Dr. Tony Reames brings a community approach to Energy Justice

Originally published: 
December, 2016

Tony Reames is an assistant professor and faculty affiliate with the Center for Sustainable Systems and the Energy Institute. He conducts research in the emerging field of energy justice, which investigates fair and equitable access to affordable, reliable, and clean energy technology. He is a multi-disciplinary scholar with degrees in public administration, engineering management, and civil engineering. Currently, Dr. Reames' research group is the Urban Energy Justice Lab. We spoke with him about the experiences that led him to his research.

How were the issues of energy justice first recognized?

Energy justice started out as a global research area—looking at disparities in energy consumption, access to energy efficiency, and access to energy technology. Much of that research highlighted the disparities between developed countries and undeveloped countries.

I’m taking that globally focused research and applying it here in the US. What I’m finding is that when we look at our urban areas, we do see disparities in energy consumption, access to energy technology, access to efficiency. And it breaks down along lines of race, place and class.

I want to bring this to the attention of policy makers, to nonprofit organizations—that energy injustices also exist in developed countries. It’s another manifestation of the inequalities we have to deal with in our country.

How did you become interested in environmental justice?

I grew up in rural South Carolina in a county that had a poor educational system, the state’s largest landfill, and the state’s largest maximum-security prison. I didn’t know the name for these issues growing up. I just knew that when we went to other towns, I saw that things were better. It wasn’t until I was an undergrad that I learned the term “environmental justice.” And then it began to define what I thought about my hometown.

My first job out of college was working for the State of South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control looking at clean-up of underground storage tanks. A lot of those leaking storage tanks were in towns like the one I grew up in. But only those “other towns” would be cleaned up if there were a problem.

As an engineer, I worked in a local public works department in a suburb of Kansas City. I was trying to help developers think about how to make their developments more environmentally sustainable, but it was a time before the suburb was actually ready to deal with that. I saw this disconnect between engineers, planners, developers, and politicians. So I went back to school for public administration because I wanted to understand this disconnect—and how administration works to bring about change, especially environmentally oriented change.

What led you to the field of energy justice?

It was during the time of the economic stimulus, so congressman Cleaver in Kansas City wanted to do what he called the “Green Impact Zone.” This meant taking 150 blocks of disadvantaged urban community and creating a sustainable redevelopment, a reinvigoration of the community using environmentally sustainable activities. One of the big parts of that was energy efficiency. So, Cleaver went on the news and said he was going to weatherize every home in the area. Of course, we know that politicians make grandiose appeals, and sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.


But it made me realize that people didn’t know about the programs out there to assist them—one being the weatherization assistance program. So, this community-based approach to bringing about a green redevelopment, a green reinvigoration of the economy in a low income, minority community really caused me to look at this community-based approach. Can neighbors informing neighbors, neighbors working together, really bring about the effectiveness we were looking for in this energy-efficiency, energy conservation, movement? And what are the elements that present barriers for people to be more efficient, to be more energy-conservation minded?

That’s how a community-based approach became the core focus of my research. I’m interested in what’s happening in communities, and how we define communities. And how does that influence technological change or technological adoption?

Tell us about your experience at SEAS, and what first attracted you to the school.

One of the reasons I came to U-M is because of its strong foundation in environmental justice and sustainability. The Center for Sustainable Systems (CSS) is looking at all of these technological issues, all of these behavioral issues, in a very holistic way. I’ve been able to work with other engineers, and behaviorists and geographers because CSS brings all of those people together.

I was also drawn to U-M when I started learning about the rich history here at SEAS—people like Bunyan Bryant, Dorceta Taylor, and Paul Mohai. I read about these people and now I can work with them. That’s really motivating.

In 2015, I launched the Urban Energy Justice (UEJ) Lab, and I was shocked by how many students were interested in the social issues of energy technology. Currently I have a group of seven students I’m working with and I just met with two other students yesterday who are interested in these issues. We have some really unique students here with unique professional backgrounds—but also this arc toward social equity. They are interested in how we can solve these problems, and make sure that it’s not just for the wealthy or certain segments of the population.

How do you see the field of energy justice evolving?

I’m excited to see that this is becoming a scholarly movement as well as a social movement. So, although it is a nascent issue, it’s getting a lot of attention. People are trying to understand it, and focus on it. I’m even starting to see job postings at universities for “Professor of Energy Justice.” It’s a very exciting time.


Read more: 10 Questions with Assistant Professor Tony Reames