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Justice in the Transition

Wilmington, California, which lies just north of the Port of Los Angeles, is home to hundreds of active oil drilling operations and five oil refineries, the largest concentration of refineries in California. Over 85% of Wilmington residents are Latino, and 20% live below the poverty line. Source: Emmett Institute /CC BY-NC 2.0
Written in partnership with Karl Hoesch and Madeline Miller of the University of Michigan’s Urban Energy Justice Lab

Why start with “justice”?

Each of the sections in the Clean and Just Energy Pathways (Efficiency Improvements, Electrification & Alternative Fuels, Sources of Energy, and Negative Emissions) presents a different dimension of the transition from a fossil fuel-dependent system to a clean energy system.

Transitions often begin with energy efficiency, because the cleanest energy is energy that isn’t needed at all. Efficiency also allows us to right-size our energy supply to meet our demand, which means we can prioritize electrification, the switching of fossil fuel technologies to run on electricity. Electrification occurs in tandem with decarbonizing the sources of our energy, because electric appliances are only as clean as the fuel used to generate the electricity. Even after these transition steps, we still need to remove excess greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, through negative emissions, to avoid the worst effects of climate change. 

So why do we start with justice? Our current energy system is fundamentally unjust. By that we mean the costs and benefits of the system are not distributed equitably, and the processes for making energy decisions are not representative or impartial (Sovacool & Dworkin, 2015). The households most affected by pollution from fossil fuel-burning energy sources are also more likely to pay higher rates for their energy and to live in homes that are too cold or too hot (Bednar et al., 2017; Reames, 2016). The process for setting electricity rates or accessing energy efficient improvements is complex, time consuming, and partial to those with power.

The energy transition offers an opportunity to make the system more just. But merely switching to cleaner, more efficient technology does not guarantee a more just outcome. The injustices of the current system are linked to underlying institutions and structures that can persist through energy transitions (Baker, 2019; Hernández, 2015). In many instances, the transition to a cleaner energy system can actually create more injustices (Newell & Mulvaney, 2013). We begin Clean and Just Energy Pathways with this section on Justice in the Transition to help you identify energy (in)justice in each of the transition steps and to equip you to make just decisions within your own role in the transition.

This chapter begins by establishing common definitions of energy justice and describing three frameworks for making energy-just decisions. Using these frameworks, we explore energy justice as it relates to each of the sections in the Clean and Just Pathways: efficiency, electrification & alternative fuels, and sources of energy and negative emissions. Throughout the sections, real-life stories are interwoven with academic resources and potential policy remedies for energy injustices.

Understanding “energy justice” in the transition

Before diving into the concept of a just transition, we must establish a common language for what we mean by energy, justice, and energy justice.

What is “Energy?” 

“Energy” is both a complex and a simple term to define. A physics-based definition describes energy as something quantifiable used to produce light and heat or work machines. This definition tends to dominate discussions of energy transitions, but in discourses of energy justice it is also important to recognize other definitions of energy.

In her book, Revolutionary Power, Shalanda Baker, inaugural Deputy Director for Energy Justice at the US Department of Energy, describes a community energy gathering she organized in Hawai’i. She was caught off guard when a local elder asked her, “what is energy?” Baker explains the fundamental flaw of her efforts to that point had been to assume a common understanding of the term. She continues,

“If we believe that we, in fact, are energy and that energy also means food, water, air, and sunlight—the things we and most living beings on this planet need to thrive—we design systems that provide a harmonious connection to energy. Rather than ‘harnessing’ power, we flow with it.” (Baker, 2021, p. 120).

The concept of energy knowledge is woven into our values and cultures (Lennon, 2017). Lohmann et al. (2013) use a dichotomous framework of “Big-E ‘Energy’” and “little-e ‘energies’” to illustrate two distinct conceptualizations of energy. Regardless of whether we conceive energy as “Big-E” poles and wires or “little-e” natural flows and sunlight, energy literally and figuratively connects individuals to groups. By holding these different conceptions of energy in our minds, we are recognizing that different forms of knowledge and understanding exist. This is an act of justice toward the people and cultures that embrace these differences.

What is “justice?”

The concept of “justice” has been debated for millenia. Ancient Greeks considered justice among the necessities for virtue – the path toward living one’s best life. In modern times, justice is often equated with fairness (Sovacool & Dworkin, 2014). In this vein, justice can bridge individual desires and group desires, resolve disputes, and distinguish between better and worse decisions (Sovacool & Dworkin, 2014). When we feel we are treated justly, whether we like the outcome or not, we feel better about ourselves (Sovacool & Dworkin, 2014).

A justice perspective applied to the energy system can reveal where it is unfair. At this moment, we are fundamentally remaking the system to mitigate and adapt to climate change. This transition presents innumerable decisions that must themselves be weighed on the scales of justice.

What is “energy justice?”

At a basic level, the concept of “energy justice” is often described as an equitable distribution of energy costs and benefits, achieved through a representative and impartial decision-making process (Sovacool & Dworkin, 2014). Our current energy system is filled with degrees of injustice, and the transition to an energy system less reliant on fossil fuels affords both a challenge and an opportunity to rectify inequities. 

Energy justice scholars use conceptual frameworks to understand and address energy system injustices. We explore three distinct energy justice frameworks below. Think of these as different lenses through which to recognize energy (in)justice. Just as a pair of bifocals has two lenses for seeing near and far, these three frameworks act like trifocals, each providing a perspective that competes with and complements the others.

Figure 1. Three frameworks of energy justice—energy justice tenets, the energy continuum, and affirmative principles—provide three competing and complementary perspectives for understanding (in)justice in the energy system.

Framework 1: The Tenets of Energy Justice. A tenet is a principle, a belief, or a rule. By recognizing the tenets of energy justice, we can compare what our energy system is to what it should be. The three core tenets of energy justice—distributional justice, procedural justice, and recognition justice—are shown in Figure 2 and explained in further detail below.

Figure 2. The three core tenets of energy justice. Adapted from (McCauley et al., 2013)

A practical application of this tenet recognizes the increased vulnerability of the elderly when exposed to extreme temperatures which may result from living in less efficient homes or unaffordable energy bills (Heffron & McCauley, 2017).

Framework 2: Justice along the Energy Continuum. Sometimes called “cosmopolitan justice” this framework zooms out to consider the energy life cycle at a global scale (Heffron & McCauley, 2017). By tracing the impacts of our energy system from extraction and production, where mining and generation occur, through consumption, where electricity comes out of the plug, to waste management, we can better identify who is being made more vulnerable (Hernández, 2015).

Figure 3. The Energy Continuum. (In)justice occurs at all stages across the energy life cycle. Adapted from (Heffron & McCauley, 2017)

Here are some examples of energy injustice along the continuum:

In extraction:

In production

The US EPA has graphed key demographics of communities living within three miles of power plants. This graph displays the number of plants located in or near communities which meet or exceed the 80th percentile nationally for each key demographic in the x-axis, such as low-income communities, people of color, etc. Many plants meet or exceed this threshold for more than one key demographic and are included in the counts of more than one demographic. Source: US EPA

In operation and supply:

In consumption

In Waste Management:

Young men burning electrical wires from cars, appliances, and scrap electronics to recover copper, at Agbogbloshie, Ghana, September 2019. Source: Muntaka Chasant, CC BY-SA 4.0

Framework 3: The affirmative principles are a framework for making energy just decisions (Sovacool & Dworkin, 2015). The need for such a framework arises from the connectedness and complexity of the global energy system. Determining what is the most just decision in any given context is not always clear or simple. For example, a decision by an electric company to build a transmission line through a disadvantaged community may seem to be clearly injust. However, a complicated web of public, internal, conscious, and unconscious decisions may influence that decision (Sovacool & Dworkin, 2015). The transmission line decision may be influenced by the need to transport electricity from a new solar array whose clean energy would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote regional sustainability. The need for that solar array may be driven by increased electricity demand, the result of a million small, individual-level decisions about whether or not to turn on a light. Meanwhile, the increased transmission capacity may lower energy costs for low-income households. 

Balancing these competing priorities is not simple. However, by naming and scaffolding the affirmative principles of energy justice, they can be weighed against each other to inform the most just decision. The eight affirmative principles are:

  1. Availability – All people deserve sufficient and reliable energy sources.
  2. Affordability – No one should pay more than 10 percent of their income for energy services.
  3. Due process – Due process should be respected in energy production and consumption.
  4. Transparency and Accountability in Governance – All people should have access to information and fair processes for energy decision making.
  5. Sustainability – Energy resources should be conserved. 
  6. Intragenerational Equity – All people deserve an equitable distribution of energy resources.
  7. Intergenerational Equity – Future generations deserve a world undisturbed by the damage of our energy system today.
  8. Responsibility – All countries are responsible for protecting the environment from their energy impacts.

(Sovacool & Dworkin, 2015)

These principles build upon each other as they increase in complexity. They also become more controversial in terms of their prioritization. Having access to affordable energy (principles one and two) clearly preempts discussions about whether an energy supplier acts in transparent and sustainable ways; however it is less clear whether sustainability should precede or follow intragenerational equity.

Now that we’ve explained each of the three frameworks, let’s return to the idea that they provide us with three different perspectives on energy justice.

Figure 1. Three frameworks of energy justice—energy justice tenets, the energy continuum, and affirmative principles—provide three competing and complementary perspectives for understanding (in)justice in the energy system.

If we continue the metaphor of a trifocal lens for energy justice, we might consider the question: what are we looking at through these lenses? And what have we seen before? These questions get at the concept of “restorative justice.” Restorative justice seeks to repair the damages done to a person, a group, or a society rather than focus on merely disciplining the offender (Heffron & McCauley, 2017)

A restorative justice approach underlies all three energy justice frameworks. Rather than starting from the present, restorative justice recognizes past harms and seeks to rectify them moving forward. It uses the trifocal lenses of energy justice to look back at the past and forward toward the future at the same time. This is especially important when considering justice in the transition. The energy transition underway affords the opportunity to not simply make a cleaner version of the old energy system, but rather, design a new system that addresses past harms.

Related Concepts

“Energy Justice” is not a standalone concept. Rather it is interconnected with “environmental justice” and “climate justice,” two related terms with their own unique histories. Marginalized communities reflect the interconnectedness of these terms, often experiencing environmental, energy, and climate injustices at the same time. For example, low-income communities of color residing in the Los Angeles basin host a disproportionate amount of hazardous waste materials (environmental injustice), their residents face mobility challenges in the face of increasing climate risks (climate justice), and they are exposed to longer power outages and bear higher-than-average energy burdens (energy injustice) (Baker et al., 2019).

Recognizing the interconnected nature of these three forms of justice has led frontline communities to include all three in defining a “just transition” framework. Figure 4 below, borrowed from the Initiative for Energy Justice Workbook, illustrates this framework.

Figure 4. Connections among environmental justice, climate justice, and energy justice. (Baker et al., 2019).

Energy justice in action

The three frameworks for energy justice can be used in each dimension of the energy transition: 

In this section, we will frame those discussions by identifying examples of energy injustices and potential solutions.

At the end of each section below you will be prompted to apply one of the energy justice frameworks. Examine this first section, Efficiency, through the lens of the energy justice tenets.


William is 75, retired, and owns his home in central Michigan. He lives off of his monthly social security check and always pays his utility bills on time. In the winter, he sometimes sleeps on his kitchen floor with the oven turned on for heat because his furnace can’t adequately warm the house. The cost of running his furnace means he has little money left over for food, so he’s a frequent client of the local food pantry. In the summer, during the hottest days, he sits outside under the shade of a tree because it’s too costly to run his air conditioner.

To an older adult, these temperature variations mean more than just thermal discomfort; they can be extremely dangerous. Compounding William’s physical discomfort is mental stress and anxiety about the cost of his energy and other household necessities. William isn’t alone. Nearly 37 million households in America suffer from energy poverty, the inability to meet their basic household energy needs (Bednar & Reames, 2020).

Energy-poor households like William’s are not spread evenly throughout the US. Low-income communities and people of color experience disproportionately high levels of energy burden (the percentage of their income spent on energy expenditures).

You can explore what energy burdens look like in your community by using the Department of Energy’s Low-Income Energy Affordability Data (LEAD) tool

One reason for these high burdens is that these communities are more likely to have older and less efficient housing stocks (Bednar et al., 2017; Lewis et al., 2020; Reames, 2016). African-American households of all income levels are more likely to live in less efficient homes than white households, a result of generations of racialized housing discrimination (Lewis et al., 2020).

Older homes have higher energy use intensities (EUIs), which is a simple proxy for energy efficiency. EUI divides a household’s energy consumption (measured in kilowatt hours) by the square footage of the home. This helps to distinguish high levels of consumption among wealthier (and larger homes) from high levels of consumption due to inefficient buildings (Reames, 2016). These inefficiencies are exacerbated by extreme weather events, which are increasing in frequency and intensity due to climate change, as well as price shocks like natural gas price increases linked to geopolitical unrest such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine (Ozili, 2022; Webb et al., 2023).

A worker with Veterans Green Jobs in Colorado installs a moisture barrier and insulation as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program. The program reduces energy costs for low-income households by increasing the energy efficiency of their homes while ensuring health and safety. Source: Dennis Schroeder/NREL.

What can be done to help households like William’s? Energy efficiency upgrades can reduce household energy burdens and increase thermal comfort. Best of all, they prevent additional greenhouse gas emissions. In the US, low-income households spend a higher percentage of their income on electricity and gas expenses than any other income group, representing a greater energy burden (Brown et al, 2020). However, they also face greater barriers to accessing energy efficient technologies. For example, a 2018 study in Detroit found that hardware stores in high-poverty areas were less likely to supply energy-efficient light bulbs, and those that were supplied were much more expensive than bulbs available at larger box stores found in wealthier suburbs (Reames et al, 2018).

For low-to-moderate income (LMI) households, energy efficiency upgrades offered by utilities are often most accessible. Energy providers offer these upgrades free of charge to income-constrained households. Nevertheless, many utilities fail to adequately target these upgrades to the households that most need them. The Energy Efficiency Equity Baseline (E3b) identifies inequitable utility efficiency spending by comparing the percent of total efficiency dollars spent on upgrades for low-income households to the proportion of the utility’s service area these households comprise (Reames et al, 2019). The E3b identified significant efficiency spending gaps for low-income households in all six states the study included (Reames et al., 2019).

One example of a utility-sponsored program for low-income households is that of a Detroit-based energy provider, which offers free energy saving upgrades through two of its programs, the Home Energy Consultation (HEC) and Multifamily Program. The HEC helps residents of single-family homes, condominiums, or duplexes identify where their homes use and lose the most energy. For both programs, eligible residents receive ENERGY STAR®-certified LED light bulbs, an energy-efficient showerhead, low-flow faucet aerators, water heater pipe wrap, nightlights, and a programmable thermostat.

Figure 5. DTE Energy Home Energy Consultation and Multifamily Offerings (DTE Energy, 2022).

Most utilities do not have internal workforces dedicated to energy efficiency, as their missions are aligned with providing safe, reliable, and affordable energy. Their business model is to contract out energy efficiency services to subject matter experts who can implement cost-effective measures more easily. For example, Walker-Miller Energy Services, a Black woman-owned company based in Detroit, carries out two of the local utility’s energy efficiency programs. In 2021, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Walker-Miller provided energy upgrades to more than 20,000 Michigan homes.

Traditional single-family homes pose different challenges for LMI residents. Residents of single family homes bear the responsibilities of purchasing and upgrading their appliances, while in most multifamily communities, property managers manage the distribution and maintenance of appliances. Where LMI residents in single-family homes may lack the financial capacity to upgrade to energy efficient appliances, financially burdened residents in multifamily housing lack opportunities to select energy-efficient appliances and must settle for what exists in their units, at the expense of higher monthly bills.

Moreover, property management teams and housing commissions struggle to manage larger resident counts, and the quality of maintenance services often decreases in larger multifamily complexes. Where energy is concerned, multifamily residents are responsible for their own utilities and only receive breaks where there are programs specifically designed for them to save. A household’s energy burden is the percentage of income spent on home energy bills (ACEEE, 2020). Across the national median energy burden of 3.1%, low-income multifamily residents experience a significantly higher burden than other building types.

Figure 6. National energy burdens across subgroups (i.e., income, race and ethnicity, age, tenure, and housing type) compared to the national median energy burden (ACEEE, 2020).

Due to the 1949 reauthorization of the 1939 Housing Act, public housing construction expanded significantly through the 1950s and 1960s, making the bulk of these communities many decades old (National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2019). Many cities did not adopt their first building energy codes until the late 1970s and early 1980s (ACEEE, 2020). Building envelope failures, which impact the foundation, roof, walls, insulation, and windows of a structure, commonly arise due to original design flaws, weather events, and irregular maintenance. This means that the structural soundness and energy efficiency of many buildings are in jeopardy.

Julian Gonzalez with Longs Peak Energy Conservation in Boulder County, Colorado, tapes off the exterior of a home before insulating the walls. Source: Dennis Schroeder / NREL

For single and multifamily homes, the Department of Energy’s Home Energy Scoring tool can identify flaws in these physical characteristics and recommend weatherization improvements. As housing commissions in many cities prepare to retrofit or demolish affordable housing structures, this tool estimates home energy use and associated costs on a scale of one to ten, and provides energy solutions to cost effectively improve energy efficiency (Department of Energy, 2022). Home Energy Score Assessors, like Walker-Miller Energy Services and other energy efficiency companies, audit homes to generate an official score. In most cases, the scoring process takes one hour to complete.

A Home Energy Score Report consists of an official score, facts about a home’s construction, and recommendations for both immediate and lower priority upgrades. For low-income home buyers, Multiple Listing Services (MLSs) are beginning to add Home Energy Scores to home listings to allow buyers to easily identify homes with green features (Department of Energy). Buyers can also use scores to qualify for mortgage products or make a case for a larger loan.

Figure 7. Department of Energy Home Energy Score Sample Report (Department of Energy, 2016).

While programs designed to increase energy affordability for LMI households have become increasingly common, accessibility barriers persist that prevent people from utilizing these resources, even when they are available at no cost to residents. Low-income communities experience economic, social, health and safety, and information barriers that impact their ability to access programs, and many programs fail to address these barriers through specific targeting practices (ACEEE, 2020).

Access to information about these programs can be one barrier to LMI residents, especially those experiencing impacts of the digital divide. Without mobile devices or internet access, it may be difficult for residents to make inquiries or sign up for these programs. In some cases, documents to verify eligibility based on income are required, but residents do not know how to access them. Additionally, residents may lack the required identification documents or be leary of sharing personal information. Immigrant participants, for example, may fear that interactions with utility companies or other contractors will ultimately jeopardize their immigration status and housing.

Representation across demographics, as well as collaboration with community organizations that can advocate for LMI residents, are important in the energy efficiency space, especially in resource-constrained communities. Some residents need to be reassured that the programs will not increase the burden they are already experiencing.

Apply your knowledge. Review this section on efficiency through the lens of the energy justice tenets. 

Electrification and Alternative Fuels

After reducing energy demand through energy efficiency, decarbonizing the fuel used for various energy services is the next step toward a clean energy future. Often this involves electrifying end-use sectors so that they run on renewable energy from the power grid or distributed energy, or by using alternative fuels (such as hydrogen). Electrifying transportation and end-use appliances, like stoves and water and space heaters, is a critical component of climate change mitigation. In 2020, emissions from all forms of transportation (cars, trucks, trains, and planes) constituted 27% of all US greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other economic segment (US EPA, 2022). Surprisingly, a recent study found that gas appliances in California homes and buildings generate nearly two thirds as much nitrous oxide (NOx), a powerful greenhouse gas, as all of the state’s passenger cars, and more than four times as much NOx as all of the state’s gas power plants (Feinstein et al., 2022). These emissions have serious implications for global climate change, but also indoor and outdoor air quality. Thus rapidly electrifying our vehicles and appliances is essential to a just transition. Nevertheless, many equity implications complicate the process of electrification. These include questions about how to prioritize energy accessibility and how to address increased cost burdens from electrifying appliances and vehicles.

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

Amma was a mother of five and a grandmother of 20 living in Ghana. For decades she prepared meals for her children and grandchildren in the traditional way, over a charcoal cookstove in her home. The high levels of PM2.5 and PM10 (particulate matter less than 2.5 and 10 μm, respectively) released from the cookstove exposed Amma to air pollution comparable to active cigarette smoking and contributed to her death from lung cancer. Like 2.4 billion people globally, Amma was exposed to extreme levels of indoor air pollution because she cooked over a coal- or wood-burning cookstove. Amma’s family did not have access to affordable, reliable electricity for cooking. While it is too late for Amma, access to affordable and reliable energy is imperative for the health and survival of her children and grandchildren and billions around the world.

What might that look like? Increasing electricity access to some locations in Ghana may be possible through the expansion of renewable energy resources and infrastructure, but might also require the construction of new fossil fuel-burning energy facilities like coal or natural gas power plants. Amma’s situation reminds us of the challenge of making just energy decisions. As we seek to extend policies that electrify energy end uses, we must balance the needs of billions who lack access to any affordable and reliable electricity.

Contrast Amma’s story with that of Wendy. Wendy lives in a four-unit apartment building in Michigan. Unlike most of the buildings around her, which use natural gas boilers for heat, Wendy’s building has individually metered air source heat pumps powered by electricity. Wendy’s heat is potentially cleaner than her neighbors’, depending on the fuel source used to generate her electricity (more on that in the next section), but it is currently more expensive. Wendy pays between $300 and $400 for her electric bill during the coldest months of the year. This includes the cost to run her appliances, lights, and heat, but is significantly higher than her neighbors whose apartments are heated by natural gas boilers. Their electric bills are closer to $50 a month in the winter, while heating costs are factored into their rent and spread among all tenants in the building.

Electrifying residential heating sources is a key component of the clean energy transition. However, in many colder climates, where air source heat pumps are currently less efficient, switching from natural gas to electric heating may result in higher annual energy costs (Vaishnav & Fatimah, 2020). The cost differential from switching is more pronounced for older homes currently using natural gas for heating in colder climates (Deetjen et al., 2021).

Air source heat pumps installed at residence. Source: U.S. Department of Energy

Wendy’s situation is compounded by the relative energy inefficiency of her apartment. Cold air seeps in under her door and through an improperly insulated attic. She’d like to have the apartment weatherized to increase its efficiency, but that process is complicated because she is a renter. Since her landlord doesn’t pay tenants’  utility bills, he lacks an incentive to invest in energy efficiency upgrades for the apartments. This is called the split incentive, and it is a major barrier to energy efficiency and electrification.

By contrast, the apartments near Wendy’s are almost all heated with a central natural gas boiler paid for by the building owner. This may incentivize the owner to invest in building efficiency (though landlords often pass on fuel costs to renters through rents). Advancements in technology and policy will be important to incentivize the switch from central boilers to individually metered electric air source heat pumps, without inadvertently increasing the split incentive and decreasing landlord investments in energy efficiency.

Both Amma and Wendy’s stories illustrate the competing energy justice priorities at stake in electrification of buildings. These stories highlight barriers that may require policy and technology solutions as we work toward clean and just energy pathways. They also underscore how each energy situation is different. Even the desire to provide electricity access implies a certain cultural value, which may or may not be representative of the people targeted for access (Tornel, 2022).

It is essential that those who are experiencing energy injustice lead and inform the decision making process. In Ghana, this could look like community-owned solar or wind microgrids, which could electrify cooking and promote community wealth. Alternatively, it may mean development of fossil fuel-generating sources whose emissions could be offset by reductions from developed nations, like the US and western European countries, which have historically produced higher greenhouse gas emissions per capita than most other countries in the world.

In Wendy’s situation, policy options exist to move beyond the split incentive and to decrease the energy burden for low-income tenants (Samarripas & Jarrah, 2021). Some utilities offer on-bill financing, which links loans for energy efficiency upgrades to an energy bill, obviating the need for a separate loan application, which is dependent on a customer’s credit. This can help address the split incentive barrier by lowering the cost and risk of a loan for a building owner (or a tenant) interested in making energy efficiency upgrades.

Single-story duplex PV systems on affordable housing units in Denver, Colorado. Source: NREL

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022 included funding for rooftop solar, which benefits low-income households. Landlords who serve tenants participating in national affordable housing programs can receive a tax credit up to 50% of the cost of a solar array if the array will benefit their low-income tenants. In this scenario, while electricity costs for tenants may increase with an electrified heating source, those increases may be offset by energy credits from a new rooftop solar array.

Amma and Wendy’s scenarios illustrate energy justice considerations in the building sector. Additional energy justice considerations arise when we consider the industrial and transportation sectors.

A key consideration with the electrification of industrial and transportation sectors is increased demand for electricity (more on this in the electrification and alternative fuels chapter). As industrial processes are electrified and more vehicle owners opt for electric vehicles, demand on the electric grid will increase. This increase in electricity demand will coincide with increased demand for electricity for air conditioners and heat pumps in the building sector.

The electric grid requires that instantaneous demand be met by sufficient supply and storage solutions in order to avoid brownouts (power outages caused by insufficient supply) or rolling blackouts (where certain areas of the grid are turned off to avoid grid collapse). Avoiding such outages will be critical as more households electrify their appliances, heating, and cooling. This will be especially true in low-income and minority communities, for whom the duration of power outages and the severity of their impacts on health and food security have been longer and more severe  (Lee et al., 2022). This reality is visible in the image below where East Austin, Texas, is in a blackout, while Downtown Austin has the lights on.

Downtown Austin, Texas (right) and East Austin, Texas (left) from 5th and I-35 during the 2021 rolling blackouts caused by a severe winter storm (CBS Austin).

Beyond the grid and reliability impacts induced by increased demand, additional energy justice concerns arise when considering the transition to electric vehicles (EVs). Currently, the United States offers tax credits for the purchase of EVs, yet the cost of these vehicles keeps them out of reach for the majority of auto consumers, even with tax credits. This form of tax credit can be considered regressive since it tends to benefit wealthier rather than low-income households. In Norway, incentives for EV adoption have come at the expense of investments in mass transit, which is used more by lower-income individuals (and is more beneficial in terms of carbon emissions) (Sovacool et al., 2019).

These inequities notwithstanding, EVs are a critical component of a just transition. On average, people of color are exposed to more transportation-related air pollution than they produce (Tessum et al., 2019). Much of this is attributable to the legacy of constructing highways through black and brown communities in the 1950s and 1960s (Karas, 2015). Further,the disamenity of living near a highway means that houses closest to highways are also often the cheapest and may be the only option for low-income households. Given these realities, even if the financial benefits of EVs disproportionately accrue to non-Hispanic White drivers, the emissions benefits that would result from EV deployment will benefit low-income households and people of color. This does not even consider the planetary benefits of reducing emissions for the mitigation of global climate change.

Still, many policy mechanisms should be considered to promote equitable EV deployment. Vehicle regulations can be established to promote smaller EVs and to increase overall supply for the used-car market (Hardman et al., 2021). Income caps and incentives for low-income and first-time EV buyers, better targeting of home charging station rebates, and locating more charging stations in multifamily housing and low-income communities will also expand EV accessibility (Hardman et al., 2021).

In this section we’ve highlighted a number of energy justice issues related to electrification and alternative fuels. In particular, the examples above highlight the challenges that arise from competing priorities within energy decision making. Use the comparative lenses afforded by the affirmative principles of energy justice to answer the following prompts.

Sources of Energy

Our current fossil-fuel-based energy system has many costs. Public health and environmental burdens arise from extraction, processing, and combustion polluting the surrounding air, water, and ground, while emissions lead to global warming (Millstein et al., 2017). These burdens are not distributed equitably throughout society, but disproportionately impact under-resourced communities through poorer air quality and lowered health outcomes (Carley & Konisky, 2020). The disproportionate burdens borne by under-resourced communities often result from the legacies of discriminatory housing policies and prohibitive participation in energy decision making (Baker, 2021). Transitioning the energy system from fossil fuels to renewable energy provides a chance to address these disproportionate burdens. The development of large-scale wind and solar energy is an opportunity to improve air quality, create jobs, grow local wealth, and mitigate global climate change (Ardani et al., 2021). Nevertheless, decarbonizing our energy system requires massive societal change in a short amount of time. Consequently, many questions about the distribution of benefits and burdens in the energy transition remain unanswered (Ardani et al., 2021). The examples below are intended to illustrate the complexity of equitably transitioning our sources of energy.

Perry has lived on his five-acre Iowa homestead for 50 years. For 30 years before that, he lived in a farmhouse just down the road. His wife of nearly six decades has passed, but the memories endure of their life together and of the two children they raised in their home surrounded by acres of farmland. Last year, developers of a large solar energy facility came to Perry’s door and asked him to sell or lease his acreage for their panels. His children advised him not to sell, ever. He decided to keep his home and acreage, but they’re now surrounded on three sides by solar panels. Perry no longer has access to the fields he hunted since boyhood. The view from his window, which used to change with the crop season, is now framed year-round by metallic solar panels.

Perry’s is only one side of a story in the complex transition to cleaner energy sources. Even within Perry’s community, there are competing narratives. A local elected official who supported the solar farm pointed out that the town will earn ten times as much tax revenue annually from the energy excise taxes as it did from property taxes on the  former farmland. Those tax dollars will support community schools, roads, and other forms of infrastructure. Meanwhile, the ground under the panels will sit fallow for 25 years, which may improve its corn suitability rating, a measure of agricultural productivity. Nevertheless, those benefits may not resonate with an octogenarian like Perry, who may place greater value on seeing the land around him preserved as farmland.

Indeed, factors like place attachment and the right to have a say in how places are used are significant justice issues in the transition to cleaner sources of energy. Two examples from Indigenous contexts, one in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico, and the other in South Dakota, USA, illustrate the complexity of these justice considerations.

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico is one of the windiest places in the world and home to numerous large-scale wind farms (Baker, 2021; Ramirez & Böhm, 2021; Zárate-Toledo et al., 2019). The construction of these wind farms has generated significant resistance from the Zapotec and Ikoot peoples who inhabit the region. Their resistance arose in response to top-down planning by the Mexican government, which approved projects that the tribes felt threatened their biocultural heritage (Ramirez & Böhm, 2021). Indigenous protest leaders emphasized that they support clean energy, but that the megaproyectos (mega-projects) being developed in the region were extractive and proceeded without consent of the local communities (Ramirez & Böhm, 2021).

Southeast Wind Power Plant I, Phase II, Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico. Source: Presidencia de la República Mexicana / CC BY 2.0

While the Zapotec and Ikoot communities were resisting new wind developments in Tehuantepec, a coalition of Sioux tribes in South Dakota, known as the Oceti Sakowin Power Authority (OSPA), was struggling to develop its own wind farm. The OSPA effort followed unsuccessful efforts by other tribes to develop their own renewable energy resources (Zimmerman & Reames, 2021). Given that many Native American communities are still fighting for access to any electricity, efforts to develop their own clean energy resources are critically important (Sandoval, 2018, 2020). These previous efforts were also impacted by top-down governance, in the form of a century-old precedent known as the Federal Trust Responsibility, in which the US government recognizes the sovereignty of Native American tribes, but acts as a trustee in contract issues related to energy development on their lands (Zimmerman & Reames, 2021). The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) is tasked with this oversight yet is plagued by inefficiencies that can delay or kill a potential project (Zimmerman & Reames, 2021). Additional challenges for the tribes include financing struggles and tax ineligibility, which prevented them from capitalizing on federal incentives for renewable energy development (Zimmerman & Reames, 2021).

The examples of the Zapotec and Ikoot communities in Tehuantepec and the Sioux tribes in South Dakota demonstrate that the challenges of transitioning from one energy source to another are not merely technological, but also social. Siting renewable energy installations will impact new groups of people and places than those historically affected by fossil fuel resource development, which disproportionately burden African-Americans and low-income communities throughout the U.S.. The challenge is to transition from fossil fuel power plants without replicating their burdens.

There is a just way to transition our energy sources. Large renewable energy projects can be catalysts for energy justice. The pursuit of large-scale wind farms by Native American tribes is a testament to their potential to address distributional injustices related to energy accessibility and affordability. However, issues of procedural justice, inefficient bureaucracies, and imbalanced policy incentives must be rectified for the tribes to fully access the benefits they are due. Currently in the US, large- or utility-scale solar facilities make up 77 GW (6%) of the installed capacity of all power plants (Ardani et al., 2021). That number is estimated to grow to between 500 and 800 GW by 2050 (Standard Scenarios, 2021)

As large-scale solar expands, more communities like Perry’s will have to grapple with how to address the tradeoffs of renewable energy development in a just way. To achieve the predicted growth needed to meet clean energy goals, developers and communities will need to work together. One potential solution is the incorporation of community ownership. “Community” solar projects, when designed well, can center the economic benefits of renewable energy and promote fair and representative decision making for residents of  host communities (Baker, 2021).

The Clean Energy Transition for Low-Income Communities

While renewable energy means deploying clean, carbon-neutral energy sources that are less harmful to the environment, there is still a risk of corporate greed hurting the most marginalized communities (Ramirez, 2021) and the possibility that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities will be left behind if they lack the appropriate infrastructure. Whiter, more affluent communities have historically benefited from publicly funded clean energy initiatives (Hough et al, 2022). In 2019, a group of Tufts University researchers found that Black- and Hispanic-majority US census tracts have 61 percent and 45 percent fewer rooftop solar installations respectively compared to no-majority tracts, while White-majority census tracts have 37 percent more installations (Knight, 2019). 

Tipmont REMC Community Solar Array in Linden, Indiana. Community solar photovoltaic systems allow community members to purchase a share of the renewable energy generated on solar farms and to receive credit on their electricity bills. This model, which is being rapidly adopted, makes benefitting from renewable energy both more affordable and more feasible for people who rent or live in houses that are unsuitable for solar PV systems. Photovoltaic energy is available wherever the sun shines, making it a very inclusive source of energy. Source: Robford15/CC BY-SA.

[Caption] Tipmont REMC Community Solar Array in Linden, Indiana. Community solar photovoltaic systems allow community members to purchase a share of the renewable energy generated on solar farms and to receive credit on their electricity bills. This model, which is being rapidly adopted, makes benefitting from renewable energy both more affordable and more feasible for people who rent or live in houses that are unsuitable for solar PV systems. Photovoltaic energy is available wherever the sun shines, making it a very inclusive source of energy. Source: Robford15/CC BY-SA.

Community solar initiatives aim to empower residents to take ownership of their energy experience. These programs intentionally provide cost savings, create green jobs, and work to fortify resource-constrained communities. The cost per installed watt of community solar can be significantly lower than the cost of rooftop systems (Hangen et al, 2021). Solar for All , an initiative of the DC Department of Energy and Environment, is working to bring solar benefits to 100,000 LMI households in DC. Their goal is  for participants to experience 50% savings in electricity over 15 years, and to ensure that 10% of local electricity is sourced from solar projects in urban areas. In 2019, the program cut utility costs in half for about 9,000 LMI households (Kaufmann, 2020).

What’s missing? The section above discusses some of the energy justice challenges of switching our energy sources from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but we focused on only one step in the energy continuum: production. Use the energy continuum framework to zoom out. 

Negative Emissions

Even after increasing energy efficiency, electrifying the building, transportation, and industry sectors, and changing our energy sources, there will still be too much CO2 in the atmosphere to prevent a rise of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius in global temperatures. As a result, we will need to employ negative emission technologies (NETs) or carbon dioxide removal (CDR) techniques to reduce excess carbon in the atmosphere.

One way to make NETs economical is to create effective carbon markets through a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system. Currently, large fossil fuel companies emit carbon and other greenhouse gasses without paying for the $X billion (?) in damages to health, infrastructure, and ecosystems caused by pollution and climate change impacts. To address this injustice, policymakers can adopt a carbon tax that would set a price for CO2 emissions. Depending on how low or high the cost of emitting is, the market would determine the amount of reduced emissions. A cap-and-trade system sets the quantity of CO2 emissions allowed rather than the price, and permits to emit CO2 are traded among emitting entities. In either market, a carbon emitting entity, like a fossil fuel power plant, would have to pay for the emissions it generates. In turn, companies with NETs could receive compensation for the carbon they remove from the atmosphere based on the price set in the market (either by the carbon tax or determined by the value of emitting permits).

As in other stages of the energy transition, it is important to design carbon markets in ways that do not accidentally turn a price on carbon into a regressive tax that would disproportionately affect low-income households. For example, a higher carbon price would increase the cost of gasoline, which would impact the income of a low-income household more than that of a high-income household. But appropriate policy mechanisms, like subsidies for low-income households, can be combined with carbon markets to ensure distributional justice.

It will also be critical to ensure that NETs do not become a means of justifying currently unsustainable practices, such as the continued operation of coal-fired power plants, massive deforestation, or the delayed adoption of energy efficiency upgrade policies for aging buildings. Additionally, using energy justice frameworks to site land-based NETs (such as reforestation) will be critical, as land managers face competing pressures for land use such as food production and renewable energy development. All this is to say, while NETs will likely be one part of a just transition, it is important that other solutions be equally prioritized and not deterred by the use of NETs.

Examine the use of NETs or CDR techniques through your “trifocals” of energy justice.

Justice in the Workforce

Climate change efforts and the clean energy transition are already fundamentally changing the workforce landscape (Rambert 2022). To ensure that low-income and marginalized communities are not disproportionately impacted by this transition, policymakers must prioritize clean energy workforce development across demographics. While clean energy wages exceed national wages by 8-19% (Muro et al, 2019), these jobs are not equitably distributed, with the industry dominated by white males.

One barrier that contributes to this disparity is lack of appropriate job training. Muro et al (2019) suggest creating a clean energy playbook that prioritizes energy science programs at all education levels, including associate degree programs to reach underrepresented individuals. As the median age of workers in this industry continues to trend higher (2019), the US Department of Energy recently announced plans to invest funds in clean energy training opportunities at community colleges.

Figure 9: US Clean Energy Employment Demographics (U.S. Energy and Employment Report, 2020)

Action can also be taken at the state or municipality level. For instance, in April 2022, the state of Michigan released its MI Healthy Climate Plan, a broad vision for achieving statewide carbon neutrality by 2050. A primary recommendation from the state of Michigan’s MI Healthy Climate Plan is:

The plan also cites a key strategy in Workforce Development and job training:

“Strengthen and create workforce development, job training, pre-apprenticeship/apprenticeship, joint labor management training, and other such programs for in-demand clean energy jobs – from pre-weatherization services to grid maintenance, electric vehicles, and renewables. Ensure these programs are federally certified by the Department of Labor where applicable. Incentivize workforce development and training for workers experiencing energy-related employment transitions and those in underrepresented or disproportionately impacted communities.”