Energy Justice: Addressing Social, Racial, and Economic Concerns within the Cleantech Conversation

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For this article, I interview Professor Shalanda Baker, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, William Richardson School of Law. Professor Baker started the first energy justice program at the law school (which is home to a respected environmental law program already). Her work with the community and the campus has brought the concept of racial, gender, and economic justice into the cleantech conversation for the state. She has recently left her post at UH and is moving to Boston, Massachusetts. I got to sit with Professor Baker at Verge (formally the Asia Pacific Clean Energy Conference) in Honolulu a few weeks ago. Below is a condensed version of our interview.

Andrea Bertoli: Can you tell me a bit more about the Energy Justice program you started at UH Manoa, and are you planning on doing something similar in Boston at your new appointment?

Shalanda Baker: When I came here three years ago, it was a really different time. This was before the community energy statute had passed, before the commitment to 100% renewables by 2050 was made, so a lot of people were interested in using Hawaii as a testbed. The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) had issued a groundbreaking order admonishing the utility [Hawaii Electric Company, HECO] for not planning in an innovative way. So I arrived just after this had hit, and I spent the first six months of my time here interviewing everyone I could talk to about Hawaii’s energy landscape.

I write about indigenous rights and renewable energy, and as I was talking to people here the conversation tended to focus on the ‘sexy’ technical stuff about how we [as a state] were going to get to 100% with batteries, smartgrid, and these other things. But I had to keep asking, what about the people? How are poor people going to be a part of this? How can we use energy to transform lives? And it was a shocking question for most people.

After six months of interviews I came up with the concept of the energy justice program. But I didn’t know what exactly it looked like – but this is the power of the term. We can fill it with meaning, because energy justice looks different everywhere. But I knew it was about equity, I knew it was about community voices at the table. And as the only law school in Hawaii, I knew we had an obligation to be the voice and to be a bridge.

So I brought together stakeholders from around the state to discuss this gap. We wanted to create internships, fellowships, and policy around justice. Everyone was on board, including the law school. I was then able to reach out to students, and our initial meeting was about six first-year law students all interested in the idea but not sure where to go with it.

A few months later the merger was announced [between HECO and NextEra], and we wanted to operationalize the concept of energy justice. So we went into the communities around the island to hold workshops about the merger, focusing primarily on the North Shore of Oahu. We were able to share everything that we knew about the merger, with the students leading small-group discussion sessions with the community about what they wanted for their own energy future.

We then presented these findings to the PUC in the fall of 2015. And from there we got more invitations to work with people and started to build a more solid network, and then energy justice became part of the lexicon. And now at Verge, we have an energy justice track – which is such a statement to what we were able to do in just a few years around this topic.

Envisioning Hawaii’s solar future… for EVERYONE!

AB: Will you be continuing the Energy Justice work in Boston?

SB: I am actually hoping to stay engaged in projects here in Hawaii, and I’d love to keep working with the community and students here. And I intend to write volumes about my experience here, about what energy justice looks like in one of the places leading the renewables push. I’m ready to just sit down and write, and contribute to this conversation, and share how regulars can shift the conversation towards more justice for other communities.

AB: I went to a talk yesterday about small island energy transitions and sustainability for small islands. One of the questions that came up was how do we get these small islands to commit to 100% when (especially here in Hawaii) the cultural and racial dynamics are so prominent? How do we ensure community engagement?

SB: The community is not a monolith. We found so many disparate voices even in a small community. So, yes, the question of community buy-in is really challenging.

AB: For example, during the talk the presenter said we don’t want Tesla to come in and just offer solutions, they want it to be more engaging for the residents. But what does that look like when we’re working with companies that have the technology and capability – how do we bring it into the community in a way that is just and equitable and truly hears those voices?

SB: I don’t think there is an easy answer, but beginning the conversation is a part of the solution. We need to continue to bring this concept of justice to the energy conversation and making it a moral imperative. We have the opportunity to change the lives of so many people in this transition, so why wouldn’t we do that? We could replicate current inequities and reify the existing structural inequities with this transition, but it would be such a missed opportunity. So for me it’s a total moral obligation – and it means we’re all better. It’s not like someone is going to lose if we help poor people!

AB: What else are you excited about in the energy landscape?

SB: One thing I see is all these movements coming together about justice – Black Lives Matter, solidarity movements, environmental justice – movements are being led by women and LGBT folks. I’m excited to see so many women and diversity here at the Verge; so many of these energy events are all men. I hope women keep speaking out and being a part of this conversation.

Professor Baker has recently relocated to the Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, but until this month she was an Associate Professor and Faculty Advisor to the Environmental Law Program at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law and founding director of the Energy Justice Program at the school of law.

She is a 2016-17 Fulbright-García Robles Scholar. Her research explores large energy and infrastructure project development, including renewable energy projects; indigenous rights; and the effect of development on the environment. Professor teaches International Environmental Law, Climate Change and Renewable Energy Law and Policy, International Development, and related courses in energy and international development. Following her graduation from law school, Baker clerked for Justice Roderick Ireland of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. She also worked as a corporate and project finance associate for Bingham McCutchen LLP, initially in Boston and later in Japan. Professor Baker also completed a William H. Hastie Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin Law School, where she received her LLM degree.

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Andrea Bertoli

I'm a marketing and sales professional focused on mission-driven businesses. I'm a journalist, green investor, wellness educator, surfer, and yogi. Find delicious food and wellness stuff on my Instagram @VibrantWellness.

Andrea Bertoli has 119 posts and counting. See all posts by Andrea Bertoli