Why do we need to talk about social justice when we talk about how our energy is produced? In short: pollution and economic inequality. The bad news is that the Trump Administration plans to close the Office of Environmental Justice, which for more than 20 years has been working to address these issues. But there’s hope. New ways of getting even more clean, solar power built are taking hold. In this article we’ll explore why we need a just energy system and how community solar offers an exciting new way for households to get involved, helping accelerate the transition to a renewable energy grid and displacing the energy from dirty fossil fuel plants.
There are important social justice issues with the way our energy is generated. Low-income and minority communities have long borne the costs of pollution by America’s industries. The Office of Environmental Justice was created in 1994 and has the goal “to provide an environment where all people enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to maintain a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.” The Office helps communities clean up the harmful toxins left behind by polluting industries, which have long-lasting effects on residents’ health. It helps rehabilitate former industrial facilities to clean, useful land and gives a voice to those who are taken advantage of by polluting industries. Despite the Office’s progress on these issues, there is still so much to do.
Dirty power plants are consistently found near low-income or predominately African American communities. According to the NAACP report Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People, 78 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, as compared to 56 percent of non-Hispanic whites. A study by Paul Mohai of the University of Michigan and Robin Saha of the University of Montana, features an investigation of the neighborhoods where hazardous waste sites were located. The investigation found “strong evidence” that these facilities are in areas with predominantly non-white and low-income groups or areas experiencing “white flight.”
The impacts of living near sources of pollution are devastating. In the U.S., an African American child is twice as likely to have asthma as a white child. And, African Americans are more likely to die from lung disease, but less likely to smoke. In communities disproportionately burdened by pollution, residents spend more of their income on healthcare bills and have to take more sick days. Where there are high rates of asthma among kids, more parents are forced to miss work to take care of their ill children. The health effects caused by living in polluted communities also make it that much harder for residents to escape poverty. An energy system that disproportionately sickens the people it should serve is not an energy system that we should stand for.
But there are more than just health costs from our existing energy system. A study examining the energy burden across 48 major U.S. metropolitan areas found that low-income households spend up to three times as much of their income on energy bills compared to higher-income households. While the median energy burden for non-low-income households is 2.3 percent, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers spend a staggering 40 percent of their household income on energy. Why is this? Low-income households tend to live in energy-inefficient residences that waste electricity and heating and don’t have access to energy efficiency programs. No one should have to choose between buying groceries or paying their heating bill. State agencies and nonprofits try to ease the energy burden, but funding alone cannot meet the needs of all communities. We need new and innovative solutions to make our energy system cleaner and more affordable.
Community solar is one solution. It enables people who would not otherwise have access to renewable energy to displace their use of dirty energy, supporting the transition to a cleaner grid. Community solar also lowers a subscriber’s energy bill by approximately 10 percent in most Northeastern states. More renewable energy on the grid in place of fossil fuels will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Displacing fossil fuels with renewables will also produce public health and economic benefits, particularly for low-income and minority communities.
Community solar has the potential to reach a lot of people. One report predicts that there will be 1.5 GW of community solar by 2020, which would be roughly equal to 6.9 million photovoltaic solar panels. Community solar presents amazing opportunities for our planet and our communities. More households choosing solar instead of fossil fuels means cleaner air and healthier people—specifically for those communities currently burdened by pollution. And more community solar means greater disposable income for households. Even with the dissolution of the Office of Environmental Justice, there are still ways we can promote environmental justice and empower our communities.
Community solar is helping build a just energy system and we want you to be a part of the movement! Check out www.ourpower.solar for more information on community solar and how to get involved.