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Strategies to Combat Energy Injustice

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.
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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.