The Long Road to Energy Equity

a man installs solar panels on the roof of a home
October 7, 2020

How can we overcome racial disparities in clean energy? As we witness the ever-increasing threat of climate change and the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, clean energy equity has never been more important. While opportunities for people to access clean and reliable energy in their homes have increased over the past decades, the benefits have not been shared equally.

Our panelists dived into this topic, highlighting the progress underway and the work still left to do. The panelists were Deborah Sunter, assistant professor at Tufts University; Jason Carney, president of Tennessee Solar Energy Association and founder and CEO of Energy Electives; and Emily Schapira, executive director of Philadelphia Energy Authority. The panel was moderated by Kleinman Center Visiting Scholar Sara Bronin, who is the Thomas F. Gallivan Chair in Real Property Law at University of Connecticut Law School.

View panelist’s slides here.

In the last decade, the U.S. has seen great strides in home energy efficiency improvements—through home weatherization, more efficient appliances, and improved heating and cooling systems. Many homeowners are even generating their own energy from rooftop solar panels and selling excess electricity back to the grid. These improvements don’t just have benefits for the climate, they also decrease electric and heating bills and provide tangible financial gains for residents. 

But not all communities are seeing these benefits. Deborah Sunter shared her research on solar deployment by race and ethnicity. The findings showed that, controlling for income level, Black households have installed 69% less solar than white households. Hispanic households have installed 30% less. When controlling for home ownership, the research shows similar statistics, with Black homes installing 61% less and Hispanic homes installing 45% less than their white counterparts.

How do we fix this problem? In Philadelphia, Philadelphia Energy Authority is leading the way and expanding access to solar energy through their Solarize Philly program and Philadelphia Energy Campaign, which aim to expand access to residential solar and efficiency improvements and create local jobs. Executive Director Emily Schapira highlighted that in the first four years of the Energy Campaign, they have invested $136 million in solar and energy efficiency projects and created more than 1,300 jobs. By 2027, they hope to spur $1 billion in investment and create 10,000 jobs.

We also heard from Jason Carney, founder and CEO of Energy Electives in Tennessee. He spoke about navigating changing energy policy in his state and his organization’s efforts to bring clean energy knowledge and interest in energy careers to high school students. Carney remarked that when speaking to students, he lets them know there are a wide variety of energy jobs they could pursue. “There are no limitations on it,” said Carney. “Clean energy is for everyone. Just find what your talents are and what you want to do.”

Clean energy is for everyone—whether through new career paths or changes to your home. We still have a long way to go before we have true energy equity in this country. But with efforts like these, we are inching closer.

Our blog highlights the research, opinions, and insights of individual authors. It does not represent the voice of the Kleinman Center.

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