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Justice in the Transition

Community solar photovoltaic systems allow community members to purchase a share of the renewable energy being generated in these solar farms, to receive credit on their electricity bills. This model is being rapidly adopted and it is inclusive, since it makes benefitting from renewable energy more affordable, and also feasible for people who rent or live in houses that are not suitable for solar PV systems. Photovoltaic energy is available wherever the sun shines, what makes it a very inclusive source of energy. This picture features the Tipmont REMC Community Solar Array in Indiana, U.S.A. Source: Robford15 / CC BY-SA (

Energy justice is incredibly multidimensional and includes intergenerational justice (not harming future generations), environmental justice (the right to a clean environment), social equity and welfare (the right to affordable, accessible energy), and good governance (including transparency and accountability), to name a few (Sovacool and Dworkin 2015). The intersections between justice principles and energy systems have implications for policy, production, consumption, security and climate change (Jenkins, 2016). These considerations are hardly an academic exercise but rather amount to life and death for many at-risk populations. On an international scale, equitable access to clean, affordable, and reliable energy is crucial for economic development. 13% of the world does not have access to electricity, and 40% of the world does not have access to clean fuels for cooking. Across countries, per capita electricity consumption varies more than 100-fold and per capita energy consumption varies more than 10-fold (Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, 2020).

Another energy justice concern that is present domestically within the U.S. and worldwide is fuel poverty, which is the inability of households to afford adequate energy services, such as heating (Reames, 2016). Another crucial aspect of justice in the energy transition is helping workers from fossil fuel producing regions adapt to a new energy economy. As fossil fuel production and consumption decreases, primarily from policy mandates but also from resource depletion, this transition requires planning and support for workers from the sector, as they need to adapt to a changed labor market.

Rosebud Sioux Tribe feather ornament in front of commercial utility wind turbine at their Reservation in the USA. This project involved a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the first ever negotiated loan to a tribe from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service, and support from the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy and Distributed Generation, Inc. Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

What is Energy Justice?

At its root, energy justice is centered on the recognition of the societal value of our individual and collective energy needs, and that the benefits and burdens of energy systems should be equitably distributed (Sovacool and Dworkin, 2014).

Various energy justice researchers have proposed frameworks to incorporate energy justice into decision-making. In the context of planning for a just transition to a low carbon and clean energy system, introducing an energy justice framework could help to overcome some existing energy inequities, while also avoiding the creation of new inequities in the process. The predominant framework (Jenkins et al., 2016) for assessing energy justice is:

  1. Distribution of an injustice (the what),
  2. Recognition of who is affected (the who), and
  3. Procedural strategies for remediation (the how to fix it).

Energy is pivotal to our existence and has a multitude of applications in daily life. Access to this important resource is not equitable, however, and could be further exacerbated in a clean energy system if not addressed in the transition process. Fuel poverty refers to the lack of access to affordable energy services (costing 10% or less of a household’s income). The lower income a household is, the more likely it is to become fuel poor, which has many negative health implications for household members. This is a widespread problem in the U.S. and around the world, with 31% of all U.S. homes reporting difficulty paying their monthly energy bills (EIA, 2015).

Energy efficiency building design and retrofits, distributed energy resources (DERs) deployment, energy efficient building code implementation, and improving home appliances energy standards are some of the most effective strategies to combat energy poverty worldwide. More efficient homes require a smaller income to maintain thermal comfort and other energy services. Unfortunately, the reverse is currently often true with poor households living in more inefficient houses. An equitable, low-carbon future therefore requires energy-efficiency improvements to be focused strongly on the poorest households (Boardman, 2012).

Access to clean and sustainable energy is an integral part of the mix of solutions that would enable us to curb the effects of climate change. However, when access to the most basic forms of energy are in question, it is not a surprise that access to clean energy technologies suffers a significant disparity. In a 2015 study, George Washington University reported that less than 5% of solar installations were associated with U.S. households with annual incomes less than $40,000 (GW Solar Institute). The study further states that families with low to medium annual incomes often do not own their roof, given that a large percentage of low-income families live in multi-family homes. It is thus very important to factor in these significant disparities when planning transformative changes to energy infrastructure, investment and planning modalities. Widespread access to clean and sustainable energy is vital to escape the impacts of climate change, and energy justice plays a crucial role in understanding and remedying inherent differences in the access and affordability of these important resources.

Air pollution from the transportation and industrial sectors in Denver, Colorado, U.S.A. Air pollution negatively affects everyone in the community, but some segments such as elders and people with respiratory illnesses and diseases are more at risk. Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Instances of Energy Injustice

Significant disparities exist in U.S. home energy efficiency by affluence and by racial make-up (Bednar et al., 2016). Two studies, conducted in Kansas City and Detroit, brought to light that homes in neighborhoods with low income residents and a majority black or Hispanic population had higher home energy use intensity (EUI) as compared to neighborhoods with predominantly white populations. Several of the study neighborhoods with higher EUIs also had a larger number of renters than homeowners, making energy efficient home upgrades very difficult. The studies stress on the need to target energy efficiency programs to race, socio-economic class and location.

The disparities in energy efficiency across class and affluence levels are further complicated by the inequalities in access to technological solutions. For example, access to efficient lighting (CFLs and LEDs) is quite different depending on the affluence of a location (Reames, 2018). For instance, in Wayne County, Michigan, halogen lamps and CFLs were available in the majority of stores, but high poverty neighbourhoods had 30% less access to LEDs when compared with the low poverty neighbourhoods. The results show that as areas became poorer, the access to LEDs reduced and within high poverty neighbourhoods, the availability of LEDs were significantly lesser than IHLs and CFLs. The researchers also found a statistically significant difference in the prices of LEDs and CFLs in locations where the lower poverty strata lived, as compared to the national average. The economic burden imposed on low-income residents owing to the price disparities can have grave consequences on quality of life. This vast difference in access to and prices of energy efficient fittings need to be factored in when scripting energy transition decisions and policies.

Rooftop solar energy is extremely sought after for providing distributed clean and reliable power. The rooftop solar sector has experienced massive growth in the U.S., growing by as much as 50% since 2012. Increased adoption of rooftop solar energy, however, has come with several challenges. In a 2019 study published in Nature, severe racial disparities are evident in the distribution of rooftop solar PV (Sunter et al., 2019). On average, the study found that census tracts with a black or Hispanic population majority saw significantly lower PV installations. Specifically, tracts with no discernable racial majority were seen to have installed 61% and 45% more solar PV than majority black and Hispanic neighborhoods, respectively. These discrepancies could not be explained by other factors like home ownership or income level.

Information failures related to exposure to pollution, exposure to hidden pollution, and welfare loss due to hidden pollution can also disproportionately affect low-income and communities of color (Hausman, 2020). A low income community downwind from a refinery suffers from health implications that hamper residents’ capacity to thrive, further entrenching them in poverty. Individual households in this same community could find it difficult to pay their electricity bills and be faced with their power being shut off, further threatening the health of those most vulnerable (the elderly, sick, young) when extreme cold and heat hit the area with increasing frequency. Energy related expenses have a greater burden on low income households. Those living in poverty can be faced with the choice to keep their homes at undesirable or often perilous temperatures to save on energy expenditures.

Another equity consideration when it comes to a clean energy transition and the phaseout of coal power, is the job losses and economic downturn that mining communities suffer. In general, more diversified economies are better suited for phasing out extraction of fossil fuels than economies that might need to develop support systems before accelerating the phase out of fossil fuel extraction (Muttitt et al., 2020). Coal plants have been retiring in large numbers over the last decade owing to the increasingly competitive economics of natural gas and renewable energy. While the sustained retirement of coal power plants (and associated carbon reductions) have positive implications for global climate change, it is important to ensure that displaced power plant and mine workers are supported in the form of economic benefits and retraining (NRDC, 2019).

Retraining coal workers is not always a straightforward solution, due to stark wage gaps and location of jobs. Miners are paid upwards of $70,000 per year and oftentimes have homes, families, and deep roots in coal country. Moving to significantly lower paying jobs and/or migrating for alternate jobs can have negative effects on families. The United Mine Workers Association (UMWA) believes that while retraining is critical to the continued well-being of displaced miners, that alone is not sufficient as a solution. The union believes it is critical also to garner private investments and government funding in businesses such as education, healthcare, and construction that do not typically move around the globe and would depend on local talent to sustain their business (UMWA, 2019).

These and other injustices in clean energy access, affordability, and production need to be considered when policies are formulated. Policies promoting equity in the adoption of clean energy are essential to bridge this gap.

The U.S. Department of Energy Weatherization Assistance Program reduces energy costs for low-income households by increasing the energy efficiency of their homes, while ensuring their health and safety. Source: Department of Energy Photo Gallery.

Strategies to Combat Energy Injustice

Strategies in the form of policies, mandates, and market-based drivers, are essential to bring everyone within the fold of clean, affordable, and sustainable energy. In the U.S., actions are being taken to make progress by governments (from federal to local) as well as private for-profit and nonprofit organizations.

For example, the Environmental Defense Fund has identified suitable strategies to ensure equity in home energy efficiency measures (EDF, 2018), including:

  1. A state-wide mandate on utilities to secure energy savings with mandated investments in improving housing conditions in low and middle income (LMI) communities.
  2. Better financing options for low-income residents that don’t require a credit check for loan approval, and allow loan repayment terms that equal or exceed the breakeven period of energy efficiency measures.
  3. Requiring state and utility funds to improve the structural health standards of homes in LMI communities to ensure eligibility for enrollment in state and federal energy efficiency plans. Homes that have major health and safety challenges such as mold or leaky roofs often do not qualify for much needed weatherization programs.

Key benefits of such measures include large energy savings, related economic savings, carbon emissions abatement, and human and ecosystem health improvements. Examples of these strategies in action include the state of Illinois, which in 2017 passed the Future Energy Jobs Act, which carries a mandate on minimum utility spending towards energy efficiency in low income neighborhoods, with penalties defined for non-compliance. Or the state of Connecticut, which joined forces with PosiGen, a private firm, to deliver community solar energy and energy efficiency to low and moderate income (LMI) residents by leveraging Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) proceeds and rate surcharges. Such private-public collaborations are a sign of remediation.

The financial, environmental and health benefits associated with increased adoption of solar energy have largely eluded LMI citizens. However, several states in the U.S. are now funding low-income community solar programs with no upfront costs to residents and with solar credit rebates on their monthly energy bill. For example, the State of Colorado’s Energy Office (EO) set up a successful LMI community solar program (CEO LMI Community Solar Demonstration Project, 2017). Large parts of the project costs are offset by state and federal grants and the remaining is borne by utilities. The utilities operate the PV systems and pass-on fuel and O&M savings to LMI subscribers through solar credits on their energy bills. In addition, the NAACP announced a 2018 Solar Equity Initiative in California to collaborate with private organizations, to ensure community solar installations, solar installation job training and good financing options for LMI residents (NAACP Solar Equity Initiative, 2018). The initiative now seeks to expand similar measures to a total of at least five U.S. states.

Emissions and related diseases are not felt uniformly by all people. The American Lung Association has published several research articles about the disparities in the health effects of air pollution, with lower socio-economic groups facing the brunt of the ill-effects (American Lung Association). Bringing clean transportation, for instance, to low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color are thus very important. And yet, while electric vehicles significantly reduce local air pollution effects, they are also quite expensive in the U.S. and are not affordable to low income individuals.

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency sought to shed light on this challenge, through a 2018 study on the adoption of electric car sharing services in low income neighborhoods. 603 low-income residents in 11 communities in Washington state were surveyed. A majority of residents had commutes of less than 50 miles a day and also revealed a large interest in driving electric cars, especially among the younger participants. The study identifies how access to clean transportation, without having to spend on upfront expenses of a car could ease the financial pressures the residents often endure.

To address job losses in coal power and mining in the U.S., private and government-backed efforts have been launched to ensure the well-being of displaced coal workers. One philanthropic organization, The Just Transition Fund (JTF), supports worker retraining, advances policies that support the employment of retrained workers, and supports entrepreneurship and by providing technical support for affected communities (Just Transition Fund). The U.S. federal government has been providing funding for displaced coal workers through the POWER program housed within the Department of Labor. The program offers support in the form of grants to states such as Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia to help retrain workers and to help revitalize affected communities (U.S. DOL). The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) in 2019 offered $22.8 million in grants through the POWER program to thirty three coal communities in transition to help revitalize and diversify the workforce (Appalachian Regional Commission, 2019).

U.S. states have also begun to devise their own programs and offices to ensure a just transition to clean energy. Colorado has created a Just Transition Office – a first of its kind – to ensure that displaced fossil fuel workers in remote Colorado counties are provided retraining. Colorado has a 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 goal and wants to ensure that its coal workers (Colorado ranks 11th in the US in coal production) are part of its transition plan (Colorado General Assembly, 2019). Throughout these efforts, it has been critical to engage displaced workers to ensure that their needs form the basis of support programs and policy measures.