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ECC Advances High-Road Agenda at Congressional Briefing on Clean Energy & Communities of Color

Some 90 staff for members of the Congressional Black, Hispanic, Asian Pacific American and House Sustainable Energy and Environment Caucuses crammed a meeting room in the Capitol Visitor Center for ECC’s June 9 briefing on the need to ensure that low-income communities of color benefit equitably in the economic and health benefits of today’s clean energy revolution. While the event was primarily for staff of those caucuses, the standing-room-only group of attendees also represented other congressional offices - from both sides of the aisle – and advocacy organizations.

Moderated by ECC President and CEO Denise Fairchild, the briefing featured speakers from Green Latinos, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) and the Sierra Club’s environmental justice program.

“A major goal of our briefing, as we await the final version of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan regulations later this summer, was to insert the equity dimension into the clean energy policy discussion,” explained ECC Vice President for Policy and Government Affairs Felipe Floresca. “That’s why we wanted to bring together staff for those members of Congress who advocate for minorities with those who focus on the environment – so they could see the links between a clean, healthful, resilient environment and equity for low-income communities of color.”

The lively and engaged Q&A session that followed the formal presentations indicated that the attendees – most of whom who stayed for the entire 90-minute program – grasped the issue’s urgency and importance.

Energy Ghettos
Fairchild began by referencing ECC’s work to prevent low-income people of color from being trapped in “energy ghettos” as the nation builds a clean energy economy. Referencing the transition to a suburban economy that left low-income minorities in urban ghettos and the “digital divide” that occurred when Internet use became widespread outside of low-income communities, she emphasized that “Today’s energy revolution must fully engage low-income communities of color.”

Mark Magana, president of Green Latinos, noted that communities of color are hard hit due to their proximity to power plants:

  • 40 percent of U.S. Latinos live within 30 miles of such facilities;
  • Half live in counties that violate air pollution standard;
  • 10 percent of Latino children under age 18 suffer from asthma and other chronic respiratory ailments;
  • Latino children are 40 percent more likely to die from asthma than non-Latino whites.

Such facts should not be “the new normal,” he said. He added that efforts to price lower-income Americans out of the transition to clean solar energy, such as the surcharges some utilities are imposing on solar customers, must be resisted 

Justice for All
To illustrate the disparity between poor and affluent communities, APEN Senior Strategist Parin Shah related a “tale of two places in New York City.” Two months after Hurricane Sandy, he said, low-income residents of Chinatown were still without water and electricity and had to haul jugs of water up 10 flights of stairs to their apartments. But a short mile away on Wall Street, everything was back to normal.

“That is not the country I emigrated to,” he said. “That is not ‘justice for all.’”

He said his home state of California strove to fulfill the “justice for all” promise by adopting its own greenhouse gas reduction standards, but the unequal distribution of benefits such as jobs and business opportunities persisted.  While Malibu and Marin County residents could afford solar panels on their roofs and electric vehicles, those things were out of reach for folks living a mile away.

So the state enacted a law “to put a price on pollution from an environmental justice perspective,” he said, directing 25 cents of every dollar collected toward solutions for low-income communities comprised primarily of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans.

As a result of those investments, “We’re seeing solar panels go up and jobs being created” in poorer communities, Shah said, as well as more minority- and women-owned businesses in the clean energy sector.

Sierra Club Environmental Justice Director Leslie Fields noted the higher rates of heart disease, premature deaths and missed days of work and school among minorities. Kids who miss school, she said, “don’t catch up,” perpetuating inequality.

Financing is Key
Leading into the question portion of the program, Fairchild warned the congressional staffers, “You’ll get push-back; the utilities will try to put brakes on your efforts, by suggesting that clean energy will hurt communities of color – but don’t go for it! There IS a clean energy revolution underway, and it’s our job to make sure everyone gets into it, especially communities of color.”

The first questioner asked about access to financing for technologies such as rooftop solar. Fairchild said tools such as on-bill financing and community solar gardens help eliminate the up-front costs that keep lower-income people from adopting clean technologies, even as the price of renewable energy is dropping.

Shah added that “on-bill financing allows the utilities to be part of the game,” which can help defuse their resistance to the demise of fossil fuels.

PPAs and PACE
Shah cited power purchase agreements (PPAs) and Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) as additional ways to make clean energy more affordable.

PPAs allow customers to buy solar energy rather than the photovoltaic system itself, thereby avoiding barriers such as up-front capital costs, system performance risk and complex design and permitting processes. The customer receives stable – and sometimes lower cost – electricity, while the solar services provider or another party acquires valuable financial benefits such as tax credits and income generated from the sale of electricity.

“We need to create consistent, reliable financing for clean energy,” Fairchild said, much as financing – sometimes involving government subsidies – has been institutionalized for affordable housing PACE financing allows property owners to receive 100% financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy upgrades and to repay the financing as a property tax assessment over a term of up to 20 years.

Clean Energy Jobs
When a legislative aide from Florida asked about remedies for low-income communities that are dependent on the oil and gas industry, Fields and Fairchild conceded that such a transition can be tough. But Fairchild said the up side is the good-paying jobs being created in renewable and energy and energy efficiency.

Shah said political action is also a solution. While it’s clear that utilities must build a reliable, smart grid for the 21st century, he said, “The political process is dominated by the fossil fuel industry that is blocking this. We need to consolidate our voice, start buying back the political process and getting our people elected. We need to take action, not just talk.”

Fairchild agreed: “We must take up the challenge.” EPA’s Clean Power Plan “is a moving and complicated train. State plans are now being developed, and an equity coalition [of which ECC is a member] has told EPA what those plans should look like. The question is, ‘Where are the low-income communities of color?’ in the process.”

To help those communities take their place at the table, she advised the congressional staffers, “Find out who is the point person in the governor’s office. Put information on your website so your constituents can plug and play. 

Legislative Remedies
In response to a question about legislative strategies to address climate change, Fields referred to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and Executive Order (EO) 12898, both of which outlaw discrimination based on race. The EO, issued in 1994 by President Bill Clinton, directs each federal agency to develop a strategy for implementing environmental justice and to identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations. “We need EPA to deny funding to communities that discriminate,” she concluded.

Answering a question about income inequality and job creation opportunities for youth, Fairchild reminded the group that the Department of Labor used to fund green jobs and asked, “Can we put that back into federal appropriations?” She added that the Bureau of Labor Statistics “needs to document what careers and education are available, so young people know about clean energy career options.” Project labor agreements and community workforce agreements are tools that ensure local hiring on federal projects, she added.

An ECC High-Road Success Story
From the audience, ECC’s Los Angeles local director Veronica Soto described her work encouraging “STEAM” careers – adding the “arts” to science, technology, engineering and math – and partnering with a local community college district and its feeder high schools on a joint program allowing students to earn college credits – and even an associate degree – by the time they graduate from high school. 

EC Los Angeles also arranges “real internship opportunities” – guaranteed, paid -- that “expose and mentor” students from low-income communities whose aunts and uncles are not engineers, architects and such.

“By leveraging existing resources, we are putting students on the path to high-wage, long-term careers that will change the landscape of the communities where we live,” she said.

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