Clean energy inequity can be addressed with data, coordination and policy change at the local level

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Systemic racism is baked into the U.S. energy system, and unless – or until – it is addressed, it will persist, officials said, during a recent webinar on energy and race hosted by the clean energy research firm, Pecan Street. Reports, including those by the Energy Industries Association, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, and the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley, have supported this claim repeatedly over the years.

“One of the things that plagues the energy industry is a lack of transparency in data,” Dr. Diana Hernández, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. The data that is collected is not available to researchers who can make inferences about patterns based on zip codes. “And that’s a major challenge,” she said.

“Utility companies can be more responsive on collecting data on the race and ethnicity of their customers as well as collecting better data on income… That’s one of the ways that they do away with their responsibilities around addressing energy burden. [They say] that they don’t have accurate data on income,” said Dr. Hernández, who is currently writing a book on energy insecurity in the U.S. Energy burden is the percentage of household income that goes toward energy costs.

Without data, researchers cannot take the first steps towards addressing racism in the energy system, she added. Already, communities of color are benefiting less from new clean energy technologies, and as a result, they are paying more for their energy, she said.

According to Dr. Hernández, when it comes to solar and renewable energy, African Americans, Latinos and other low-income groups face many barriers.

Racial disparities in the energy sector are inextricably linked to the legacies of segregation and redlining, a discriminatory practice by which financial institutions and other entities systematically refused or limited loans, mortgages, insurance, and other financial services and investments to people based on a neighborhood’s racial and ethnic composition.

Redlining was banned in 1968, but the problems that it created persist in many places. Often the pace of improvement has been slow in formerly redlined areas. And as such, properties in these areas are more likely to operate on less efficient energy systems, resulting in higher energy costs. African American and Latinos’ greater energy insecurity is also linked to the fact that they receive lower wages and have lower household incomes. Taken together, lower wages and a greater energy burden have led to a disproportionate amount of utility disconnections and have effectively slowed the transition to clean energy technology in communities of color.

Coordination is key

In the coming months, more organizations will likely follow the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and The Utility Reform Network’s lead and start advocating for energy policy changes for communities of color at the local level, officials say.

More coordination is needed between those on the clean energy technology frontlines and local officials at the city level, John Hall, director of regulatory and legislative affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund said. They can work together to share information and develop strategies to make sure that the opportunities that exist in the clean energy sector are provided to communities of color. Clean energy can be an economic development strategy, a job creation strategy and a strategy to reduce urban air pollution, he noted.

According to Pecan Street’s Fisayo Fadelu, general counsel and chief financial officer, if cities want to confront the problem of energy inequity, they need to start out by acknowledging the pervasive legacies of segregation, discrimination and underinvestment in communities of color. The next step is using that as justification for prioritizing the needs of those most disadvantaged when it comes to planning and policy making, she added. “We need to reflect on the fact that the playing field is not equal… That means that means that equal investment will not work,” she said.