By Anthony Giancatarino, Center for Social Inclusion
We don’t often think about moving a racial equity agenda through state or local energy policies. Yet, as states gear up for the implementation of the federal Clean Power Plan and plan for the development of more renewable energy production, the nation faces a tremendous opportunity to tackle these efforts using a specific racial equity framework.
The Center for Social Inclusion has worked with grassroots community organizations, leaders of color, and environmental advocates to create policy ideas and build strategies that center racial equity within energy and climate policies. Last month, communities across New York pushed the Public Service Commission to adopt a forward thinking community renewables policy.
While all residents stand to benefit from this decision, the policy has special significance for the state’s communities of color. Not only does the policy expand access of solar programs to renters, the policy will prioritize projects that meet a 20% participation rate of low-income residents and provide $13 million in funding to make solar accessible and affordable. This is, by far, the largest inclusionary goal of any shared renewable policy in the nation.
This policy puts a stake in the ground for racial equity in two ways:
- Nearly 2 in 3 households of color are renters in New York, this policy opens renewable production to them. Simply put, shared renewables allows renters to participate in an energy economy. Therefore, anyone who pays an investor-owned utility bill (like Con-Ed or NationalGrid) can opt to purchase a share of a solar project that is off site and “virtually” connect to it. They will earn credit on their electricity bill for the energy that their share produces. This is important because solar no longer becomes a boutique project for those with land and wealth; it becomes accessible for all of us, in particular people of color.
- People of color are more likely to benefit from the 20% low-income inclusionary goals. To qualify as a low-income participant in the shared renewable program, one must be enrolled in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) or a utility sponsored energy affordability program. Last year, nearly 1.3 million households (19% of the state) participated in HEAP. And while there is not race-explicit data available on HEAP users, we do know from the available data that HEAP-eligible residents are predominately people of color. For example, to qualify for HEAP in New York a household must earn no more than 218% of the federal poverty level. And while 3 in 5 of New York’s households are White, households of color are more likely to be in poverty.
Here are two things that we must hold as we think about our energy future:
- Race matters in our energy and climate policy. The current energy system disproportionately impacts people of color. Communities of color are more likely to live near coal power plants and oil refineries – suffering from asthma, cancer, and other life-threatening health concerns. Solutions like clean coal, waste incineration, or natural gas will continue to pollute the water and air and won’t be enough to make a dent in the environmental and health burdens that our communities suffer from. These communities have borne the burden of a dirty energy system; they should be positioned as the primary owners and beneficiaries of a renewable energy one. (For a great synopsis on the intersection of #BlackLivesMatter and climate policy, check out this article.)
- Community owned renewables are essential to advancing racial equity in our energy future. Participation in a renewable energy economy is often limited to property owners and people with access to capital and financing to participate. Yet, nationally nearly 50% of people of color rent, as well as 25% of Whites – completely shut out from engaging in the renewable energy revolution. But a community-owned project opens up renewables to residents who do not own property to participate in solar by changing the rules for shared energy production. It creates wealth as energy savings from solar and earnings from energy production can go towards other community needs. And it builds resilience, as communities of color who are more likely to be impacted by natural disasters like Katrina and Sandy, can be better positioned to address the loss of power in their communities.
So how can government agencies advance racial equity in energy policy?
- While shared renewables efforts, like the one in New York, are just one way to promote equity and inclusion, local, regional and state agencies can lead a more racially equitable agenda when it comes to energy and environmental planning and policies. Here are two ways: Elevate the leadership of grassroots and environmental justice leaders of color. Government agencies can set good policy when they are in relationship with communities of color. Through this relationship they can better assess the challenges and opportunities that exist for communities around energy insecurity or environmental injustice. Local and state agencies such as offices of sustainability or public service commissions should convene a low-income collaborative to research, assess, and provide more nuanced solutions to ensure equitable implementation. These agencies can ensure that grassroots and community of color leaders are central participants. One can look at the new Equity and the Environment Initiative out of the Seattle Office of Sustainability and the Environment as an example.
- Utilize a race and economic equity metric tool to better invest and support the necessary infrastructure for low-income communities and communities of color to participate. Policies like New York’s shared renewables are a great opportunity to be more inclusive and equitable. But these policies alone are not enough to solve the challenges that face low-income residents, particularly people color who are more likely to suffer from high heating bills, increased utility-shut offs or home health hazards like lead paint and mold. Further, the history of disinvestment has often led to the lack of vital infrastructure and resources that can enable community participation in energy programs, such as community solar. As states take on the Clean Power Plan and think about implementing policies that reduce carbon and expand renewable energy programs- it must keep these holistic challenges at the fore. At CSI, we worked with partners to propose a race and economic equity metric tool that will allow governments to better understand these comprehensive challenges and identify ways to invest in communities so they can be in a better position to engage in projects like shared solar.
As a nation, we are facing the threat of global climate change; however, the solutions are at hand. By moving from a fossil fuel economy to a renewable energy one, we can reduce emissions, create a cleaner environment, and build a better economy. But to achieve this, we need to ensure that all residents have an opportunity to participate as planners, decision-makers or owners in the energy future. By following New York’s lead and engaging in efforts that elevate community leadership and are able to identify and prioritize marginalized communities for investments, government agencies can play a critical role in building this healthier future.
For more information on this topic, please feel free to contact Anthony Giancatarino at firstname.lastname@example.org.