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Will Clean Energy Infrastructure Projects Consider Neighborhoods With Energy Burdens?

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With the clean energy transition, economically disadvantaged communities are wary that — again — their neighborhoods will be the location for big infrastructure projects. The concern is warranted, according to a 2024 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. That report concludes more than 80% of existing energy infrastructure sits in neighborhoods that are low income and/or have a high percentage of people of color. Will the introduction of clean energy infrastructure follow the same pattern? What is being done to make sure the hegemonic pattern of siting is discontinued?

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Solar and wind power will need to provide up to 80% of US electricity to achieve 100% clean electricity by 2035. Yet possibilities and options for clean energy infrastructure equity don’t always play out on the ground. Discriminatory policy decisions have routinely prioritized wealthier and whiter communities at the expense of the health and well-being of underserved communities. Are environmental justice neighborhoods being saddled with clean energy infrastructure? Are they seeing their open spaces reduced? Are they being exposed to risks such as fire?

An example is the East Eagle Substation in East Boston, Massachusetts, a project by utility Eversource. It is currently under construction after years of neighborhood opposition and an overwhelming vote in a nonbinding ballot question to stop it, as reported by the Boston Globe. The resulting opposition delayed the project for years, with it now scheduled to go into service at the end of next year.

Eversource has said that the design of the substation exceeds local and federal flood-elevation standards, and that the structure will be built to withstand 500-year flood waters and take into account rising sea levels. Many residents indicated that they weren’t invited to weigh in until late in the process so that their voices weren’t heard. Environmental justice neighborhoods like this have on average low incomes, a high percentage of people of color, and/or a sizable number of households with English as an additional language.

 Environment Justice Neighborhoods

Clean energy infrastructure, which is powered primarily by electricity generated by solar and wind, is cleaner than the fossil fuel-powered plants of the last century. Environmental justice communities historically are sited near coal- or gas-fired power plants that belch out air pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and toxic emissions such as mercury that can lead to health problems.

For the first time in our nation’s history, the US federal government has made it a goal that 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal climate, clean energy, affordable and sustainable housing, and other investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution.

The Justice 40 Initiative includes investments that can benefit disadvantaged communities across one or more of the following seven areas: climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transit, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce development, remediation and reduction of legacy pollution, and the development of critical clean water and wastewater infrastructure.

Heather Cox Richardson wrote in her Substack this week about efforts to extend economic opportunity to neighborhoods that have borne the burden of past infrastructure projects. She described how, in honor of National Small Business Week, Vice President Kamala Harris launched an “economic opportunity tour” in Atlanta, where she highlighted the federal government’s $158 million investment in “The Stitch,” a project to reconnect midtown to downtown Atlanta. This project is an initial attempt to reconnect the communities that were severed by the construction of highways, often cutting minority or poor neighborhoods off from jobs and driving away businesses while saddling the neighborhoods with pollution.

The administration says that projects like The Stitch will promote economic growth in neighborhoods that have borne the burden of past infrastructure projects. Over the last few weeks, the Biden administration has announced a steady stream of final rules to carry out some of its most ambitious plans like spurring adoption of electric vehicles and protecting public lands for conservation. In the coming days, agencies will push out other key regulations, intended to help carry out the administration’s goal to decarbonize the US economy by 2050.

Clean Energy Infrastructure Assistance for Environmental Justice Neighborhoods

Low income households suffer a disproportionate energy burden — the percentage of gross household income spent on energy costs. Opportunities do exist where disadvantaged community indicators and high generation potential from cost effective renewable energy opportunities intersect. Deployment could lead to economic development and job creation.

A 2022 study by in the journal, Renewable Energy Focus outlines how counties in closer proximity to traffic and TSDFs and those with higher diesel pollutant concentrations tend to have higher potential for the development of commercial and residential rooftop PV. Counties with higher ozone concentrations tend to have higher potential to develop utility PV and land-based wind, in addition to having relatively lower-cost commercial and residential PV opportunities. Finally, counties with higher respiratory hazard due to air toxics tend to have relatively lower-cost geothermal opportunities.

Providing disadvantaged communities with data on the most cost competitive and highest generation potential renewable energy technologies in their county can enable more strategic energy planning and local development efforts. Similarly, prioritizing renewable energy investments in communities with a high prevalence of environmental hazard exposure and other disadvantaged community indicators can enhance equity in the transition to a clean energy economy and broaden access to renewable energy benefits.

Across Rhode Island, for instance, groups are planting trees, turning parking lots into community gardens, offering cooling centers, and advocating for utility justice so everyone has air conditioning and running water during heat waves. Their efforts often focus on the state’s densely populated urban areas.

Another possibility is the Clean Energy for Low-Income Communities Accelerator (CELICA), a US Federal program aimed to lower energy bills for low-income communities through a voluntary partnership between DOE and state/local governments. The goal is to better understand and address low-income energy challenges and demonstrate a wide range of locally designed energy efficiency and distributed renewable energy solutions. Low-income households spend about 8% of their income on energy costs, 3 times more than non-low-income households. Partners have committed $335 million to help 155,000 low-income households access energy efficiency and renewable energy benefits, collecting resources and lessons learned into the CELICA Toolkit.

Firms that want to better characterize social inequity climate risks can assess various community climate risk datasets. These tools help prioritize adaptation projects for funding and help coastal engineering firms to assess annual benefits and avoid damages.

Debates about clean energy infrastructure, including siting in environmental justice neighborhoods, include who will pay for new power supplies, with regulators worrying that residential ratepayers could be stuck with the bill for costly upgrades. It also threatens to stifle the transition to cleaner energy, as utility executives lobby to delay the retirement of fossil fuel plants and bring more online.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

Carolyn Fortuna has 1309 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna