Pandemic Urbanism

May 14, 2020

Anticipating Adaptation in Philadelphia’s Energy Assistance Sector

By Alison Kenner (
Associate Professor of Politics, Drexel University

Coauthor(s): Briana Leone, Morgan Sarao, Andrew Rosenthal

The author will give this presentation at the Pandemic Urbanism Symposium in a session titled “Resilience by Any Other Name,” from 2:00 – 3:00 PM on May 29, 2020.

Energy vulnerability is an understudied but widespread problem in the United States. Energy vulnerable households may be unable to maintain comfortable household temperatures, access adequate amounts of clean water, or use electricity to cook, power devices, and run appliances. COVID-19 is exacerbating energy vulnerability in two ways. First, rising unemployment rates reduce household income. At the same time, social distancing forces people to stay home, sometimes working or schooling remotely. With more household members staying at home through the week, energy usage is increasing. In other words, economic insecurity coupled with social distancing policies may exacerbate energy vulnerability and affect more households than ever before. COVID-19 has also created barriers to energy assistance programs, which will become more needed in the coming months. In this presentation, we reflect on how energy assistance organizations based in Philadelphia have been impacted and are adapting to social distancing orders.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of limited, but long-running federal programs addressed some dimensions of energy vulnerability. Such programs ensured that households had heat, weatherized aged housing stock, trained community members on DIY repairs, and provided bill payment assistance. In this presentation we provide a snapshot of how nonprofit and community organizations delivered energy assistance prior to COVID-19; we outline how their work has been impacted by the pandemic and highlight how organizations are working to address current barriers. We also discuss how urban density factors into energy assistance strategies in Philadelphia, and what this might mean in the months to come.