OPINION: Beyond lip service: It’s time to measure equity in clean energy investments

By Justin B. Schott | July 9, 2021

Imagine an aspiring Olympian training to contend for a medal, but being deprived of a stopwatch until after the race began. That is the current state of measuring equity in clean energy programs—we are running blind and overdue for a more systematic approach. 

On a positive note, nearly three out of four Americans live in a place that has committed to eliminating carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner. These goals are no longer just aspirational, they are utterly feasible, perhaps even inevitable. 

Solar power is now, remarkably, cheaper to produce than electricity produced by fossil fuels, and we are amidst a proliferation of increasingly affordable and efficient electric heating systems and battery technologies for electric vehicles. We are already hitting the inflection point that will dramatically accelerate the transition to clean energy. The question now becomes how will this clean energy transition go down? Who will capitalize and who will be left behind? And if we want to answer the how questions, we have to stop being fuzzy about what we mean by equity. 

The fruits of clean energy, like electric vehicles, solar panels, and green jobs are theoretically available to anyone, but the truth is that Black, brown, and Native people are being shut out of these opportunities, despite higher levels of support for climate mitigation than their whiter and wealthier counterparts. 

When you think of someone driving an electric car, who do you see? Who is represented in climate leadership positions and decision-making tables – whose faces do you see in power? Who is designing clean energy policy and programs and what implications does that have?

Inequities proliferate by race and class across the energy sector in parallel to inequities in education, housing, jobs, access to green space, and health care. Nearly 120 million Americans, including half of all Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) face some form of energy insecurity every year–the threat of or actual shutoff of electricity or heating, keeping one’s home at uncomfortable or unsafe temperatures to avoid high bills, or foregoing other critical basic needs like food and medicines. 

BIPOC households spend a much higher percentage of their household income on energy, even though they use less energy per square foot than their White counterparts. And despite a deep interest in clean energy, they have been shut out of opportunities to put solar on their roofs or buy electric vehicles: contractors won’t serve inner cities, banks won’t lend, utilities don’t advertise or have culturally appropriate marketing. What’s happening in the energy sector is very much ground zero in civil rights struggles.

Contrary to the zero-carbon climate goals, which specify a baseline year for comparison, intermediate targets (e.g. in Detroit, a 75% reduction in municipal emissions by 2034) define what constitutes a source of clean energy, defining and measuring equity is in its infancy. 

With hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars in clean energy investments poised to flow, the absence of a consistent and comprehensive approach to set equity goals and measure progress is glaring. If not addressed, that absence will be the bottleneck that stalls a just energy transition. 

Suppose we meet climate goals by turning Nevada’s Mojave Desert into a giant solar array and massive battery field, accompanied by a network of extreme high transmission power lines that reach even the lowest molehill in Mississippi, lining the pockets of investor-owned utilities while perpetuating energy poverty and insecurity? In that case, we will have missed a generational opportunity. 

This is an opportunity to 

  • generate millions of new high-quality jobs for those who have been shut out of the energy sector and burdened by its pollution 
  • retrofit millions of homes and ensure they contribute to health instead of exacerbating asthma, and  
  • build wealth in BIPOC and frontline environmental justice communities that have borne the effects of redlining, disinvestment, gentrification, and concentrations of our most toxic and carcinogenic air, water, and soils. 

The clean energy transition could be a vehicle for beginning to right centuries of brutal wrongs. 

The Justice40 initiative of the Biden-Harris administration recognized that equity needs measurable goals. It mandates that 40% of the benefits from federal clean energy investments must be received by disadvantaged communities. 

The Department of Energy has already launched a Justice40 dashboard to track its investments.

Most states, cities, and utilities simply don’t measure energy equity or set equitable energy targets in a meaningful way. While there are exceptions, like California Energy Commission’s robust Energy Equity Indicators, there is a lot of conversation about equity that generally lacks teeth. 

There are equity working groups and task forces, utilities and public utility commissions required to “consider” equity in planning and make “a sufficient supply of program offerings” available to “diverse” customers. These are typical starting points that acknowledge the need to do something about equity. But they don’t point the way forward.

How should we begin to quantify whether clean energy benefits and the ongoing burdens of energy from fossil fuels are being distributed fairly? How can policymakers and regulators work to rectify the historical legacies that have burdened Black, Brown, Indigenous, and lower-income communities? 

At the Energy Equity Project, we are working with dozens of stakeholders and partners across the nation to create an equity measurement framework that can be used to measure four dimensions of equity and upwards of sixty equity indicators within the energy sector. We are working to ensure that the framework embodies principles of equity in its development—focusing on expanding participation among BIPOC-led community organizations and compensating people for their time to share feedback and participate in workgroups. 

Our goals are as follows:

1) Recognize that equity is multi-faceted. It is tempting to try to reduce equity to a single metric, like the energy burden (the percentage of household income spent on energy bills). The energy burden is one consideration of affordability, but it does not speak to whether people have a meaningful voice in designing energy policies and programs, or who gets to own new solar installations, or even if the rates themselves are equitable. At best, a reductive approach to energy is likely to address a single symptom of energy inequities. In a white paper that was foundational to the launch of the Energy Equity Project, Jamal Lewis and Dr. Carlos Martín describe six dimensions of energy equity that should be considered.

2) Establish guiding principles. We are not advocating for measuring equity for its own sake. Equity goals need to be tied to broader principles, like a belief that energy is a human right and everyone deserves access to energy regardless of their ability to pay for it. Other principles might require taking a historical account of clean energy incentives and making up for disparities.

3) Require utilities and other program providers to make the data public. We need to know who is participating in energy efficiency and clean energy program, how much they are saving, and where new investments in things like public transit, microgrids, and EV chargers are being made. We need to know the demographics of the recipients to determine whether 40% of the benefits are reaching disadvantaged communities. 

4) Elevate a vision of energy democracy. Equity is ultimately deeper than simply being able to get energy efficiency upgrades for one’s home. Equity means that a significant share of new clean energy assets, like solar arrays, must be designed and owned by disadvantaged communities. It means they deserve formal decision-making power that goes well beyond public hearings; it means that those most impacted by the current energy system must have power to shape the clean energy trajectory of this country. 

How can we safeguard a just transition, so that BIPOC and frontline residents move to the front of the line for clean energy benefits? It all starts with defining and measuring equity. 

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