherization Assistance Program or WAP; both Liheap and WAP are federally funded programs administered by states.  

[Andrew - SLIDE 8]

Philadelphia, however, is home to a unique model of energy assistance provision that goes beyond conventional energy assistance paradigms. The model is anchored by Energy Coordinating Agency, a nonprofit organization established in 1983 to address the problem of fuel poverty. Two conditions make ECA one of the most innovative organizations within the field of energy assistance. 

[Andrew - SLIDE 9]

First, they provide green jobs training in weatherization and heater repair; this means that the local workforce is being trained in energy efficient building science and retrofits. The second is that their energy assistance programs are situated in “neighborhood energy centers” that provide one-stop assistance using a suite of programs that address poverty. 

[SLIDE 10]

There are fifteen Neighborhood Energy Centers in Philadelphia. Neighborhood Energy Center  clients apply for federal and utility assistance programs, learn conservation techniques, and receive financial counselling. Clients also learn about and apply for a wide array of other assistance programs to help address other forms of insecurity or poverty. This has been identified by energy assistance professionals as the keys to success -- the ability to access energy assistance within walking distance from your home, all in one location, rather than going from one agency to the next, often on the other side of the city. 


We know that energy vulnerability is exacerbated for those already living in poverty. The obscurity of home energy systems, coupled with inconsistent and siloed funding for energy assistance programs, are just some of the barriers which perpetuate and worsen conditions of energy vulnerability. The pandemic introduces three dynamics that increase energy vulnerability: shifts and perhaps increases in household energy needs; changes in federal funding mechanisms for energy assistance programs (such as LIHEAP); and shelter-in-place orders which have left many energy assistance organizations unable to connect with or assist energy clients. 

[SLIDE #11]

As Ali mentioned at the beginning of this presentation, The Energy Vulnerability Project began eight months prior to the pandemic, and was focused on studying the field of energy assistance. If you take a look at the current slide you’ll see how we’ve reconfigured our research questions during COVID19 to address emerging dynamics.

Like most industries, the energy industry was ill prepared for the severity and extent of the COVID19 pandemic, and this included energy assistance organizations like ECA whose  revenue comes from their fee-for-service work. As a contractor for federal programs like WAP, ECA gets paid per house that they weatherize, and per the number of attendees at their conservation workshops. Shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders have halted these services and subsequent payments. The inability to provide face-to-face services has placed  ECA in a financially precious position. It has also meant that access to energy assistance has been disrupted.  


The vast majority of Neighborhood Energy Centers closed on March 16th with Governor Wolf’s shelter-in-place order. This meant that people who would, under normal circumstances, apply for services or receive counseling within walking distance from their homes now had to figure out how to access assistance by other means. Appointments to conduct energy audits and weatherize low-income homes had to be canceled, which means that energy efficient upgrades have been  put on hold. By early April, ECA had to lay off thirty staff members -- mechanics and educators who work directly with residents to reduce energy vulnerability. 


A shuttered energy assistance network, in an urban area with high rates of energy poverty, is bad in and of itself, but this will also make it difficult to address the anticipated rise in energy vulnerability throughout the city. We’ve identified two additional  ways that COVID-19 has already increased  energy vulnerability in Philadelphia: 

[SLIDE #13]

First, the most energy vulnerable households may not have access to the internet, which inhibits their ability to learn about and apply for LIHEAP crisis funding. With Neighborhood Energy Centers and ECA’s offices closed, energy assistance work is quickly moving online. As this map shows, neighborhoods with lower levels of internet access are the same neighborhoods with higher rates of utility insecurity; so households that might need the most up-to-date information on assistance programs may also be households without access. Of course, it’s not just that an inability to access the internet compounds energy vulnerability; internet access should be considered an essential energy service in its own right, based on established definitions. 

[SLIDE 14]

The second way in which energy vulnerability has increased derives from utility company policies during the pandemic. When Governor Wolf announced shelter-in-place orders, PA utility companies restored power to households whose electricity had been disconnected for nonpayment. This short-term action to ensure that people had energy services means that utility bills are accumulating for households with already-outstanding balances and no means to make payments. This will lead to even higher cumulative debts; these suspensions will happen again, likely during the height of Philadelphia’s sweltering summer. 

[SLIDE 15]

Concluding on the subject of resilience, access to energy services such as electricity, broadband internet, water, and gas are essential for maintaining health and wellbeing, staying informed, and persisting as medical anthropologist Elizabeth Roberts might say. While ECA and the Neighborhood Energy Centers are innovating, creating new forms of communication and administrative systems to expand access to energy assistance during COVID-19, we need federal, state, and local legislation that provides financial relief and expanded assistance for utility bill payment.

Cite as

Alison Kenner, Briana Leone, Andrew Rosenthal and Morgan Sarao, "Anticipating Adaptation in Philadelphia’s Energy Assistance Sector", contributed by , The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 2 July 2021, accessed 1 March 2024.’s-energy-assistance-sector