As the U.S. begins to transition away from fossil fuels, policymakers are confronting a host of social, economic, and health burdens caused by the existing energy system.
Innovators in the energy space are examining these issues through the lens of racial and social justice, acknowledging that communities of color often bear the brunt of such problems — such as higher utility bills, heightened susceptibility to air and water pollution, and increased vulnerability to natural disasters.
This connection is giving rise to the growing field of energy justice, according to Shalanda Baker, the newly named deputy director for energy justice at the U.S. Department of Energy and author of “Revolutionary Power: An Activist's Guide to the Energy Transition.”
“Energy justice specifically focuses on the ways communities should have a say in shaping their energy futures through policy involvement … as well as ensuring that the policies that we're developing, particularly in this moment of energy transition, don't have unequitable impacts on the most marginalized communities,” said Baker, speaking last fall at a presentation hosted by the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative.
Baker, a professor of law at Northeastern University, is co-founder and co-director of the Initiative for Energy Justice, which aims to deliver equity-centered energy policy research and technical assistance to policymakers and frontline communities. She spoke with faculty co-director of the Sustainability Initiative, on ways to place equity at the center of energy policy design.
Here are four of her takeaways:
Energy justice is a community proposition
Baker underscored the importance of including communities on the frontlines of climate change and environmental harm, such as those impacted by weather disasters or displaced by large-scale wind developments.
“We should be forming policy with their concerns at the very center,” Baker said. “So they're not only having a seat at the table, but they're able to share in the social and economic benefits of energy policy.”
Social compassion must inform technological progress
“We have to begin to understand the ways that the technical rules associated with energy policy and climate policy have distributive consequences,” Baker said .
That means that decisions made in a vacuum can disproportionately affect and even harm underrepresented groups.
“To folks who consider themselves technical and removed from the social, I would say: Begin to think about how [your] decisions are actually playing out in sections of the society who are already the most marginalized around us,” she said.
If equity is to drive policy, future tech-oriented policymakers, economists, and engineers need to approach solutions with that in mind, even if it’s not part of their training.
“It’s so important for those with finance backgrounds, with technical engineering backgrounds, to really begin to think about the broader social context in which their decision-making takes place,” Baker said.
For instance, Baker pointed out that rate design, the framework used by regulators and utilities to set prices for energy and electricity, isn’t designed with lower-income customers in mind. Instead, it’s created in a vacuum.
“Rate design in this country has a disproportionate impact on the poorest folks because they end up paying a larger overall percentage of their income to meet energy needs,” Baker said. “These are technical decisions that are the product of … scientific analysis and economic analysis,” she said.
But they need to be configured with social repercussions in mind.
“They have intimate impacts on people’s lives, on health impacts, and decision-making around household needs,” Baker said.
‘Big Green’ needs to modernize
Many long-standing "Big Green" organizations, such as the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund, have been “narrowly focused on reducing emissions at any cost and have been fairly tone deaf to some of the broader concerns around climate equity and energy equity,” Baker said, though this is changing. (In 2020, Ramón Cruz became the first Latino president in the club’s 128-year history.)
Part of the problem is the lack of research on how policies and smart design underscore racial disparities. She pointed to solar implementation as a prime example, noting an access disparity for communities of color.
“We just don’t have enough information about how these policies are playing out. We need more people focused on doing racial disparities analysis on solar adoption,” Baker said.
Don’t overlook equity in favor of urgency
Baker pointed to California as a place of opportunity and potential focus.
“If we think about California and the wildfires that are happening, we can move to harden that centralized infrastructure, or we can put the utilities in that state through a little bit of pain to create more decentralized energy development through microgrids and other sort of mechanisms,” she said.
Microgrids could help vulnerable populations withstand natural disasters in the future, ensuring alternative sources of power during times of crisis, but they require society to reimagine the status quo.
Climate issues are pressing, and need to be solved soon. But in the rush to solve problems, we can’t overlook social justice, Baker said.