May 20, 2021
By John Hall, advisory chair
Originally published by Pecan Street on May 20, 2021. Re-published by Canary Media on May 28, 2021.
In his first few months in office, President Biden has unveiled a bold strategy to bundle the most urgent challenges with solutions that address each of them: the COVID-19 economy, unequal economic opportunity, and the climate crisis.
Consider just a few of the administration’s actions so far.
- Executive Order 13985, the strongest policies ever to advance environmental justice and economic equity in communities of color and underserved communities.
- The American Rescue Plan to address COVID-19, including the health disparities highlighted in these communities due to environmental injustices and racial inequality.
- Executive Order 14008, a bold strategy to comprehensively address the climate crisis.
- A historic infrastructure plan, which includes specific pledges to address environmental justice, economic equity and climate change. The administration set the goal for 40% of the investments made under its infrastructure plan to benefit disadvantaged communities, many of which are communities of color.
Each of these policies would be meaningful individually. Together, they are historic, and the president deserves credit for having the political courage and moral conviction to make them the centerpiece of his administration. Making sure these commitments translate to lasting economic and social change for communities of color, however, will require deliberate and long-term strategies. After all, we know that “disadvantaged communities” are the result of decades of political and economic neglect. Whether intentional or incidental, that neglect won’t be wiped out across the country with financial resources alone. Accompanying this financial commitment must be models and strategies that would effectively deliver clean electricity, clean transportation and sustainable housing to these communities and a long-term commitment to capitalize on this investment.
Democratizing the clean energy economy will take time
In nearly every form, the “clean energy economy” is currently targeted toward early technology adopters and environmental activists – two groups that skew toward higher income and white customers. Many of us in the clean energy space have been frustrated by this for years – lower-income customers stand to benefit from long-term cost savings of cleaner energy. But cleaner energy often requires upfront investments (solar panels, for example), that are difficult for lower-income families to justify. The federal EV tax rebate is tied to total tax liability and isn’t realized until the next tax year; both of these traits favor wealthier customers.
Developing incentives that directly target underserved communities will be key to increasing market uptake.
Convening with historic stakeholders
Leaders and organizations who, for decades, have advocated for underserved communities must be cornerstone participants in any efforts to merge climate or infrastructure programs with local jobs or economic equity programs. Bestowing upon these communities fully-baked solutions will likely spark skepticism. On the other hand, a thoughtful effort to highlight to communities of color the economic and environmental benefits to families, businesses and neighborhoods of clean energy and clean transportation can build trust and create trusted advocates.
Similarly, local leaders should be involved in assessing the barriers that must be removed before clean energy and clean transportation are feasible at scale in underserved and marginalized communities. Again, solutions developed by federal bureaucrats and well-intentioned think tanks won’t be as successful as home-grown ideas.
Broadband – across the board
The president rightly expanded the concept of “infrastructure” by including important issues like education and healthcare. In the 21st century economy, access to broadband is as important as access to electricity. That’s not just true for small businesses and students who need reliable, affordable and fast internet service. It’s also critical for the technology that supports cleaner energy. Most home EV chargers require broadband service to leverage their full potential. Demand response programs require always-on internet. And reliance on high-speed, always-on internet will only increase. If the clean energy revolution is going to increase equity, the whole country will need the kind of internet service that’s common in cities and wealthy neighborhoods but is scarce, expensive, or both in rural American and low-income neighborhoods.
Ready to go
The president’s vision and early policy initiatives offer a genuine opportunity to simultaneously address the economic, climate and equity challenges we face. Turning them into reality, however, will takes years of commitment and execution. We’re eager to get started.