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The Dartmouth
April 16, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Henrich: Community Art and the Pursuit of Energy Equity

Community art activism is the first step in a push for the codification of diversity, equity and inclusion in all stages of the energy process.

With a crumbling roof and rising energy bills, many homeowners in the Upper Valley are experiencing energy insecurity. “I was afraid that as I got older my home would fall apart to the point where I would end up homeless. I have no savings, and no prospect of savings, so this seemed like something that I couldn’t solve, no matter what I did,” one Upper Valley resident said.

Energy insecurity refers to the inadequate access to affordable energy sources necessary to meet basic household needs, such as heating, cooling, cooking and lighting. It encompasses both the physical absence of proper insulation and energy services and the psychological and social consequences of living in a state of uncertainty. Energy has become so unaffordable that 25% of all U.S. households (30.6 million) spend more than 6% of their income on energy bills. This burden is not shouldered equally. Low-income households tend to purchase the least amount of energy but still suffer the most intensely from energy burdens and climate effects. This disproportionate vulnerability has been ignored by our policymakers. Vermont and New Hampshire currently lack effective community engagement and equity considerations in their energy decision-making processes.

The old housing stock in the Upper Valley and the isolated nature of rural communities make it incredibly difficult for households to access affordable energy equipment and infrastructure. Although it varies by utility company, New Hampshire has the second highest average electricity rate in the country, at 30.66 cents per kilowatt-hour. With such debilitating prices, the limited income of many Upper Valley residents forces them to choose between meeting their energy needs or paying for food, healthcare or education. These households are not just dealing with economic hardship, and the consequences of these choices can have grave physical and mental health impacts. In fact, “excess winter deaths,” largely the result of fuel poverty, kill more Vermonters than car crashes annually.

Since 1998, COVER Home Repair — an organization that recruits volunteers to help Upper Valley homeowners with urgent repair projects — has worked to address this growing and inequitable gap in energy security. It completes home weatherization projects, such as installing rigid foam insulation around mobile home skirting, air-sealing a home to reduce draft and constructing interior storm windows, across the Upper Valley in both New Hampshire and Vermont. Notably, there is a stark difference in the energy landscape in each state. Vermont has remained a leader in energy efficiency for the past decade. In 2022, the Vermont legislature expanded its financial support for low- and moderate-income energy efficiency programs, including committing $80 million to weatherization projects. In contrast, in 2021, New Hampshire’s Public Utilities Commission slashed funding for the NHSaves energy efficiency program down to 2020 levels. More recently, the commission has expressed incredible skepticism towards the state’s income-eligible programming — such as the Home Energy Assistance program — which helps homeowners and renters reduce their energy costs. 

Despite this difference in funding and support, both states have failed to adequately center equity and community-engagement in their low-income programs. Energy decisions have a huge impact on community members. Thus, utilities must look to those who will be most impacted for decision-making and empower those who have been historically disadvantaged by energy decisions. New Hampshire and Vermont stand starkly behind the other New England states, all of which have passed legislation requiring energy utilities to center equity in their operations. For example, Connecticut has established an Equity and Environmental Justice Working Group and an Equitable Modern Grid Framework. Massachusetts set specific equity targets in their 2022-2024 Energy Efficiency Plan, including increased investments in underserved communities. Conversely, New Hampshire and Vermont have low levels of activity in codifying equity in their utilities programs, according to regulatory reviews of their public utilities commissions. The growing problem of energy insecurity for our most vulnerable neighbors is made invisible by our policymakers.

Hans Hofmann, the renowned German-American painter, once wrote, “To sense the invisible and to be able to create it, that is art.” In the spirit of making the invisible visible through art, Dartmouth’s Energy Justice Clinic and COVER Home Repair have been painting a mural at COVER Headquarters. Supported by an arts integration grant from the College and the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society, the Energy Justice Clinic is working with artist Julio Alejandro Muñoz — who goes by Ragko — and COVER to produce the mural on the South side of the building. The wall is one of the first sights you see as you drive into downtown White River Junction from Sykes Mountain Avenue. The mural is meant to celebrate the organization’s deep commitment to building community and the rich history of White River Junction. Particularly, the COVER staff wanted to emphasize the creation of new from old and incorporate the ideals of togetherness and community in the Upper Valley.

Far beyond simple beautification, artist-community collaborative pieces can strengthen communities. The process brings people together and gives an equitable voice to all stakeholders. Because New Hampshire and Vermont have sidelined equity in policy decisions, grassroots community initiatives are especially important. The mural has aimed to orient its process, motivations, collaborations and output towards social justice. Its initial drafting was the product of a community-inclusive event, in which ideas for the mural were discussed, drawn out and compiled into an artistic rendering. Additionally, 121 patrons helped raise $4,000 to help fund the community mural. These funds were matched two-to-one by Better Places Vermont, which is a community matching grant program created to encourage revitalization of public spaces in Vermont. The painting of the mural is largely being done by volunteers. Under Ragko’s direction, high school students, Dartmouth College affiliates and community members of all ages have been able to bring the vision to life. 

As we continue the transition away from a fossil-fuel economy towards a low-carbon, regenerative economy, we must center practices of justice. A truly “just transition” will look to center members of our community who have been historically underserved. Vermont and New Hampshire must ensure that these frontline communities are both the decision-makers and beneficiaries of our energy systems.

Through community art, the COVER mural has been able to empower the local community and create dialogue around energy justice. However, art activism is only the first step. We need change from the top as well. New Hampshire’s “market-based approach” to energy will continue to fall short in combating climate change or achieving equity. We must push for the codification of diversity, equity and inclusion in all stages of the energy process. The state’s electric and gas utilities are set to file the 2024-2026 energy efficiency plans with the PUC on July 1. This is the time to center energy equity or risk exacerbating the prevailing and disproportionate energy burdens plaguing our community. 

Emily Henrich is a member of the Class of 2022 and of the Energy Justice Clinic at Dartmouth College. Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.

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