So, as a child, I used to spend all of my time at my great-grandmother's house. On hot, humid, summer days, I would dash across the floor and stick my face in front of her only air conditioner. But I didn't realize that that simple experience, though brief, was a privileged one in our community. Growing up, stories of next-door neighbors having to set up fake energy accounts or having to steal energy seemed normal to me. During the winter, struggling to get warm, my neighbors would have no choice but to bypass the meter after their heat was shut off, just to keep their family comfortable for one more day. These kinds of dangerous incidents can take root when people are faced with impossible choices.
In the US, the average American spends three percent of their income on energy. In contrast, low-income and rural populations can spend 20, even 30 percent of their income on energy. In 2015, this caused over 25 million people to skip meals to provide power to their homes. This is when energy becomes a burden. But energy burdens are so much more than just a number. They present impossible and perilous choices: Do you take your child to get her flu medicine, or do you feed her? Or do you keep her warm? It's an impossible choice, and nearly every month, seven million people choose between medicine and energy.
This exposes a much larger and systemic issue. Families with high energy burdens are disproportionately people of color, who spend more per square foot than their white counterparts. But it's also nurses, veterans and even schoolteachers who fall into the mass of 37 million people a year who are unable to afford energy for their most basic needs. As a result, those with high energy burdens have a greater likelihood of conditions like heart disease and asthma.
Look — given our rockets to Mars and our pocket-sized AI, we have the tools to address these systemic inequities. The technology is here. Cost of renewables, insulation, microgrids and smart home technology are all decreasing. However, even as we approach cost parity, the majority of those who own solar earn much more than the average American. This is why, when I was 22, I founded the nonprofit RETI. Our mission is to alleviate energy burdens by working with communities, utilities and government agencies alike to provide equitable access to clean energy, energy efficiency and energy technology.
But there's no one way to solve this. I believe in the power of local communities, in the transforming effect of relationships. So we start by working directly with the communities that have the highest energy burdens. We host workshops and events for communities to learn about energy poverty, and how making even small updates to their homes like better insulation for windows and water heaters can go a long way to maximize efficiency. We're connecting neighborhoods to community solar and spearheading community-led smart home research and installation programs to help families bring down their energy bills. We're even working directly with elected officials, advocating for more equitable pricing, because to see this vision of energy equity and resilience succeed, we have to work together sustainably.
Now, the US spends over three billion a year on energy bill payment assistance. And these programs do help millions of people, but they're only able to help a fraction of those in need. In fact, there is a 47-billion-dollar home-energy affordability gap, so assistance alone is not sustainable. But by building energy equity and resilience into our communities, we can assure fair and impartial access to energy that is clean, reliable and affordable. At scale, microgrid technology, clean technology and energy efficiency dramatically improve public health. And for those with high energy burdens, it can help them reclaim 20 percent of their income — 20 percent of a person's income who's struggling to make ends meet. This is life-changing. This is an opportunity for families to use their energy savings to sponsor their future.
I think back to my great-grandmother and her neighbors, the impossible choices that they had to make and the effect it had on our whole community. But this is not just about them. There are millions nationwide having to make the same impossible choices today. And I know high energy burdens are a tremendous barrier to overcome, but through relationships with communities and technology, we have the paths to overcome them. And when we do, we will all be more resilient.