Clean energy inequity can be addressed with data, coordination and policy change at a local level

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From pv magazine USA

Systemic racism is baked into the U.S. energy system and until it is addressed it will persist, officials warned during a recent webinar on energy and race hosted by clean energy research firm Pecan Street.

Numerous reports, including studies issued by trade body the Energy Industries Association, non-profit the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and research organization the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley, have supported the claim repeatedly.

“One of the things that plagues the energy industry is a lack of transparency in data,” said Diana Hernandez, assistant professor of socio-medical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She said the data collected is not available to researchers to make inferences about zip code-based patterns and added: “That’s a major challenge.”

“Utility companies can be more responsive on collecting data on the race and ethnicity of their customers as well as collecting better data on income,” said Hernandez, who is writing a book about energy insecurity in the U.S. “That’s one of the ways that they do away with their responsibilities around addressing energy burden. [They say] that they don’t have accurate data on income.” Without data, researchers cannot take the first steps towards addressing racism in the energy system said Hernandez, who added, communities of color are benefiting less from clean energy technology and, as a result, are paying more for energy.

Barriers

According to Hernandez, when it comes to renewables, African Americans, Latinos and other low-income groups face many barriers.

Racial disparities in the energy sector are inextricably linked to the legacies of segregation and redlining – a discriminatory practice by which financial institutions and other entities systematically refused or limited loans, mortgages, insurance and other financial services and investments based on the racial and ethnic composition of neighborhoods.

Redlining was banned in 1968, but the problems it created persist in many places. Often the pace of improvement has been slow in formerly redlined areas. Properties in such zip codes are more likely to have less efficient energy systems – and higher costs. Energy insecurity among African Americans and Latinos is also linked to lower wage levels and household incomes. Taken together, lower wages and a greater energy burden have led to a disproportionate amount of utility disconnections and have effectively slowed the transition to clean energy technology in communities of color.

Coordination is key

Officials expect more organizations to follow the lead offered by civil rights body the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and consumer group The Utility Reform Network, by advocating for energy policy changes for communities of color at a local level.

More coordination is needed between those on the clean energy technology front lines and city officials, according to John Hall, director of regulatory and legislative affairs at non-profit the Environmental Defense Fund. Officials can share information and develop strategies to ensure clean energy opportunities are provided to communities of color. Clean energy can be an economic development and job creation strategy and a way to reduce urban air pollution, noted Hall.

According to Pecan Street general counsel and chief financial officer Fisayo Fadelu, if cities want to confront energy inequity, they need to start by acknowledging the pervasive legacies of segregation, discrimination and under-investment in communities of color. The next step is using that as justification for prioritizing the needs of the most disadvantaged when it comes to planning and policy making, she added.

“We need to reflect on the fact that the playing field is not equal … That means that equal investment will not work,” said Fadelu.