As everything from vehicles and building utilities are turning to electricity over fossil fuel power, it’s important to ensure that no community is left behind.
During VERGE Electrify last week, Alliance to Save Energy President Paula Glover led a conversation with energy and environmental equality leaders regarding why encouraging equity has to be a priority during the electrification process so renewable energy is accessible to all communities, especially traditionally overlooked ones.
"We have some communities that are bearing the brunt of the negative impacts of the way we generate electricity," said Jaqueline Patterson, senior director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program. "And so when we think about the new energy economy where we're trying to electrify everything to make sure that access and affordability is at the foreground of how we do that."
The first challenge is ensuring that as more of the country electrifies, no community is harmed in the process. The second is making the electrification of homes and utilities affordable to all communities regardless of median income. And the third challenge is creating economic opportunities for the communities left behind or harmed by the current energy system.
Prioritizing social justice
Patterson emphasized the need for electricity setups that meet the needs of different types of people such as lower income communities that may struggle to afford utilities. She especially wants to see business models that are sustainable for the environment and for customers in lower resourced areas that haven’t traditionally had steady access to electricity.
She outlined a co-op model that would give underserved utility customers a say in how the utility business is structured to put power in the hands of the community and improve access.
"[It’s about an] emphasis for the electricity sector is to provide affordable accessible energy versus with some of the models we have [that] focus on profit… while at the same time we have people having their electricity shut off," she explained. "For us from a civil rights perspective, we feel strongly about the need to prioritize human rights."
The role of the business community
Curtis Wynn, CEO and president of the Roanoke Electric Cooperative, agreed that affordability would make electric utilities attainable for more customers. He suggested that one challenge utility companies, including Roanoke Electric Cooperative, face is finding ways to invest in expensive energy infrastructure while keeping costs low enough that customers can keep their lights on.
Wynn also said a transition to electricity needs to include a plan to safely avoid putting the burden of waste on already vulnerable communities. Many power plants throughout the country that generate electricity often put the burden of increased exposure to pollution on working class communities and communities of color. Electrifying the country should come with the ability to avoid the same mistakes of the past, Wynn suggested.
Electrifying the country should come with the ability to avoid the same mistakes of the past.
"From a general perspective, you want to make sure as we transition to the new sources of energy like solar and batteries, that there's some planning on the back end of that, that doesn't create another situation such as how do you dispose of those," he said.
Both Wynn and Patterson pointed out that underserved communities or communities that face the burden of high energy bills are often neglected. Some energy bills are disproportionately higher for some of those households due to older housing and bad insulation that makes energy usage inefficient.
"We can focus [on] what I call cross-sector collaboration," he said. "Leveraging resources that we need to address this [just] transition."
Looking to the electrified future
Both Wynn and Patterson were hopeful that the country can be electrified without creating a huge gap between different communities of customers. Wynn emphasized not including underserved households and communities will cost businesses in the long run. According to him, inclusion isn’t just a way to keep everyone’s lights on, but a way to grow new business models and build customer loyalty.
"It's not good business to [exclude customers]," he said. "I think we're proving [to] ourselves over and over again that by being exclusive we're costing ourselves while we're putting an extra burden on others."
To get to the electrified future, we need more than just the infrastructure. Patterson highlighted the need for community education to really cause a significant shift.
"We want to make sure that people are equipped to be able to fully participate and be decision makers in the new energy economy," she said. "Making sure that we provide the pathways and mechanisms for community involvement and input design decision making around this major shift, that really is going to change everything."