The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Economic Impact and Diversity held its second annual Justice Week from Oct. 30–Nov. 3, 2023, as a hybrid in-person and virtual event. With the event, DOE aimed to inform stakeholders regarding progress in advancing clean energy, ensuring that investments toward combating climate change, meeting environmental objectives, and securing a stable energy future are used appropriately throughout historically underserved areas.
LEDs Magazine sat in on the virtual program for Wednesday, Nov. 1 — Energy Justice Day. While this is a not a complete summary of each program session, we will provide an overview of key topics. The theme of the day was community engagement, with a range of speakers engaging in sharing specific case studies, clean energy projects, administration and funding opportunities, and public outreach initiatives — all designed to provide a multifaceted view of the climate challenges, ecosystem impacts, local business economies, and solutions to improving power infrastructure and creating a more resilient community.
Straight out of the gate, Shalanda Baker, director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, stated that in order to move forward effectively, every citizen, administrator, and community action organization must understand and commit to participating in a multipart approach to energy justice, which she said “is about procedural justice, distributive justice, restorative justice, [and] recognition justice.” Director Baker described her office’s mission as sending out a call to “see [underserved] communities whole” by understanding their past and present struggles, systems, and services “to imagine a better future.”
Early in the day, Molokai resident Leilani Chow outlined the difference passion and cultural values have made in engaging citizens of the Hawaiian island in energy-planning projects supported by the Sustainable Molokai initiative, where she serves as energy coordinator. “Our superpower…is living in a community where people really care about each other and the place we call home,” Chow stated, which can sometimes lead to concern over new ideas and development proposals — for good reason. The island community’s main priority is preserving its ecosystem and native islander history and culture while improving its local economy and infrastructure.
While the island has lacked “top-down energy planning” in the past, Chow explained, community leaders, residents, and advocates such as Sustainable Molokai have collaborated to improve leadership structure and a process for coming to a consensus on municipal plans that impact everyone. Chow pointed out that involving the citizenry in information gathering, analysis, and infrastructure decision-making “empowers the community…[to make] huge initial investments” with confidence that they are preparing for an efficient and sustainable future to the benefit of every inhabitant. The model could certainly be applied in many local communities, she concluded.
Later, during a panel led by Veronica Jackson, Energy and Environmental Justice Policy advisor, DOE representatives and community recipients of federal funding shared how programs have been leveraged in several different types of community infrastructure projects, driving energy systems advances into locales that have outdated and overtaxed systems. Wahleah Johns, director of the Office of Indian Energy, put the need to address urgent climate impacts on tribal lands into perspective. As a result of frequent wildfires, some tribes have supported clean and/or renewable energy projects by developing microgrids for resilience and stability, she said. Still, plenty more communities have not yet seized the opportunities available to adopt these resources, and lack the financial and operational support to implement such grids.
Solar Energy Technology Office program manager Nicole Steele described how the government’s Community Power Accelerator was just such a program launched to help distribute energy capital to communities in need. Part of the three-phase prize program’s directive has been to work with renewable energy project developers as well as lending institutions to understand the complex needs of specific communities, guide them through a consistent information gathering process to meet solar project eligibility requirements, and provide additional technical assistance with launching projects.
Tinice Williams then relayed the unique challenges posed by natural disasters along the Gulf Coast in New Orleans. As executive director of Feed the Second Line and Get Lit Stay Lit programs, Williams is entrenched in the NOLA community, citing its need for support in the wake of hurricanes and coastal damage. The community action programs rely on participants known as “Culture Bearers” to provide food and electricity via microgrids installed at local restaurant businesses when there are locals who cannot evacuate the area during a major outage. Williams said local economies can take advantage of renewable energy rebates collected by such business owners who funnel them back into the community to help with bills and home repairs, and other expenses – building a network of neighborhood support and fostering even greater community spirit.
This dialogue continued into the afternoon sessions. Energy hardship and community disintegration along the Gulf South region was a specific focus during the afternoon panel “Community Voices from the Ground.” Invited community leaders shared their recommendations on how DOE could help secure the region’s energy future, and protect the air, water, and ecosystem since the area is heavily affected by the petrochemical industry. Each participant concurred that partnership between DOE resources and municipal leaders, community representatives, and local energy economy developers would greatly lift the region’s quality of life, travel economy, employment opportunities, and environmental stewardship efforts.
Our 30,000-foot view at LEDs Magazine is that the renewable/clean energy transition poses enormous opportunities as well as challenges across the United States in terms of decarbonization, energy efficiency, grid stabilization, municipal services, and advanced building equipment. More events and deep guidance on the funding and technical assistance programs available will spur new ventures in all communities, but the distribution of investment must be strictly managed to ensure that the goals of the Justice40 initiative are met, to the benefit of citizens most in need.
Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.