Energy vulnerability is a sociotechnical problem experienced by households and communities around the world. The term describes conditions whereby a household cannot afford to maintain indoor home temperatures at levels needed for healthy, comfortable living, nor lights, home appliances, and modern communication devices. Existing social science research has shown that inadequate income, degraded housing stock, energy markets, and government policy all contribute to energy vulnerability; studies have also focused on the disproportionate impacts for the elderly, people with disabilities, renters, and low-income families. In the U.S. context, social service organizations are critical for implementing government and nongovernmental programs that address energy vulnerability. Energy service organizations (ESOs) network together human, technological, financial, and organizational resources to make low-income households more energy efficient, all while pivoting with the ups and downs of energy prices, seasonal weather fluctuations, political climates, and the rapidly growing sustainability product market. ESOs are at the forefront of energy assistance, education, and do-it-yourself innovation, and as such, ESOs have in-depth knowledge of policy limits, infrastructural challenges, and also the sociotechnical imaginaries that shape energy performance in low-income communities.
The proposed study is a multi-sited ethnography that investigates (1) the dynamics of energy vulnerability in three different U.S. counties, (2) the sociotechnical strategies used by ESOs to address energy vulnerability, and (3) the energy performance mechanisms that shape energy efficiency at different scales. The study will be conducted through the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA), a multistate nonprofit organization that uses a panoply of state and federal programs to tackle energy vulnerability, and also at four ECA “energy centers”, two in Philadelphia and two in Delaware. Participant observation will be conducted at these five sites, and two focus groups will be held each year at all energy centers. In-depth interviews will be conducted with community members who have participated in ECA programs, as well as with professionals working in the energy industry. Media analysis will supplement fieldwork.