Energy Democracy – Community-Led Solutions is a compilation of three case studies highlighting the work of communities of color developing community-scale renewable energy projects to improve their neighborhoods. The case studies identify obstacles that these projects encountered and recommend policies that would help bring all of our communities into the renewable energy economy.
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Imagine the hottest day you can remember. Now imagine that being the coldest day of the year. Climate scientists now predict this will be the new normal by 2047.
High temperatures are only a part of the globally warmed future. We have more wild fires consuming forests and destroying homes, not to mention endangering the lives of firefighters. Sea levels are rising, which means coastal areas are increasingly flooding. Not only that, rising sea levels are contributing to more dangerous storms. Whether Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy, we have seen whole cities devastated. A few hours after Superstorm Sandy unleashed her power on New York City in the fall of 2012, communities from Staten Island to Queens went dark and flooded. Many were stranded– White, Black, Latino, young and old, well-to-do and poor. Those most likely to be without water, food and heat and to have the hardest time recovering from the storm were low-income, and also elderly and disabled residents of public housing. The vast majority were people of color.
By 2042 half of the nation will be people of color. And the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy should remind us of the real people and communities threatened by climate change and the importance of ensuring that all of us, including communities of color can innovate resilience.
Despite the hardships and awful conditions, communities came together and found remarkable ways to help each other. And many of strategies to house or warm people were also innovative. In Rockaway Queens, for example, the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance housed solar generators to provide electricity for people to charge their phones and coordinate vital relief services, including getting medicine to disabled residents living in buildings with no power.
We can and must support communities to adapt to and be resilient in the face of climate change. We will only succeed when all of us are able to participate. That means community-scale solutions that include communities of color, which are both the fastest growing populations in the nation and the most impacted by climate change. At the Center for Social Inclusion, we’ve scanned the country for models, strategies and ideas that can help communities be resilient and innovative in fighting climate change. We believe this requires an “all hands on deck” to:
- Build on the strategies communities are already using to create community-scale energy;
- Understand the particular challenges and barriers that communities of color face in tackling climate change; and
- Develop policy solutions that support community-scale innovation, so people no longer have to rely on Big Oil or Big Coal to meet their energy needs.
On the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, we should look at what communities are doing to adapt and figure out how to support more ways communities can use new technologies, plan for the future and reduce carbon emissions, create jobs and save on energy bills.
What our case studies find is simply inspiring. Across the country people are providing answers to climate change at a local scale.
- Neighborhoods are aggregating their purchasing power to make energy efficiency and solar energy on their homes more affordable.
- Communities are forming worker-owned cooperatives that provide energy efficiency services or solar installations and create green jobs.
- New financing strategies are making it possible for all people, including those who don’t own their homes, to participate in community renewable energy projects.
We found exciting efforts in communities of color that hold great promise to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. This isn’t surprising because people of color overwhelmingly identify climate change as a major problem. But we found many more successful projects in Whiter and wealthier communities. This wasn’t surprising either; because we’ve been studying the particular challenges communities of color face.
This report compiles the stories of three communities of color working to develop renewable energy strategies. We identify obstacles they encountered and recommend policies that would help bring all of our communities into the renewable energy economy.
- Community Innovation in Boston looks at non-profits collaborating to create an employee-owned energy service cooperative to weatherize low-income homes and provide living wage jobs.
- Broadway Triangle: Multiracial Efforts for a Sustainable Neighborhood focuses on a neighborhood-wide planning effort to build an energy-plus housing project with 80% affordable units and its own renewable energy generation in Brooklyn, NY.
- People Powered Policies celebrates community-driven climate action planning, community-solar projects and racially equitable policies in Oakland, California.
While promising, not all of these strategies have been successful. The struggles in these communities reflect the obstacles communities of color commonly encounter because of policies and practices including:
- Historical redlining and dearth of investment resulting in a lack of infrastructure and financing for renewable energy projects and insufficient legal, business and technical expertise;
- Exclusion from planning and decision-making processes;
- Federal and state tax credits and grants that benefit higher-income homeowners and exclude tenants and lower-income households; and
- Restrictive zoning and permitting that impedes community scale innovation.
Inclusive policies can overcome these obstacles and help us all seize the opportunity to thrive in a clean and renewable energy future. Some effective policy solutions we’ve identified are:
- Mandating renewable energy portfolios, with a requirement that 30% of the energy come from local-scale generators and that at least 10% of projects be owned and operated by communities most adversely impacted by dirty energy;
- Community choice, which allows municipalities to control where their energy comes from;
- Feed-in tariffs to ensure that community-scale generation is fairly compensated, which helps vulnerable communities secure financing for local projects.
- Targeting communities with greatest need for energy efficiency and renewable energy grants and including financial and technical support to build community capacity
Despite Superstorm Sandy’s reminder of climate change’s perils, we need to remember that we can change the story. We know what is possible. We know what needs to be fixed. And we have a groundswell of community leaders working hard to innovate every day. Now is the time to support them by getting our policy priorities right. The stories that we share here show us the way to achieve energy democracy.