Recently, the National Policy Alliance made waves claiming that net metering policies create more inequity and harm to low-income communities and communities of color. Net metering is a mechanism that allows a household to receive payment or a credit for generating renewable energy that is tied to the electrical grid. The NPA is right to raise concern for communities of color and low-income communities when it comes to our energy system. Yet, as Brentin Mock writes over at Grist (here and here) the argument is short-sighted and actually hinders opportunities for communities of color.
Most of us would agree that our current state and federal energy policies are not completely equitable or inclusive. In fact, we have written in the past about how our current policies don’t adequately address structural challenges around property ownership, permitting processes, and government planning efforts, among other challenges, to make renewable energy a reality for everyone.
Yet, people created these policies. Therefore, people can shape these policies to work for us! If we are to work towards racial equity in our energy system, we should not advocate for rolling back potentially transformative policies like net metering; instead, we should change them to work better for all of us.
To move towards racial equity in our energy system, we must vehemently demand action on two levels:
- Demand more generation of renewable energy not less;
- Generate renewables locally and in community to realize full economic and political benefits.
First, the current energy system and the solutions that the dirty energy industry proposes, kills. Communities of color are more likely to live near coal power plants and oil refineries – suffering from asthma, cancer, and other life-threatening health concerns. Solutions like clean coal, waste incineration, or natural gas will continue to pollute the water and air and won’t be enough to make a dent in the environmental and health burdens that our communities suffer from.
Quite simply, renewables equal healthier environments for communities of color. Renewables mean less reliance on dirty energy and saves us from firing-up peak power plants that are the most detrimental in communities of color. Therefore, we should encourage the development of policies and programs that create more renewables, not less.
Second, how we generate renewables matters. Yes, having a utility stop producing coal and instead produce solar will be better for the environment. While these solutions may cut carbon, without intention and action, these solutions will also extend the status quo economy. And in that economy in which we are currently living – communities of color continue to lose out, with higher unemployment rates, disproportionate low wages, and lack of decision-making power on how and where energy is created. Further, new research shows that locally owned renewables equals strong local economies. So, it is not enough just to allow investor-owned and utilities to control all renewable generation, because it does not change the economic opportunity for low-income communities or communities of color, the country’s fastest growing demographic. To ensure that the most marginalized share in the economic boom of our energy system, we need to change policies and tools that promote economic benefit, living wage jobs, and opportunities for ownership.
Finally, this brings us to the attempt to debunk net metering. Sure, net metering isn’t perfect. But that doesn’t mean we throw it out, or add cost-prohibitive fees on people trying to participate in solar PV. That would be like throwing out a watch because you don’t have the right battery.
We can, and should, do net metering. And we can do it better because we have the leadership to do so and communities are hungry to participate in a new energy economy. We should:
- Improve and design net metering programs that allow for excess generation to be paid to owners (this will actually benefit low-income and people of color who are more likely to “use less” energy).
- Support virtual net-metering policies, which allows for community aggregation so people who don’t own homes can actually join together in a community project;
- Consider policies like true value of solar that accounts for customers using the grid AND the environmental and health benefits or renewable energy to ensure people receive the right benefits;
- Combine net metering with other programs, investments or policies that help finance and support community participation such as on-bill finance in Hawaii, or Energy Investment Districts.
Not only will solving these challenges create a more level playing field for participation in renewable energy generation, it also builds a more democratic way of how we control and create energy. And that is a huge win for all of our communities that could last over generations.