Inside Clean Energy: The Racial Inequity in Clean Energy and How to Fight It

The industry is growing, but jobs and financial benefits are not distributed equally.

Jun 11, 2020
A trainer works with a student at a 2019 solar install in Washington, D.C. overseen by GRID Alternatives, a national nonprofit that makes renewable energy and job training accessible to underserved communities. Courtesy of GRID Alternatives

A trainer works with a student at a 2019 solar install in Washington, D.C. overseen by GRID Alternatives, a national nonprofit that makes renewable energy and job training accessible to underserved communities. Courtesy of GRID Alternatives

Inside Clean Energy

In this moment of reckoning and reflection about racial inequity in our country, it's time to be forthright about the inequalities in the rapidly expanding business of clean energy.

This industry is providing economic opportunities, but the benefits are not distributed fairly across races and income levels. Predominantly white and affluent communities are getting most of the jobs in the solar industry, and also most of the clean air and financial benefits of having solar on their homes.

"Today the solar industry has to reckon with the fact that we do have an industry that is trying to play within a system that is built on structural racism and we have to think more holistically about how to change that system," said Melanie Santiago-Mosier, managing director of the access and equity program for Vote Solar, who described the industry's problem of "employment and deployment." 

Some background: In 2019, the solar industry's workforce was 7.7 percent "black or African American," according to the Solar Foundation, while black workers represent 13 percent of the U.S. labor force.

At the same time, residents of neighborhoods with black or Hispanic majorities are much less likely to have rooftop solar than residents in white neighborhoods, even after accounting for differences in income and home ownership rates, according to a paper published last year in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Among the reasons for this disparity in rooftop solar use may be that solar companies are marketing their services less in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

It doesn't take much of a leap to see a connection between underrepresentation in the solar work force and the lower use of solar in some neighborhoods. Whole communities are much less likely to have job contacts in the industry, and are also less likely to know someone who has rooftop solar and can talk about its benefits.

Solar Worker Demographics

These discrepancies touch on a larger environmental justice issue: Majority black neighborhoods also have higher levels of air pollution from industry and fossil fuel electricity than majority white neighborhoods, according to a large body of research.

The inequities in solar power are a major concern because the solar industry is likely to be an increasingly important part of our economy.

If the benefits of this industry are mostly limited to people who already are in a position of privilege, this leads to justified resentment. And that resentment can be exploited by industries that want to slow down the transition to clean energy. For example, some utilities have sought help from NAACP chapters to oppose rooftop solar, based on the idea that the benefits of solar are going to mainly white and affluent households, shifting costs to everyone else. The utilities' argument is shaky at best, with little evidence that solar cost-shifting is anything more than a minor issue, but there is no escaping that black communities have not gotten a proportionate share of the benefits of solar.

I'm mostly focusing on solar power today because the issues with rooftop solar are glaring. But advocates have also raised equity concerns about access to electric vehicles and energy efficiency services.

I asked Alvaro Sanchez, environmental equity director at The Greenlining Institute in Oakland, California, about the steps needed to begin fixing inequities in clean energy. His organization works to reverse racial disparities in economic opportunity, and energy is a big part of its efforts.

"What I have been thinking about in the last couple of weeks has been that it almost feels like finally everybody sees what we have been saying for a very long time," he said, "that systematic oppression, white supremacy and racism are really at the core of the way we've developed everything here." 

So how do we begin to deal with this problem as it applies to renewable energy? Sanchez thinks that the government needs to take a leading role to make sure that the benefits of clean energy are available to everyone. The government is a leading funder of research and development for clean energy and provider of subsidies for projects, and he wants to see this funding come with more of a focus on equity.

Ultimately, he said, this is good for business, because renewable energy companies would be reaching many more potential employees and customers.

The Path to 90 Percent Clean Energy by 2035 (With No Cost Increase!)

A new report says the United States can get to 90 percent clean energy by 2035 in a way that adds millions of jobs and reduces energy bills.

The report, from the University of California, Berkeley, and GridLab, brings together several important threads in energy policy and economics to show how the country can move almost completely away from fossil fuels.

David Wooley, one of the co-authors and a Berkeley faculty member, said in a conference call that the benefits of this transition could help to repair the economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic.

"The benefits of a 90 percent clean power sector are so large that it is not only feasible, it's essential that we achieve it to hasten recovery from the current crisis, and to avoid or mitigate a next one driven by climate change," he said.

The report looks at the environmental and economic implications of going to 90 percent carbon-free electricity, which would involve a major expansion of wind, solar and energy storage. This would save money for electricity consumers because the costs of renewable energy continue to decline relative to the costs of fossil fuels.

Among the conclusions: Greenhouse gas emissions would drop by 1.6 billion tons per year in 2035 compared to today, while the growth in the clean energy sector would lead to 500,000 new full-time jobs every year and a decrease in wholesale electricity costs of 13 percent.

The think tank Energy Innovation did a companion report that takes a deeper look at the policies that would help to bring about this scenario. The recommendations include a federal clean energy standard that would call for the country to reach 90 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035 and 100 percent by 2045.

In the conference call, I asked how much of the changes spelled out in the report are because of market forces and how much are because of policy changes.

Sonia Aggarwal, a co-author of the Energy Innovation report, said that the electricity market is responding to the low prices of renewable energy, but that progress is not fast enough to address concerns about climate change. She said the current market is constrained by the actions of regulators and the fact that some of the leading energy companies have been slow to phase out fossil fuels.

In the current political environment, it is difficult to imagine that Congress would pass a national clean energy standard.

But political viability isn't the point, at least not right now. The authors are aiming to show what the path to a clean grid looks like, which is an important step toward building support for making it happen.

Students Successfully Push Salt Lake City Schools to Commit to Clean Energy

A student-led effort at the Salt Lake City School District culminated last week with the school board voting unanimously to commit to 100 percent clean electricity by 2030 and fossil fuel-free transportation and heating by 2040. 

"We wanted to uplift and include the diverse variety of students voices across the district to make sure that the school board knew that this wasn't just two or three kids wanting this done," said Andie Madsen, a senior at West High School, who started the clean energy conversation at her school last year. "This is a huge student-supported initiative."

Salt Lake City joins school districts in Los Angeles, Milwaukee and San Francisco that have committed to transitioning to clean energy. 

Students from Salt Lake City School District led a campaign for the district to commit to 100 percent clean electricity by 2030 and fossil fuel-free transportation and heating by 2040. Photo Courtesy of Lisa Hoyos

Students from Salt Lake City School District led a campaign for the district to commit to 100 percent clean electricity by 2030 and fossil fuel-free transportation and heating by 2040. Photo Courtesy of Lisa Hoyos

Organizers held fundraising events and rallied classmates, parents, teachers and businesses.

The school board approved the resolution during an online video meeting.

"Thank you for holding us accountable for this," said board member Samuel Hanson, praising the students who worked on the issue.

Though Madsen graduated last week, she is excited to see what younger students accomplish in the coming years. Moving forward, a task force of Salt Lake City students, parents, teachers and community members will oversee the implementation of goals established in the resolution.

Mahider Tadesse, a rising senior and co-president of the East High environmental club, sees the initiative as a first step toward tackling environmental inequity and environmental racism in Salt Lake City.

"There's a disproportionate impact with all of the refineries and the freeways, and the airport," she said. "They all contribute to the poor quality, and that's where most of our minority communities live."

Reporter Nicole Pollack contributed to this story.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN's weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.

Facebook Twitter Google Plus Email LinkedIn RSS RSS Instagram YouTube