The energy transition that is now underway in the United States holds the promise of delivering carbon free energy by the middle of this century. Yet often overlooked is a second critical opportunity to ensure that our future energy system delivers benefits, and shares burdens, much more equitably than has been true to date.
Chandra Farley, chair of the Atlanta NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Committee, discusses the disproportionate environmental, social and economic burdens of our fossil energy system that have fallen on communities of color and the economically disadvantaged, and efforts to ensure that the benefits and costs of clean energy are equitably shared.
Chandra Farley is Chief Executive of ReSolve, a consultancy that works to strengthen the organizational foundations of grassroots advocacy, and founder of the Good Energy Project, which engages Black women in the effort to expand clean energy. She is running for a seat as a commissioner with the Georgia Public Service Commission.
Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Climate Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone. The energy transition that is now underway in the United States holds the promise of delivering carbon free energy by the middle of this century. Yet often overlooked is a second critical opportunity to ensure that our future energy system delivers benefits and shares burdens much more equitably. That has been true to date. The problems of energy, inequity and injustice in this country are not new, but have gained broader recognition in recent years through proposals such as the Green New Deal, which very publicly linked to energy, climate and social justice together. While federal legislative action to address the challenge of energy inequity has remained stuck in Congress. Grassroots efforts to achieve the same goal are growing. On today’s podcast, I’ll be talking with an activist whose work focuses on communities that have disproportionately borne the environmental, social and economic burdens of our fossil energy system, and who seeks to ensure that the benefits and costs of clean energy are equitably shared. Chandra Farley is chair of the Atlanta and ACP Environmental and Climate Justice Committee and chief executive of Resolve, a consultancy that works to strengthen the organizational foundations of grassroots advocacy. She is the founder of The Good Energy Project, which engages black women in the effort to grow clean energy. And she is also running for a seat as a commissioner with the Georgia Public Service Commission. Chandra, welcome to the podcast.
Chandra Farley: Thank you so much for having me, Andy.
Stone: There is broad dialog today around energy equity, energy, justice and a just transition. And to some, the meaning of these terms may seem obvious. Yeah, I think it’s important to understand the distinctions as we go into today’s conversation. Can you start us out with a level set on these terms?
Farley: Thanks to you and the Kleinman Center for having me on this podcast. When we talk about energy equity, we are talking about the fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of energy production and consumption. More broadly, energy justice refers to the goal of achieving both equity in both the social and economic participation in the energy system, while also looking at a restorative justice frame related to the social, economic and health burdens on those disproportionately harmed by the energy system. So we can look at those together, but ultimately we can talk about equity on its base as just and fair inclusion.
Stone: So a lot of the work that you do focus specifically on the challenges of achieving energy justice in the South and on the role of black women in seeking to achieve energy justice. What is it that’s uniquely challenging in the South and what is the unique role that you see for black women in advancing the energy transition and achieving energy justice?
Farley: When we talk about the south, we are talking about a region that remains laid bare by the legacy of slavery. We remain fixed on the racial, the economic and the class inequities that are and still stem from the systemic racism born into the institutional racism that continues to hamper opportunities for black people. People of color. Our rural and low wealth communities to fully participate in civic processes and particularly as it relates to the intersection of civic engagement and energy planning and decision making.
Stone: In the report that you worked on last fall and which was published by the Department of Energy around the same time, that report was called Advancing Equity and Utility Regulation. There was a particularly poignant chart that really caught my attention as I was reading through that, and it looks at the late fees paid by electric utility customers across the country, late fees that are related to people not paying their bills on time. And it shows that fees per customer are actually highest in the South. I don’t think the data was all inclusive, but from what was available, late fees are highest in Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida and Mississippi. If that is demonstrative of the South. Give me a little bit more details on why that might be what these highlight fees. You know what’s different?
Farley: So Marginalized communities in the South bear a disproportionate burden of carbon based energy production, fossil fuel and climate events. And also the Southeast is home to eighty four percent of all U.S. counties that experienced persistent poverty. So these are counties that have experienced poverty for three decades or more. Some of the biggest carbon polluters are in the south right here in Georgia. And on the flip side, southern states rank at the bottom of lists for energy efficiency policies. They consistently post the highest rankings for energy burden, which is the ratio of household income to utility bills. So the lower your income, the higher your utility bills, the higher of that burden. So when we then look at something like late fees, you know, one thing I say a lot is it’s hot down here in in the south. And one of the drivers of our household utilities is cooling,. So here in the south, we’re talking about having to run the AC a lot if you have it and sometimes being with our really energy inefficient housing where there’s cracks in the walls and windows, there’s cracks in the doors, maybe no insulation at the roof line, you know, in in the attic. All of these things contribute to inefficient use of energy, which contributes to higher energy bills. So if you look, we’ve got higher energy bills. And we’ve got a higher percentage of people earning lower incomes, then you can see where the bills pile up. People are making tradeoffs between Do I pay the light bill or do I put gas in the car, which is even harder right now, right where we’re thinking about what’s happening with gas prices.
Stone: So the energy burden is unusually high, it sounds like among these communities. My understanding is there’s a geographic aspect here as well, right? These are communities talked in the past about Atlanta, where you live, where these communities are specifically concentrated primarily in the southern part of the city. Is that correct?
Farley: Yeah, absolutely. We can look at the legacy of redlining. Redlining was the racist federal housing policy that pushed black communities into certain areas of cities and towns. They were deemed less desirable. And we can link that to phenomenons of white flight where white families moved out to the suburbs. And that is where a lot of the economic development community investment happens, leaving black communities, lower income communities in the city center and where it is hotter. We can link redlining to the urban heat island effect. We can link redlining to less tree cover, which we can actually tie back to policing practices where it’s like, Well, if we have less trees, you know, we can see better. So all of these systemic injustices, all of these practices born of systemic racism, we can tie to our energy conditions. So if you look at a city like Atlanta with, still a majority black population. We have about twenty seven zip codes in the city of Atlanta and a Georgia Tech study from about six or seven years ago and covered this, that out of those twenty seven zip codes, there were about six in the southwest part of the city, southwest Atlanta that experience an energy burden or carry an energy burden, sometimes three times higher than white or wealthier neighborhoods to the north of the city. And a lot of that is due to the disinvestment that happened due to redlining.
Stone: So you’ve got this kind of built-in situation where I would imagine you have depressed property values as well, and some of these areas that don’t provide as much income as well to make energy efficiency upgrades and things of that nature.
Farley: Absolutely right. So depressed property values lends itself and impacts homeowners’ ability to have a certain level of equity in their home, where they may be able to borrow money to make energy efficiency upgrades. We also look that we have a high renter population. And so then we get into a situation where if someone is renting a home, they’re not perhaps thinking about staying there long term. So they may not be thinking about making an investment and upgrades. On the flip side, we have the landlords who don’t live in these homes and don’t see the benefit of making the homes more energy efficient, they don’t see that the benefit comes back to them.
Stone: So, so much of your focus on energy justice as well as energy justice within the context of the energy transition, the transition to clean energy. So the next question I want to ask you is what is the opportunity and the risk that the energy transition carries for disadvantaged communities? And this seems like really to be a fundamentally a question at the heart of energy justice. What do we see as the opportunity, the risks in this transition going forward?
Farley: The opportunities are vast. We know that the transition to a clean energy economy, within a justice framework, can include a strategy for lifting people out of poverty, and advancing an inclusive economy that increases equity in the distribution of income, in the wealth, building opportunities, thriving wage employment opportunities, as well as new business and entrepreneurship opportunities
Stone: So this seems to really be a question at this point of who’s making the decision on energy policy, which influences access and affordability. And you are running for a seat as a commissioner of the Georgia Public Service Commission. Can you tell me about what the opportunities at the state level are that you see to create more inclusive decision making going forward? That will actually impact who has access, who can afford, etc. clean resources going forward?
Farley: It is critical that we have broader and greater public participation in all decision making processes, particularly for the Public Service Commission in Georgia. We are one of the unique states that actually elects our commissioners. However, at this point, three of our commissioners were actually appointed by the governor, which happens when a commissioner retires or is appointed to a different seat and in a different office. And so that’s just sort of the structure. We have five commissioners in Georgia. They represent districts, but they are elected statewide and that can and has diluted representation for the people Nd so when you look at a commission who is solely focused on and only sees their mission to provide safe, reliable and affordable utilities within a context of what the utility wants and what the utility says needs to happen. You miss an opportunity to consider the impacts on the people who are actually paying the bills. We have to focus on the greenhouse gas emissions, but also improving the lives of people, particularly those who have been most negatively impact, negatively impacted by the energy system. So we can look at a decision that the commission makes that move Georgia into a top 10 state for solar because of all that utility scale. We could take the same approach with expanding energy efficiency. Energy efficiency, like we said, not only has the ability to lower bills, it has the ability to create healthier homes, and it is a huge economic development opportunity and job creator. Energy efficiency jobs are on the rise. It is a huge sector. And when we bring more economic development opportunities, when we bring new business and entrepreneurship opportunities, we are creating a pathway to move people out of situations where the light bill is something that is unaffordable or that the light bill is something that you have to stress about every 30 days.
Stone: So it’s about representation, right? And from that same November 2021 report that you co-wrote for the Department of Energy. There’s a passage that I want to just read briefly that I think really kind of highlights some of the issues here we’re talking about. The passage says, “regulators may need to become more adept at considering input from stakeholders that has more narrative or personal than data that are traditionally presented in utility proceedings.” Can you talk about that? Qualitatively, what to the commissioners in Georgia, and anywhere need to better understand to better make sure that the needs and concerns of at risk underrepresented communities are actually heard?
Farley: Well, thank you for bringing up data because data transparency is critical. But what we also have to understand is that people are the data behind these numbers. There are people. And we have to see that lived experience as expertise, just like we value the expertise of the expert witnesses who come before the commission, that lived experience is expertise. When we are talking about, again, the mission of most all commissions centers around a safe, reliable, affordable, but we have to ask ourselves safe for who? Reliable for who? Affordable for who? And we saw this not just with our Georgia Public Service Commission, but with commissions across the country during COVID, who did not institute utility moratoriums on shut off as we were experiencing the greatest economic recession since the Great Depression. And those who had, maybe for a couple of months like Georgia did have a moratorium on utility shutoffs, but then decided to restart those shutoffs in the summer and the hottest month of the year. Projected to have been the hottest month in months ever recorded thanks to climate change. Those are not providing safe electricity, that’s not providing safe utilities, and then they’re certainly not affordable utilities. So we have to have a complete shift in how we are talking about utility regulation in the context of equity. Equity is about people.
Stone: You run a consultancy. The name is Resolve, and the stated mission of the consultancy is to create equity centered delivery infrastructure for climate justice initiatives. What is delivery infrastructure?
Farley: So when I talk about delivery infrastructure, how are we delivering programs to communities? We might have a really great program on its face. We might have a really great policy on its face. But there is a level of there’s another step after that, right? Who are we actually holding accountable to make sure that this new program is actually reaching the people that it is meant to serve? We have to make sure that that next step beyond the co-creation, even if we let’s say we do a really good job in the co-creation process and we bring communities in to co-create a new energy efficiency program or we bring communities in to create a new solar for all program. That is great. But if we aren’t taking the next step to make sure that the communities and the people that helped us co-create those programs can also access or benefit from those programs, then we haven’t, then we still have a lot of work to do to make sure that we have a level of equity and access.
Stone: Well, you really focus at the grassroots level and you look to empower people locally to actually understand what’s going on in terms of their energy consumption, how policies affect them, et cetera. And you’ve noted in the past that one of the things you’ve been involved with is community bill reading sessions so that people fundamentally understand what they’re being billed for.
Farley: Let’s think about it. How often are we looking at our bill? In these bill reading sessions, we can look at all the different things that you’re being charged for on your bills. We talked about fixed fees earlier, which on some bills in Georgia is hidden. That is the fee that people pay before you even turn on the light switch. No matter how energy efficient you are, no matter how weatherize your home is, no matter what you’re doing, like remembering your mom or your grandmother telling you to turn off those lights before you leave the room to save on the light bill. When you have fixed fees and the more that fixed fee is. You don’t even get to control that with those things. So we want people to be able to understand and see everything that goes into that total bill, all the different rates, all the different things. Here in Georgia, we have the first nuclear power plant expansion going on in the country in 30 years. It is about a seven plus years behind schedule. And the budget has gone from $14 billion to it’s going to top out, you know, this year around $30 billion. All Georgians, and quite frankly, all Americans, because of the federal incentives that have gone into this. But all Georgians have a fee on their bill to pay for that power plant, it hasn’t even been built yet.
Stone: And I understand that that that reactor is in a minority community. If I understand correctly, a rural minority community. So essentially that reactor is being paid for by communities and the reactor is in a community that’s not seeing any benefit, but seeing a line item on its bill for it.
Farley: Seeing a line item on their bill and carrying a lot of the burden. These are people who can’t grow their food, can’t fish anymore in in these areas and have been bearing the burden of this plant for over 30 years. You know, when it started, there was a lot of economic development that came into the community. A lot of excitement around, you know, the jobs that were created, the tax base for the schools and the social services. But the ROI starts to decrease.
Stone: Are there models from any states that you might bring up that show PSCs, state legislatures, are effectively starting to address these issues? Are there any models that that might apply to Georgia or other states that are really facing all the challenges we’ve been discussing?
Farley: I’ve been looking a lot at what New York has been doing with their clean energy standards. And I think that is I think that’s a good model. They are taking steps to improve utility transparency. They have blocked some new gas plant construction. So really taking steps to move aggressively towards their 70 percent renewable energy by 2030 goal, as well as a zero emission power sector by 2040. And I also really appreciate even the way that they named that legislation because it’s under, it’s called the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. And so lots of allies, environmental justice allies and environmental justice leaders have been working hard for a long time to move that forward.
Farley: Just too close, it is important that our decision makers know that the people are watching and that the people are ready to hold them accountable. And so our decision makers, our regulators, our state offices have to be put on notice. And we also have to remember that civic engagement, civic education, community building, power building is important as well, so we want to keep pushing from both sides. The responsibility lies with those who have taken an oath to make decisions, and we have a responsibility to lock arms with the people who are immediately impacted by these decisions. We’ve got to have a fundamental shift in how energy decisions are being made, and that fundamental shift has to include the voice of the people who are closest to the problem.
Stone: Chandra, thanks very much for talking.
Farley: Thank you so much, Andy.
Stone: Today’s guest has been Chandra Farley, CEO of Resolve Consulting. For more conversations on energy and climate, check out the Archive of Energy Policy Now episodes on the Kleinman Center website. The site also has a wealth of energy policy, research briefs and blogs, and you can also register for upcoming events from the center. Our web address is kleinmanenergy.upenn.edu. Thank you for listening to Energy Policy Now and have a great day.