Energy justice must play a larger role in clean energy transition

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For decades, environmental justice communities, often low-income communities and communities of color, have been overwhelmingly targeted to host fossil fuel plants and other polluting facilities near their homes. The proximity to this toxic infrastructure has not only exposed these communities to disproportionate health hazards and higher utility bills, but also made them much more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The environmental justice movement, which began in earnest decades ago, has been led by frontline organizers that have fought tirelessly against the flawed environmental and economic policies and practices that led to these inequities.

As much of the country moves forward on clean energy, we have a responsibility to ensure that the disadvantaged communities, those that have been harmed and exploited by our polluting systems, are at the front and center of the transition and involved in all decisions that impact their everyday lives. This effort will require intentional investments at the state and federal levels, whether it is through carve outs in legislation or new regulations, to ensure clean energy is accessible, affordable, and equitable.

New York’s regulatory pathway

New York has historically been a leader in battling the climate crisis and is moving in the right direction when it comes to energy justice. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019 (CLCPA) committed investments in wind and solar as its transition to a zero-emissions economy. The law also requires a minimum of 40% of all state climate and equity spending to go to frontline Black, brown, and low-income communities.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the state’s energy regulatory body, released a roadmap in December 2021 detailing the state’s plan to achieve the Hochul Administration’s goal of 10 GW of new distributed solar by 2030. The plan includes $1.7 billion in funding for solar projects, and calls for 1.6 GW of newly deployed solar to benefit disadvantaged communities.

These are worthy goals, but the roadmap still falls short when it comes to economic equity and energy justice. Residents of disadvantaged communities stand to reap only a tiny percentage of the Roadmap’s $1.5 billion budget bill savings. Further, the incentive-based plan fails to include a meaningful commitment to community-led solar projects or wealth building for residents of these communities who sign up for the program.

Community solar, in particular, is critical to the New York City area. New York City residents often don’t own their own homes, but rent, live in multifamily housing or apartment buildings where they may not be able to commit to expensive energy efficiency appliances or rooftop solar panels. 

Illinois leads the way through legislation

Right now, the state of Illinois should be our North Star when it comes to energy justice. Six months ago, the state passed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA), which at its core focuses on the intersecting crises of climate change, racism, and economic disinvestment. The act sets targets for phasing out coal and natural gas in favor of cleaner energy sources such as wind and solar power and prioritizes job training, hiring, ownership, and new business creation for low-income, environmental justice communities. The new law also funds community solar projects to help disadvantaged communities that routinely face higher utility bills.

Perhaps the most significant part of Illinois’ new law lies within its intentions. The state made energy justice a pillar of the legislation: it was not an afterthought, but rather legislators wouldn’t have passed the bill and the Governor wouldn’t have signed it had there not been a serious set of equity commitments in it. Through the drafting and negotiation process, frontline communities were centered and their leads followed. Of course, the work doesn’t end when a bill is signed. Today, advocates across the state are continuing efforts to ensure that CEJA’s provisions are implemented in a way that honors the bill’s intentions and puts equity at the forefront.

Other states making progress

New York chose to tackle energy justice commitments through more of a regulatory lens while Illinois opted for the legislative route to address them. Both of these approaches are acceptable  when it comes to energy justice and highlight a path for other states to ultimately reach this shared goal.

For example, a coalition of environmental and social justice advocates in New Jersey are working to pass the Clean Energy Equity Act, which passed the State Senate in 2020, and it is now being considered by the Legislature for a second time. The bill would permanently establish an Office of Clean Energy Equity to ensure equitable deployment of solar, efficiency, and storage solutions in New Jersey’s overburdened communities. If the bill becomes law, these measures will greatly benefit residents of communities in and around Newark that have long been on the front lines of overlapping health, climate, economic, and racial crises.

In Pennsylvania, Governor Wolf and the state’s Legislative Black Caucus marked the 30-year anniversary of Pennsylvania’s environmental justice movement last year by introducing a package of bills, aiming to ensure that low-income  communities and communities of color who have long been shut out of the energy planning process, will have a seat at the table as the state transitions to clean energy.

Policymakers and advocates need to be intentional about centering the experiences and demands of those impacted by energy injustice for far too long. Legislators, who have been supportive of climate action, must now become champions of environmental and energy justice. Likewise, energy regulators have a responsibility to ensure that everyone reaps the benefits of affordable and accessible clean energy.

Finally, we must encourage more states — red and blue — to take broader action when it comes to a clean energy transition that benefits everyone and leaves nobody behind. As national conversations about the climate crisis increase, states across political leanings are considering action on climate and clean energy — but policy is only sustainable if it’s equitable. A common goal we should all share is one that ensures low-income and environmental justice communities are first in line to benefit from a full suite of clean energy technologies that will reduce their household energy burden and safeguard against the impacts of climate change.

Stephan Roundtree, Jr. is the Northeast Senior Regional Director at Vote Solar, a national solar advocacy non-profit. Olivia Nedd is Vote Solar’s Senior Policy Director, Access and Equity.

Read Solar surges in Illinois following passage of landmark clean energy law.

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