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Power Points

How racism manifests in clean energy

Getting the people in the room who understand the black experience is key to finding policies that untangle the systems of injustice. 

African Americans can't breathe.

As our institutions strain under the uprising in cities across the country, I’ve been struggling to comprehend the depth of racism in America.

I understand why these moments of police violence, the senseless destruction of black bodies caught on tape, would spark a fire that rages across this country. I also know that the tinder has been building for generations and is about so much more than this one horrific moment. Every sector plays a part. Including clean energy. 

It's no secret that there are grave inequities in clean energy. In the spirit of this moment, I turned the microscope on my own sector to ask, how does racism manifest in clean energy? 

Manifestation 1: 'I can’t breathe'

"I can’t breathe" refers to more than police violence. Black communities have been struggling to breathe for decades. 

"The right to breathe isn't just related to surviving interactions with police," said Alexis Cureton, former electric vehicle fellow at GRID Alternatives, an organization that works to bring clean energy jobs and access to low-income communities. "It pertains to surviving and being able to breathe clean air."

Dozens of studies document the racial disparity in environmental impacts, and I've linked to a number of those below. To name a few, consider that in America black people:

  • Are on average exposed to 1.54 times more hazardous pollution than white people — regardless of income.
  • Breathe 56 percent more pollution than they create.
  • Are exposed to 50 percent higher rates of particulate pollution than the general population.
  • Are more likely to live near highways, airports, refineries and other sources of hazardous air pollutants.
  • Are disproportionately exposed to toxic air pollution from the fossil fuel industry.

The impacts are also real. African Americans have higher rates of lung cancer and asthma, and are more like to have (and die from) heart disease. It’s no coincidence that African Americans are three times more likely to die from coronavirus than white people. To make matters worse, inequities in health care result in black communities paying almost twice as much in premiums and out-of-pocket expenses. 

In this way, the story of George Floyd is symbolic of many struggles in the black community. 

We have to remove the repercussions for constructive criticism around programs that don't address racial equity.

"A cop put his knee in the back of his neck and choked him to death, amid his cries for help. You can hear the dude calling for his mom," said Bartees Cox, director of marketing and communications at Groundswell, an organization that brings community solar to low-income customers. "You look at black people in America and our journey, every opportunity that we've had to get ahead has been choked out, fully, over time. Every bit of progress gets choked out."

But here’s the thing: Clean energy technologies exist to reverse this problem. The missing piece is getting them deployed at scale in the communities most affected by dirty energy. 

Manifestation 2: Paying more and getting less from energy 

More than any other racial group in the United States, African Americans struggle to afford baseline energy needs, a state known as energy insecurity or energy poverty. As a percentage of their income, black households pay upwards of threefold more than white households for energy. They’re also disproportionately affected by utility shut-off policies, leaving them more vulnerable to dangerously hot and cold days. 

Why? It’s expensive to be poor. Many solutions that save money in the long run — electric vehicles, rooftop solar, energy efficiency upgrades — require upfront costs or access to capital that exclude many black communities. 

Paying more and getting less means black households are often playing catchup. According to Cox, in some places African Americans pay more for energy than for rent. 

"We're not putting people in a situation where they can succeed if they're spending that much on their energy consumption," Cox said. 

That’s especially true for a community with fewer economic opportunities. 

"We have a lack of jobs, we have a lack of access, we have a lack of money in communities," said Taj Eldridge, senior director of investment at Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI). "Economics are a huge part of it. All of the other issues that we see, from health disparities to educational disparities, the root of that is racism and economic discrimination."

Manifestation 3: Myopic clean energy equity programs 

Well-meaning programs and incentives can go only so far if they fail to take a broader view of inequalities. 

Take, for instance, a California program that aims to increase access to electric vehicles by providing incentives to install a charging station at your home — provided, of course, that you’re a homeowner. That does little to help African Americans who have been systematically denied homeownership through redlining and lack of access to capital. 

"Inherently, that's racist," said Cureton, who worked with the program while at GRID Alternatives. "Programs like these aren't targeted at black people. They're targeted at people who always lived in California, who always had access to capital. Programs like that don't help to alleviate the systemic racism that is not only within this country but within this industry."

Cureton says that in order for these programs to work better, it’s essential for those who work in clean energy and equity to be able to talk about the shortcomings of policies without fear of losing funding or negatively impacting the organization. 

"This equity push, it looks good and it sounds good," Cureton said. "But for people of color who are suffering right now, it doesn't feel good. We have to remove the repercussions for constructive criticism around programs that don't address racial equity."

All of the other issues that we see, from health disparities to educational disparities, the root of that is racism and economic discrimination.

To be clear, this critique isn’t to marginalize the hard work of GRID Alternatives — or other equity organizations working to support underserved people, such as Greenlining Institute, The Solutions Project and New Energy Nexus. Rather, it’s a reminder that systems of oppression are intertwined and that support needs to flow to those that understand the complexity of the problem. 

"I think people get that there is an issue here," Cox said. "‘Equity’ and ‘intersectionality’ are, like, the foundation buzzwords of the last four years. It's where the big-money people are moving with their strategies. I think the next step is making sure the money gets to the right people."

Manifestation 4: Lack of representation 

Organizations that design policies, programs and products usually are controlled by white people. That lack of diversity around the table leads to a lack of diversity in solutions. 

The clean energy sector and companies with climate goals have tremendous power to change this. 

Cox, who grew up in Oklahoma, never considered a job in clean energy. His turning point was when professional peers told him about the sector and encouraged him to get involved. That type of proactive engagement is what is needed to change the racial balance. 

"The onus is on these companies to do outreach," Cox said. "Not just in the big cities, not just at Howard and Hampton, take it to Texas Southern. Go to Dillard. Go into the deep south, go into rural areas, recruit at these community colleges. Tell people about the jobs that are available, and push people into them."

Eldridge echos this sentiment, noting that white professionals are often disconnected from the deep bench of talent in the African American community.

"There's not a pipeline issue. There never was. It's a relationship issue," Eldridge said. "It amazes me when people say they can't find people to interview or to have these conversations with, because I see them in the room all the time."

This isn't altruistic. It's well documented that companies that embrace diversity perform better and have a happier workforce. 

It also isn’t tokenism. Getting the people in the room that understand the black experience is key to finding the policies that untangle the systems of injustice. 

"As it relates to shifting power and creating change, your voice can't be taken seriously if you yourself don't have an entity that represents you," Cureton said. "That's extremely important."

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's newsletter Energy Weekly, running Thursdays. Subscribe here.

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