The transition to clean energy is happening in Boston and other cities across the country. Strategies to expand clean energy technologies include allocating public resources and direct benefits to residents. However, an important question that must be addressed is how can we ensure that the benefits are equitably distributed when historically marginalized communities have been left behind?
Answers to this question were explored by experts during a Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy event March 17 at which panelists discussed moving towards equitable clean energy in cities. The event was co-sponsored by the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society at BC and the Environmental Law Society at BC Law School.
Panelists began by explaining how their personal connections to energy insecurity, along with eye-opening experiences working with families in need, drove them to get involved in energy justice.
Diana Hernández, associate professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University and visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, said that being involved in the Rappaport event was a full-circle moment because she learned about energy insecurity in Boston while doing her dissertation research in Dorchester. While working with the Boston Medical Center’s Family Advocacy Program, she fashioned her study around how lawyers help to mitigate the relationship between poor housing and poor health.
“Part of understanding energy insecurity is really about understanding the physical and social location of folks that are impacted by this phenomenon,” said Hernández. “It really is about where people are, their financial standing, the historic nature of racial residential segregation, and racist housing practices and policies.” It is also about the failure to incorporate people into the future of energy and climate policy.
Moderator Jeremy Orr, director of litigation and advocacy partnerships at Earthjustice and the 2022 Rappaport Senior Fellow in Residence, explained how his childhood experiences in Detroit storing jars of water for when his family’s supply was shut off is a prime example of the burden placed on communities that don’t receive equal access to efficient, clean utilities. “There is an idea that the energy burden—utility burden—oftentimes feels like a myth, but it’s people’s lived realities on a very massive scale,” said Orr.
Panelist Bradford Swing, director of energy policy and programs for the City of Boston Mayor’s Office, began his work in Boston managing the development of a pilot green building in Mattapan. “It was an opportunity for us to understand the opportunity for better integrated design to build buildings that were healthier for people to breathe in,” said Swing. “I’ll never forget when Mayor Menino was out there and one of the school kids from around the corner tugged on the mayor’s suit and said, ‘You know, Mayor, I have asthma and I just breathe better in this building.’”
Swing said his long history of working in the mayor’s office has given him a front row seat to the lack of assistance for low-income families who are struggling the most with energy insecurity, and he is currently working to make sure Boston residents have more say over their energy future.
Panelist Tony Reames, senior advisor at the US Department of Energy’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, shared his eye-opening moment, which occurred at the height of the recession when he came across a 2004 report from the Congressional Caucus Foundation entitled “African Americans and Climate Change: An Unequal Burden.” A statement in the report hit him hard: “Where US energy policy is concerned, African Americans are the proverbial canaries in the mine shaft.”
“This report and its findings became the foundation of what’s become my work over the last decade. How do we better understand the production and persistence of racial and ethnic energy disparities, and what are the pathways to solutions to eradicate those disparities?” Reames asked.
With the transition to clean energy starting to take place in Boston and other cities across the country, organizations such as the ones these speakers are involved with are doing everything they can to right the wrongs that have been holding back low-income communities of color.
One of the main areas of concern for Mayor Wu, said Swing, is the deregulation of the electricity supply market and how that has allowed private companies to go door-to-door selling individual electricity supply contracts to people. “I’m going to say out loud with the support of the Massachusetts Attorney General that this work is predatory, and we want them out,” he said.
Boston has started to combat such predatory practices with Community Choice Electricity, a program introduced last year. “One prime reason we do it is that it allows us to use our buying power to increase the amount of renewable energy that is in the basic electricity service that residents receive,” Swing explained.
In Detroit, Reames said, increased community involvement by residents has helped lead them to a path of energy democracy. Hernández seconded that point, explaining why community involvement at the local government level has given her hope. She said that in Green County, Alabama, she witnessed people getting busloads of residents to attend annual meetings and vote to put folks on the board who looked like the constituency.
A major hurdle for communities at the state level, however, is the lack of customer-level, energy-use data provided by utility companies. Swing said his office has been reaching out to residences that are being targeted by private utility companies, but its requests for data on the individual addresses have been denied.
Orr said that has also been the biggest barrier to his legal and policy advocacy. “I know they have [the data], but there’s no requirement for them to disclose that information,” said Orr. “Requiring that transparency in this work is so important.”
Hernandez mentioned another remedy to energy insecurity, which is as simple as asking the right questions when trying to help residents in at-risk communities. “We need to be stepping into these processes with more of an open mind instead of a plan, and an approach around listening and appreciating that people not only understand their issues and their lived experience, but that they also can present their own solutions and pathways to what would make them feel right.”
When asked about what agencies can be doing to address clean energy more broadly, Swing said at the state level he would like to see them put the right issues— communities, issues of economic, racial and energy justice—first, and figure out ways in which to serve people instead of having these bucketed collections of resources that end up in the wrong places, or that simply fail to be used at all. “It really needs a lot of reorganization and rethinking,” he said.
Hernández offered another insight by emphasizing the lack of trust and understanding that low-income communities and communities of color have when it comes to the energy landscape. “We really need to target the things that are making it more difficult for them to be supportive of clean energy pathways,” she said, “because it’s those very experiences with the predatory providers that make it almost impossible for those of us that are thinking of more positive pathways to bring folks along.”
We are in a moment where it is imperative to demand that state government and utilities serve the people by explaining how we give shape and direction to very targeted, location-based energy improvements, Swing said. This includes improvements “that serve the needs of our communities of color, that serve the needs of low-income communities, that serve the environmental justice communities, and first and foremost, that serve Boston in a better way. We have to do that in a way that keeps us on track to reduce our carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050, or else our climate crisis will take over all these issues and make life itself impossible.”