Lessons from the Past – Energy Democracy for All

Rufus Stokes

Rufus Stokes (image via Wikipedia)

by Anthony Giancatarino

February is Black History Month – the country’s way of recognizing and celebrating the contributions of African Americans that have made America more cultural rich, more prosperous and more democratic.

This month, let’s also remember the role that African Americans played in improving the way we use and create energy.

Lewis Howard Latimore improved the production of carbon filaments to create a much more stable and reliable light bulb in the 1880s. David Crosthwait laid the groundwork in the 1920s and 30s for efficiently heating large buildings by creating a better boiler and thermostat control for heat pumps. Because of Crosthwait’s innovative work, Radio City Music Hall was known for years for its heating efficiency. In the 1960s, Rufus Stokes helped lay the groundwork for reducing gas and ash emissions from power plants, helping to protect the air and environment from harmful pollutants.

These inventors deserve to be honored for their ingenuity and foresight, particularly at a time when African Americans were treated as less than equal citizens. They should also remind all of us that Black people and all people of color in this country have more to contribute to move us to a sustainable energy future for all.

Today, leaders of color across the country are working hard to participate in a healthy energy future.

Let’s look at a few examples:

In Boston, three non-profits are creating a cooperative multi-racial Energy Service Company where the workers who provide weatherization services will also be the owners. Efforts like the Green-Collar Jobs Campaign in Oakland connect two major goals: cutting energy consumption by weatherizing homes and creating jobs that provide pathways out of poverty.

In the South, the Black Family Land Trust is bringing together Black farmers in Mississippi, Alabama, and North Carolina to develop strategies to create cooperative wind farms. In Arizona, the Black Water Mesa Coalition established the Navajo Green Economic Plan. This plan “created a structure through which tribes control the influx and use of green jobs funding, directing it toward local economy project such as wool mills and farmers markets.” The Coalition is also moving towards a solar initiative to transform coal fields into solar arrays owned and operated by the Coalition and its members, providing clean and renewable energy to the greater Southwest.

Lastly, in the Williamsburg and Bedford –Stuyvesant sections of Brooklyn the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition, comprised of 40 community-based organizations, assisted by the Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, are developing a far-reaching enterprise focused on both energy conservation and generation. Building relationships among developers, private companies, city councilors, planners, and the utility company, the effort has opened the opportunity to create the first-ever energy-plus community, producing more energy than it consumes. The plan is to create jobs in manufacturing energy-efficient goods, create energy through wind and solar installations, and empower a community-run energy service delivery company to negotiate with the utility around distribution and pricing.

The past tells us that communities of color are innovators and assets to a sustainable energy future and the present tells us that communities of color are continuing this tradition.

But while these communities are working hard to innovate and lead the way, the movement to develop local renewable energy projects still operates with little support and few opportunities, particularly in communities of color who face additional barriers in ownership, financing, and access to technology. Creating a sustainable energy future is possible but we will need an “all hands on deck” approach which means that all Americans have a role to play, including people of color – this means creating better policies that can help eliminate the barriers and ease the challenges for adopting renewable energy projects.

This is the challenge for creating an Energy Democracy today and is the subject of our new report “Energy Democracy: Supporting Community Innovation” launching this Wednesday.

Stay tuned.

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The Race to Democracy Blog is the news, analysis, and media center for the Center for Social Inclusion (CSI). CSI is a national policy strategy organization that works to transform structural inequity into structural fairness and inclusion. We work with community groups and national organizations to develop policy ideas, foster effective leadership, and develop communications tools for an opportunity-rich world in which we all will thrive.

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