Developing 100% Equitable Renewable Energy Policy From the Ground Up

July 24, 2019 by Amy Vanderwarker

Renewable energy policy has emerged as a major focus of many statewide advocates, community-based organizations and legislatures. Already in 2019, several statewide renewable energy bills have been passed, including New Mexico’s Energy Transition Act, Washington’s 100% Clean Energy Standard, New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, as well as similar legislation in Colorado and Maine. These build off previous legislation in California, which enacted a 100% renewable energy bill in 2018, and ambitious targets already established in Hawaii. The policies all differ in their timelines and goals for transitioning to renewable energy, what is counted as renewable, and their commitment to equity. But each new piece of legislation passed is an indicator that efforts to move statewide renewable energy bills have significant momentum, especially in the face of ongoing actions at the federal level that undermine progress to address climate change.

But what would it look like if all these bills were based on principles of a Just Transition and equity? What if each of these renewable energy bills prioritized the impacts on communities most impacted by pollution and fossil fuels, while ushering in the democratic, regenerative energy systems that our communities and the planet so desperately need? Unfortunately, far too often the expertise of community-based organizations is not included in the policy-making process, or groups are called on at the last minute to support a bill that does not sufficiently address the needs of their communities. 

In May of 2019, the 100% Network gathered together eight community-based leaders, all working directly with Latino, Black, Native American, Asian Pacific American / Asian Pacific Islander, and rural white communities, representing urban and rural communities from across the country, to discuss these exact issues and lift up the incredible knowledge of community-based organizations. Over the course of a day and a half, we engaged in discussion and yes, geeked out on policy details, to dig deep into the core policy elements needed to craft a truly equitable, just policy for 100% renewable energy that can achieve a Just Transition. 

Participants in the May frontline leaders meeting

We started by sharing our experiences working in diverse, frontline communities across the country around renewable energy policy. What have been the inspiring successes? Where have we run into tough policy issues which are difficult to navigate? For example, Native Renewables shared their experience developing solar energy on Tribal lands. On the Navajo Nation, despite the vast amount of electricity historically exported from polluting coal-fired power plants, 15,000 homes still lack access to power. With long distances between homes, getting them connected to grid-tied electricity is not necessarily economically feasible, making decentralized renewable energy installation more sensible for many. Some past efforts to develop small-scale renewable energy projects have floundered because of the lack of training and long-term maintenance to address problems with the systems. Unfortunately, the end result is defunct solar infrastructure with broken parts that becomes more of a nuisance, rather than a benefit. Other organizers shared experiences of implementing important energy efficiency upgrades for low-income homes, which is a critical component to transitioning off fossil fuels, only to see low-income home owners have their property taxes increased, creating more housing instability. 

Using a participatory model, we dove into the weeds on energy policy: what are the most effective ways to ensure frontline communities are benefiting from a transition to renewable energy? What policy solutions can connect the need for reliable, affordable and electrified mass transportation to renewable energy build-out? How do we create an energy safety net for low-income communities and communities of color? 

The rich discussions are now shaping a new document the 100% Network will be releasing in Fall 2019, the “Building Blocks for 100% Regenerative & Just Policy.” Grounded in the Just Transition framework, the document lays out the components of an ideal 100% renewable energy policy that focuses on equity and justice. The goals of this project are too:

  • Align around frontline, community-led solutions and leadership, and create a shared analysis and understanding of what it will take to meet our vision.
  • Learn and share what is working, identify specific policy and programmatic solutions, in addition provide and assemble content to guide and evaluate the work.
  • Build relationships across the movement between frontline, greens and intermediaries to create space for the discourse and trust-building necessary to move collaboration forward on 100% equitable, renewable energy policies. 

The Network is engaging in a thorough process to develop and vet the Building Blocks document, including hosting the May gathering of frontline leaders, as well as gathering additional input from other environmental justice leaders across the country and technical experts. We also took some time at our meeting to discuss what, if any, are the capacity gaps amongst frontline groups and how this new document and the Network can better support to community-based organizations in leading 100% renewable energy policy efforts. 

Community-based organizations meeting with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, Chair of the Progressive Caucus

Of course, the expertise of community-based leaders should be informing policy development right now! We took some time out of our agenda to discuss key aspects of an equitable, 100% renewable energy platform with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who sponsored federal 100% renewable energy legislation in 2017, and is currently Chair of the Progressive Caucus. Our goal was to ensure that policymakers at the highest levels are aware of the inspiring work of environmental justice organizations across the country, and hear directly from these leaders about what equity-based renewable energy policy really looks like. 

The hope of the 100% Network in creating this policy document, with the leadership and expertise of our frontline members, is to deepen understanding, foster a conversation on ideal policy design, and support the capacity of frontline communities to lead 100% renewable policy efforts. Stay tuned for the release of the Building Blocks document in Fall 2019!

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— Amy Vanderwarker is a consultant, formerly with the California Environmental Justice Alliance 

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