A clean energy transition won't be equitable unless we make it that way

A clean energy transition won't be equitable unless we make it that way
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Climate change is the kind of problem that requires a massive, coordinated effort from everyone. No one person, group or country can solve it on their own because our collective actions perpetuate the problem. So, we need to work together, come up with a game plan, get on the same page about what we’re going to do and make the necessary changes to those collective actions.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. Even if we all could agree on what needs to happen — say, moving away from fossil fuels by electrifying everything and powering our society with clean renewable energy — there are still a lot of unanswered questions. (How do we ensure that this massive transition will be fair? How do we protect against creating winners and losers? How do we give everyone access to the clean air, good jobs and electricity savings benefits of the new clean energy economy?)

These are the questions that the NAACP has decided it’s time to answer.

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As one of the most well-known, historically impactful, civil rights organizations in the country, when the NAACP calls attention to an issue, we all better pay attention.

Eco-apartheid 

In 2008, CNN analyst Van Jones wrote in his book “The Green Collar Economy,” that “it is not too early to sound the alarm against the possibility of eco-apartheid. In that scenario, on one side of town, there would be ecological ‘haves,’ enjoying access to healthy, morally upstanding green products and services. On the other side of town, ecological ‘have-nots’ would be languishing in the smoke, fumes, toxic chemicals, and illness of the old pollution-based economy.”

Unfortunately, his words were not heeded, and over a decade later, his fears are coming to fruition.

A 2019 study from Tufts and UC Berkeley found massive disparities of where solar energy is deployed based on race and ethnicity. Communities of color have a greatly diminished amount of solar deployed compared to their neighbors. African American communities are less likely to have solar than white communities by a factor of two-thirds, even after accounting for income disparity. 

On the job front, a 2019 survey from the Solar Foundation found that the solar workforce is 73 percent white (and 74 percent male).

Tufts University professor Deborah Sunter, a lead author of the report, described the inequity like this: “Unlike the fossil fuel industry, where energy injustice was attributed to exposure to negative consequences like pollution, with rooftop PV the injustice is more that certain communities are missing out on these economic benefits.”

Thankfully, the NAACP has recognized that this injustice must be stopped, and they’ve stepped up to fight it, as they have with every major civil rights issue for over a century.

A more equitable path

In 2018, the NAACP, led by Jaqui Patterson, senior director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, launched the NAACP Solar Equity Initiative to dive into these questions. They brought together leaders from across the solar industry and climate justice advocacy community including SunRun, Solar Energy Industries Association, Vote Solar, Solar United Neighbors, RE-volv, Solstice Initiative, Institute for Local Self Reliance and many more.

The goal of the initiative was to “increase solar installations in communities of color and to connect these communities to skills training for solar jobs, all supported by strengthened solar equity policies.”

The NAACP recently released its Solar Equity Principles to try and right the ship by helping guide policymakers, industry leaders and communities toward a more equitable path forward. Over many months the group met to discuss and come to a shared understanding of what equitable solar energy policies look like, focusing particularly on the issues of transparency, ownership and accountability. They boiled it down to these eight principles to help “advocates and policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels to craft policy solutions that are holistic in nature and ensure benefits flow to Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), and other frontline communities.”

Denise Abdul-Rahman, national field organizer for the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, said "Low-income and communities of color have suffered disproportionate harm from the fossil fuel economy. The new clean energy economy is an opportunity to address past injustices, but only with intentional policy decisions such as those outlined in the Equitable Solar Policy Principles."

Now while the Biden administration has made addressing environmental justice a key part of its climate strategy with its Justice40 initiative, which intends to allocate 40 percent of the overall benefits of its clean energy and climate solutions strategy to disadvantaged communities, the good news is we don’t have to wait for the president to solve this. We can start acting in our communities.

Seeds of change

The 2019 Tufts study I mentioned describes a way to do just that. In the report they found that “PV installations often result in a feedback loop: When a few residents in a community get solar, known as ‘seed’ customers, it compels others to join. Communities without those first-mover customers show delayed solar adoption.” The study also found that “when seeding does occur in communities of color, deployment ‘significantly increases’ compared to other racial or ethnic groups.”

In other words, if a concerted effort is made to start building solar projects in BIPOC communities now that will have a ripple effect of more solar demand. That means creating jobs, electricity savings, and environmental and health benefits today, regardless of what happens in Washington.

One example of this intentional effort in communities of color is Green the Church, led by Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll. The organization brings solar energy and other climate and energy solutions to African American churches around the country.

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“I felt like the black church needed to have an organization that they felt was their own, where they could talk about environmentalism through different lenses and with different language,” he told CNN.

Ultimately, solving the climate crisis will not be solved under the eco-apartheid conditions Van Jones warned us about, which we’re now seeing unfold. We have to ensure that everyone will benefit from the just clean energy transition and that we are all empowered to be a part of and benefit from these solutions. But that won’t happen just by wishing for it.

Like every civil rights battle won in this country, it will need to be hard fought. We must work together, in the ways described by these Equitable Solar Policy Principles, to ensure that the new energy economy doesn’t look like the old.

Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas.