What would you do if the cause that lights your day turned out to be trapping fellow citizens in the dark?
For Shalanda Baker, a professor of law and public policy at Northeastern University, thinking about a clean energy future means thinking about the daily, weekly and sometimes invisible ways that people in deprived communities can control their power supply. Her work — in blogs, scholarship, professional services and a forthcoming book — reminds professionals that deals made on the backs of oppressed people are no deals at all.
Baker recently spoke with the Clean Energy Finance Forum about how her scholarship and an institute she co-runs aim to forge connections from investment committee members to utility executives to neighborhood volunteers. Read on to reckon with how a truly clean energy system runs on a clean conscience.
Alec Appelbaum: How did you start working on empowerment in an energy context?
Shalanda Baker: About a decade ago, I started writing about the structure of large clean energy projects and how they can lead to undesirable societal outcomes. I was looking at mega, mega, mega-scale wind developments. There is a lot of wind supply in very rich and diverse indigenous communities. The structure [of financing and ownership] creates undesirable outcomes. I've gone in different directions. Right now I have two strands of research. One is looking at Mexico, and the tension between climate change mitigation and justice for communities. The other big strand of my research is clean energy in states.
Appelbaum: When you're looking at clean energy and social justice, what drives what?
Baker: In the international context, private multinational actors can operate in a vacuum, [incognito] with respect to human rights violations. It would be more helpful to have oversight. In the domestic context, the problem is more about access to finance. There should be a more level playing field with all sophisticated actors. I see this energy transition as an opportunity to get more community representation out there, more grassroots vision.
Appelbaum: What are the kinds of areas best suited for grassroots empowerment?
Baker: I see lots of opportunities for intervention. One is net energy metering, trying to use that policy mechanism to focus on low- and moderate-income communities. I see it as having a lot of potential in getting folks engaged. Community-owned energy is another pathway — obviously, there are private developers that are also targeting low-to-moderate-income communities. Figuring out mechanisms through policy to incentivize that targeting would be great. We need a little more data to know where the needle is moving.
Utility reform is interesting — there's a big question as to what type of institutions are best suited to transition us away from fossil. The utility evolved with a motivation to maximize shareholder return. Now we have a good opportunity to question whether that's an optimal corporate structure. Green banks are interesting. It's still early to see how that's moving the needle. Of course, states are taking it on themselves to get clean energy. Making sure policies are embedded in them is really important.
The utility evolved with a motivation to maximize shareholder return. Now we have a good opportunity to question whether that's an optimal corporate structure.
We have to do more than lip service to procedural justice. The literature on energy just has a few components; the others are more substantive and distributive. I am excited about an initiative I've just launched, focused on making sure stakeholders have a role in the transition. The jury is still out on that — air quality is one way to measure impacts. Other aspects include recognizing that policy has operated to structurally harm communities, and another is restorative justice. I have also talked about ways to include centering low-income communities in policy.
Appelbaum: Does that call for a set of skills that public officials don't necessarily have? Is it an education challenge to develop those skills?
Baker: I love it. The Institute for Energy Justice is designed to fill that gap. I see two gaps. For well-intentioned people in utilities and statehouses who want to know-how, we want to support them with technical assistance and frameworks. On the other side, community folks don't always have technical chops — it's linguistic, translating a technical domain into social, understanding about these technical decisions.
For more of Baker's views on energy justice, watch this 2017 GreenBiz interview, recorded in Hawaii.
Appelbaum: What about the current COVID-19 crisis worries you most, and where do you see opportunities?
Baker: I see a great opportunity to advance clean energy. I was walking around today with my mask and lamenting the loss of the old world but at the same time not wanting to go back to that. That world was inherently unequal. We have a chance to infuse states with capital — if the federal government decides that that's worth it — and invest in green infrastructure, invest in communities that are most impacted by COVID which also happen to be most impacted by the fossil fuel system.
I'm working on a paper with my team, doing legwork to examine environmental justice communities and look at how much access to clean energy they have — and make the case that our first policy move should be that our communities have access to clean energy. These are communities that tend to pay 20-30-40 percent onwards for electricity.
Even in the social impact space, investors need income within the double or triple bottom line.
I'm also really concerned about what might happen post-COVID in terms of utilities and how they might do a power grab. The crisis can be used to increase rates on folks, to justify retrograde investments, any number of things. We don't have an analog to this scale of economic distress, so I have no idea what's going to happen, but I can almost guarantee that it's not going to help the poorest people. Mostly, I would like to invert that and see this as a public power grab — I'm working on a project on the landscape of utilities and seeing what their moves are right now. We need utilities, but not in the form they're in right now — public power is promising.
Appelbaum: Are there particular kinds of investors or vehicles that seem promising for empowerment?
Baker: I see state-funded green banks creating an opportunity to do wealth redistribution. Even in the social impact space, investors need income within the double or triple bottom line, and with the state you can advance more socially desirable goals without having to maximize returns. In order to create the world that we want, we may have to lean more into public funds.