The Energy Optimist Episode 3: Centering Energy Equity in Utility Regulation
Today we’re talking about energy equity. This is not just a term used in legislation and policy briefs–it is a concept that represents tangible and often significant impacts on people’s lives, livelihoods, and wellness. Increasingly, advocates and regulators are coming to understand that energy equity is a core component of energy regulation as a whole, not merely a policy goal to be addressed separately from the governance of the energy system. We talk with Melanie Santiago-Mosier, Equitable Energy Transition Advisor at The Nature Conservancy, to learn about how equity fits into the clean energy transition, how you can center it in your work, and where you can learn more about this concept and related best practices.
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About Our Guest
Melanie Santiago-Mosier is an attorney whose career has centered on clean energy policy and regulation. Over the past seven years, she has focused on the field of energy equity and justice. She enjoys working with teams to embed equity principles into their work, with the goal of advancing a just transition to a clean energy future. Currently, she fills that role as the Equitable Energy Transition Advisor for The Nature Conservancy. She has led similar work at organizations like Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, Vote Solar, and others. Melanie has more than 15 years of experience in state and federal clean energy policy development and advocacy. She has led legislative and regulatory work for for-profit energy companies, served as legislative counsel for the Maryland General Assembly, and was the first Legislative Director for the Maryland Public Service Commission. In 2015, she was named one of Maryland’s “Leading Women” by The Daily Record, Maryland’s premier business and legal news publication. In 2018, she won the C3E award for Advocacy from the Department of Energy, Stanford University, MIT, and Texas A&M. In 2019, she was awarded a WRISE Honor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion by Women in Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy. In 2020, she was named one of “Maryland’s Top 100 Women” by The Daily Record. Melanie holds her JD from the University of Maryland School of Law and her BA from St. John’s College. In 2020, she earned a certificate in Diversity & Inclusion from Cornell University. She serves on a number of volunteer boards, including chairing the Friends of Fort McHenry and serving as secretary of the Climate Access Fund. Melanie grew up in Heber City, Utah and today calls Baltimore, Maryland home. She enjoys spending time at Fort McHenry, hitting golf balls (she’s not good enough to call herself a “golfer”), and spoiling her cats Marvin and Millie.
Episode Show Notes
- Today’s guest, Melanie Santiago-Mosier, is an attorney whose career has centered on clean energy policy and regulation. Over the past seven years, she has focused on the field of energy equity and justice. She enjoys working with teams to embed equity principles into their work, with the goal of advancing a just transition to a clean energy future. Currently, she fills that role as the Equitable Energy Transition Advisor for The Nature Conservancy. She has led similar work at organizations like Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, Vote Solar, and others.
- The episode walks through:
- What is energy equity and a just transition;
- How the existing energy system leads to chronically unjust processes and impacts;
- And key considerations, policies, and principles for supporting an equitable and just clean energy transition, including both procedural and energy regulation solutions.
- “Understanding how to support an equitable and just clean energy transition should involve learning and understanding the impacts of our current system, which are deeply inequitable, and then, from there, learning and understanding the principles for how to change course.”
- “Allies should approach this work with humility and authenticity. Allies, regulators, and policymakers should make it a practice to ask community leaders what their needs are and what their vision is for an equitable energy future. They should seek out the voices and perspectives of energy justice leaders on the front lines and be in listening mode.”
- “Energy equity is about hope. It’s about the opportunity to make our clean energy future just and inclusive. We have the opportunity right now to get this right, to not replicate the mistakes of the past.”
- “Just transition is a way to think about how a lot of different systems work together, and how to transition away from a system that supports an extractive economy and disinvestment in frontline, environmental justice, and communities of color, and toward a system that supports a regenerative economy—it’s about economic justice, environmental justice, energy justice, climate justice.”
Resources and Further Readings
- The Justice40 Initiative is the first-of-its-kind federal program that requires “that 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain Federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”
- As part of Voices from the West, “The Nature Conservancy interviewed leaders from Tribal and Indigenous communities to learn about their experiences with energy development. The report provides a perspective on the importance of including Tribal voices in planning for energy and infrastructure.”
- The Initiative for Energy Justice has a suite of resources on energy equity and justice, from foundational definitions of key principles to scorecards, briefs, and toolkits.
- The University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability hosts the Energy Equity Project, which offers a “framework for measuring equity across energy efficiency and clean energy programs among utilities, state regulatory agencies, and other practitioners, while engaging and centering BIPOC and frontline communities.”
- The NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program offers a number of resources for advocates, regulators, and other stakeholders.
- Just Solutions Collective partners with communities disproportionately impacted by climate change to turn their priorities and ideas into policies and laws, and has many useful resources.
- The Just Transition PowerForce, launched by Emerald Cities Collaborative and the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program collaborates in pursuit of a just transition from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy, and has a number of related resources.
Radina Valova, IREC Regulatory Vice President and podcast host: Hello, and welcome to the Energy Optimist where we start with the bad news and end with what increasingly feels like a radical idea: that there are reasons for optimism. I’m your host Radina Valova, Regulatory Vice President with the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (or IREC), an independent nonprofit that’s been building the foundation for the rapid adoption of clean energy and energy efficiency for more than 40 years. Each episode, we tackle a thorny energy policy challenge in bite-sized interviews with leading experts.
If you’re totally new to energy policy, we’ll demystify it for you. If you’re a seasoned practitioner, we’ll hopefully leave you with renewed optimism to keep doing the work to improve our energy system—because hope is the fuel for change.
Today we’re talking about energy equity. This is not just a term used in legislation and policy briefs. It is a concept that represents tangible and often significant impacts on people’s lives, livelihoods, and wellness. Increasingly, stakeholders are coming to understand that energy equity is a core component of energy regulation as a whole, not merely a policy goal to be addressed separately from the governance of the energy system.
Inequities abound within the energy system. Power plants, oil and gas refineries, substations, and other large-scale energy infrastructure are often cited in black, brown, indigenous, and low-income communities, bringing with them disproportionate harms from air and water pollution and other impacts on health and well-being.
Affordable multi-family and single-family homes also have a role to play. They tend to be less well-insulated, exposing residents to harsher winter cold and summer heat. Mold, asbestos, and lead might not be directly related to energy, but they can increase the costs of weatherization and energy efficiency measures if they require remediation, and they can themselves be exacerbated by poor indoor thermal regulation.
The cost of energy takes a toll as well. One measure of how expensive it is to meet our energy needs is the household energy burden, which is the percentage of our income that goes toward paying our gas and electricity bills. The generally accepted definition is that monthly costs above 6% of our income represent a high energy burden.
According to a 2020 national report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), 25% of U.S. households face a high energy burden above 6%, and 13% of households face a severe energy burden above 10% of their income. That’s just for the general U.S. population. For low-income households specifically, the numbers are much more severe. 67% of low-income households face a high energy burden, and 60% experience a severe energy burden. The result is that, and here I quote from a report by ACEEE, “Low-income households spend three times more of their income on energy costs compared to the median spending of non-low-income households.” This ACEEE report was published in September 2020.
The impact of high energy costs has only grown since then due to COVID-19 and Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Nationally, one out of every six households is in arrears on their electric and gas bills. High energy burdens have tangible and sometimes severe impacts on individuals and families. One of those impacts is energy insecurity which Dr. Diana Hernandez, Associate Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, defines as an inability to meet basic household energy needs.
Energy insecurity may mean having to make a choice between paying your utility bill or paying your grocery bill. It can also lead residents to resort to home-heating methods that are dangerous to their health and safety, such as running a gas oven rather than central heating in order to reduce costs. High energy burdens can have ripple effects. It can worsen asthma, which can further be exacerbated by mold caused by poor indoor thermal regulation, and it can impact students’ attendance and performance in school, such as through increased absences due to asthma or other health-related issues.
This is all a sobering and unacceptable result of the way we operate our energy system today. But there are inspiring efforts to build a more just and equitable energy system. Energy equity is a movement aimed at redressing these harms. Our guest today will share some of the leading tools, resources, and solutions being implemented to ensure that energy equity is woven into the very fabric of our energy system. Because hope is not optional.
Radina: I am very excited today to have, as our guest on this episode of the Energy Optimist, Melanie Santiago-Mosier with The Nature Conservancy, where she serves as Equitable Energy Transition Advisor. Welcome to the show, Melanie. Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
Melanie Santiago-Mosier: Yes, absolutely. And Radina, thank you so much for having me. Huge congratulations to you and to IREC for launching this new podcast. This is a really exciting platform for reminding us all that the future of energy is actually very, very, very, very bright.
So yes, I’m Melanie Santiago-Mosier. And yes, as you said, I serve as the Equitable Energy Transition Advisor. I’m on The Nature Conservancy’s Global Renewable Energy Team. The Nature Conservancy is a global environmental nonprofit working to create a world where people and nature can thrive. One of the core pillars in our approach to tackling climate change is the acceleration of an equitable, renewable energy transition that advances goals for climate, conservation, and communities. We like to call that our three C’s.
In my day job, I’m privileged to work with TNC’s teams all across the world to ensure that the transition to renewable energy is an equitable one. I’ve been working in clean energy for about 15 years. I’m an attorney by training and a lot of my career has been spent in the clean energy policy and clean energy regulatory arena. But for the past seven years, I’ve had the privilege of being able to really focus in and work on the energy justice and energy equity arena. It’s been a time of very deep learning for me, and it’s been a very, very fulfilling time to be able to work with a variety of partners to advance just energy solutions.
Radina: Wonderful! Thank you so much. And it’s so great to have you with us.
If you were to advise a policymaker or a clean energy advocate, let’s say, who has not worked in energy equity previously but wants to support an equitable and just clean energy transition, what advice would you give them? For example, one particular question is, where should they start?
Melanie: It’s a great question. Let me back up a second and just frame The Nature Conservancy’s point of view and some of our thinking about clean energy.
In order to really make the clean energy transition work for people and communities and the planet, solar and wind projects are going to be needed in a lot of places. That raises the possibility for inequity and raises the possibility for conflict. At The Nature Conservancy, we believe that we need to be able to go smart in order to go fast. And so that means that the transition needs to meet the needs of communities and the environment in a fair and equitable way. Approaching the transition in this way can reduce the potential for conflict. That’s the best way for us to go in the long run. And it’s going to be a long run for us to achieve net-zero goals by 2050.
So if I were to think about advising regulators or policymakers on where to start, I think the first place that people should start is approaching the work with curiosity and with a willingness to learn. I think that new allies in the space, regulators, and policymakers should make it a practice to ask community leaders what their needs are and what their vision is for an equitable energy future.
We can’t assume what communities want, and we certainly can’t assume that all communities want renewable energy. There are lots of data tools available, screening tools available, that can really help policymakers and regulators identify vulnerable communities. But that doesn’t mean that those communities want wind or want solar. So really starting from a place of listening and curiosity, and starting from a place of authentic trust-building and engagement is key.
I think from there, understanding how to support an equitable and just, clean energy transition should involve learning and understanding the impacts of our current system, which are deeply inequitable. Then from there, learning and understanding principles for how to change course.
New allies, regulators, policymakers should approach this work with humility and with authenticity. These allies should be seeking out the voices and perspectives of energy justice leaders from the frontlines and, again, be in listening mode. Luckily, as the topic of energy equity has emerged and grown, there are quite a few examples and sources of learning and a lot of really wonderful places where new allies can start.
Radina: What an amazing answer. I think you’ve covered so much ground, and I’d love to break this down a little bit.
You mentioned that the existing energy system is built in a way that leads to unjust processes and impacts and outcomes. So I’m wondering, in your perspective, how does hope intersect with energy equity? How do we make room for hope when we’re looking at the size of the mountain we have to move?
Melanie: That is just such a wonderful question to ask. I love that question.
For me, energy equity is all about hope. Energy equity is about the opportunity that’s in front of us to make our clean energy future more just and inclusive. We have the opportunity right now to get this right, and we have the opportunity in front of us to not replicate the mistakes of the past.
So again, I go back to the learning piece. We have the opportunity to learn about why our system currently is inequitable. As you said, it’s inequitable when it comes to processes, and it’s inequitable when it comes to disproportionately harmful impacts on frontline and communities of color, environmental justice communities, and the like. You’re right that the challenge is big.
Our energy system is over a century old, and it was built on this foundation of systemic injustice. So the journey to build a new system equitably, really is going to be a long one too. We can’t undo things all at once. It’s going to take a lot of work, and a lot of concentration, and a lot of intentionality to get it right. But that’s the opportunity in front of us. That is what, to me, is so exciting.
I look at how far we’ve actually come. One thing that gives me hope is that we can point to monumental successes that we’ve achieved by acting more justly in partnerships with communities of color, tribal nations, and other disinvested communities. I think about the incredible policy work and implementation work being done in states like Illinois and New York, where frontline communities led the way to some of the country’s most ambitious climate and clean energy laws. I look at the elevation of environmental justice voices in the current presidential administration, where we’re seeing this amazing Justice40 Initiative that has the ability to really turn the tide and really make all of federal government look at how we can approach this more equitably. How do we do resources more equitably? How do we do our processes more equitably?
Then what gives me hope, too, is seeing that, on the ground, community-based work is being done by frontline leaders who too often go unacknowledged. But they, too, are now starting to get the recognition they deserve. And they’re just starting to get the funding they deserve to do their work. There are all these wonderful things happening that just keep igniting that spark of hope within me.
Radina: That is excellent advice for regulators and advocates and others seeking to start this work. Thank you so much. Can you share any resources that listeners might be able to go to for more information?
Melanie: Absolutely. I would be happy to.
First off, the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability has been doing some amazing work. They have an Energy Equity Project housed within that school where they have put out an energy equity project report that, honestly, I use as one of my go-to resources. Additionally, they have put together a whole suite of data and mapping tools that allows people to really dig into different indicators of energy inequity to look and see visually where are impacts happening, whether they be good impacts or negative impacts. So that’s a wonderful resource.
The Initiative for Energy Injustice is one of my favorite sources of learning when it comes to energy justice and energy equity. They have a couple of different tools that are called scorecards that I think are really, really important—particularly for policymakers, policy advocates, and regulators—because their scorecard tools specifically look at different types of parameters, different types of components of the policymaking process and the clean energy development process that regulators, policymakers, advocates are going to be involved in, and allow you to kind of score how well did you do in your process to achieve energy equity. They’ve got some wonderful things. They have an energy equity workbook. They have a lot of webinars, quite a few resources. They have a 100% clean energy tool there as well. Great resources.
NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program has done some amazing work over the last few years on energy justice. On the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice web page, you’ll find a whole host of resources and toolkits that, again, provide a lot of learning but also resources and practical tools for embedding more equity into your clean energy and renewable energy efforts. I was reminded today as I was speaking with one of my colleagues who used to be in that program at NAACP, one of the resources that we worked on together that we were very proud of is a set of principles called The Equitable Solar Policy Principles. That’s the kind of thing that you can find on their website, as well as toolkits and manuals, lots and lots of things.
I’ve been very impressed with the Emerald Cities Collaborative and an initiative that they started called the Just Transition PowerForce. The Just Transition PowerForce is a community, really, of energy equity practitioners and, really, on-the-ground folks who are deep in this space. They’ve put together several materials. For example, they’ve put together materials to look at energy power purchase agreements, and are those equitable? They’ve put together evaluation tools and things like that. So really some very interesting things going on.
Then, as I mentioned, at The Nature Conservancy, while we’re a little bit early in our journey in embedding equity into our renewable energy work, I think that we’ve got some really great tools in place and papers that we’ve put out that I think can be helpful for allies who are, again, interested in learning some of the different dimensions of the space.
One of the papers that I think is really incredible is called Voices from the West. This is a paper that involved interviewing tribal leaders from across the western United States. The paper really just highlights different comments and different aspects of interviews from these leaders of the sovereign nations. It really gives some phenomenal insight into what they’re thinking about when it comes to renewable energy, what they’re thinking about when it comes to a clean energy transition.
The Nature Conservancy also has some interesting tools available called Power of Place and Site Renewables Right that are not exactly focused on energy equity. We’re really starting to embed energy equity into those tools. But really, those tools are looking at the opportunity to think through citing renewable energy in places where the lands may have been degraded or previously used. For example, brownfields or former mined lands. Those tools are helping us think through also how can we engage with communities in those spaces, and make sure that they are benefiting equitably from a transition from using those lands in a way that was probably pretty harmful in the past, to a way that hopefully will be better for them going forward.
Radina: Thank you so much. I think this is an amazing collection of resources. Thank you for taking the time to go through those details. We’ll make sure to link to everything in the episode show notes, so folks can access them more easily.
You mentioned a couple of terms that I’m not sure all listeners, particularly folks who are new to the energy equity space, will be familiar with. Can you take a moment to describe for us what we mean when we talk about disinvested and frontline communities?
Melanie: Sure, I’d be happy to.
I’ll start by saying, while there are definitions available, I don’t know that there’s one singular authoritative source of definitions on everything. These are terms that are commonly used that generally get to the same meaning but might vary a little bit. So when I talk about historically-disinvested communities or disinvested communities, I’m talking about groups of people, groups of individuals, who have been impacted by the legacy of implicit and explicit activities that systematically, systemically, devalue them and withdraw resources from them.
Thinking through disinvested communities, these are communities where, through public policy, there has been a systemic approach to making sure that these communities did not receive investments. In many ways, actually, policies were designed to make sure certain communities—communities of color, tribal communities, what we refer to today as environmental justice communities—these are communities where we talk about being disinvested where policies and programs were designed to extract from them rather than invest in them. So that’s what I talk about when I talk about disinvested communities.
Then we talked about frontline communities. Frontline communities is a little bit, I think, easier to understand. Frontline communities are populations who are most impacted by multiple and cumulative sources of pollution and climate impacts due to their proximity to toxic facilities like factories, fossil fuel refineries, neighborhood oil drilling, freeways, other different types of polluting facilities and polluting infrastructure. Often, these are communities who don’t have access to clean drinking water or public investment.
Again, often, frontline communities are also disinvested communities. Frontline communities really refers to the fact that there are a lot of communities who are just very, very close to, and therefore are going to be feeling the impacts of polluting facilities and infrastructure in a very intense way.
Radina: Thank you for those clarifications. I do feel that the words we choose have tremendous power and are very important both in the policy space and generally, because they can help ground us in the reason why we’re doing this work and recognize that when we’re talking about energy equity, for example, we’re not just talking about something like energy affordability or access to clean energy, that these topics are part of a much broader systemic set of issues, barriers, disinvestments, and decisions. So I really appreciate those definitions and also your recognition that there isn’t necessarily a single widely-accepted, word-for-word definition of these terms, that they all carry the same intent but may have slightly different wording.
You also mentioned the Justice40 Initiative. Can you take a moment to share a little bit about what that is?
Melanie: Absolutely. The Justice40 Initiative, I think, is a truly groundbreaking executive-level initiative that was initiated by our current president very, very soon after he took office. The Justice40 Initiative says that 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments must flow towards disadvantaged communities. (Here’s another defined term.)
Across the federal government, investments in things like clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transit, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce development in the new clean energy economy, remediation and reduction of legacy pollution, the development of clean water infrastructure, things like that that the federal government is involved in and is funding, 40% of the benefits of those investments now through this executive order must flow to disadvantaged communities.
So I feel like this is really something groundbreaking in terms of the actions that we see our federal government is starting to take in recognizing the need to be more intentional when it comes to investments in and benefits flowing to disadvantaged communities.
I really feel like this is an interesting moment. Because the concept of the 40% came actually from the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act that was passed in New York State in 2019. That 40% number was insisted upon and advocated for so strongly by frontline communities in New York State—the New York Renews coalition, environmental justice groups, energy democracy groups. All of these grassroots-level frontline groups came together and really worked together beautifully and really crafted that 40% number.
It was specific to New York State for a very, very good reason. Because 40% represents the population of low- to moderate-income households in New York State. And so what the current administration, the current presidential administration, did was sort of lifted that and said, okay, as a federal government, we’re going to follow that example.
In the future, I would hope to see a little bit deeper analysis by the federal government in terms of thinking through what is now an equitable level of investment in and not just benefits flowing towards communities. But I think that the Justice40 Initiative is a really, really good starting place.
Radina: We’ve spent quite a bit of time so far in the episode talking about how or what regulators, policymakers, advocates may need to think about in supporting energy equity.
Can you share any thoughts on what we can do to support the on-the-ground leaders and frontline communities? I love that you mentioned that that is something that gives you hope, that so many people have been and continue to be rising up to do the work. What can we do as allies to support them?
Melanie: That’s a phenomenal question. I’m so glad you asked because we really have a huge opportunity in front of us. I think there are a lot of ways that people in the advocacy space, regulatory, and policy space can be supportive of the leaders in the communities that have been leading on environmental and clean energy work, and continue to do so.
With resources, I think, that we can work together to do even more.
I think about resources like capacity and funding. First of all, when it comes to funding, I think that it’s really a time for anybody in a funding space—whether it’s in the philanthropy space, whether it’s in the advocacy space, the corporate space, the government space—to really be much more intentional about directing funding resources to these ground-level communities who are doing amazing work in their communities and beyond their communities.
From there, I think a little about capacity as well. Interestingly, with the Justice40 Initiative and knowing that a lot more funding was going to be coming from the federal government, with the intention of being directed towards ground-level and frontline communities, there all of a sudden was this recognition that smaller community-based organizations might not have the resources and the capacity and the bandwidth to do all the paperwork to apply for that funding. You just have [to have] the hands available to do the applications, to administer all the funding from within the organizations themselves.
I’ve seen some really wonderful efforts from philanthropy and partner organizations to work to build capacity within those organizations, providing technical assistance, providing just assistance with things like applications and the like. So I think that there’s a lot of room for us to be thinking more, and on a grander scale, about what can we be doing to help organizations who are already doing the work to have the capacity, have the organizational capacity, to really be able to scale up and do the work a little bit bigger, a little bit more impactful for their communities.
For me, it also starts from a place of—I talked a bit earlier about listening and approaching communities with curiosity—one thing that comes to my mind when it comes to supporting communities is making an effort to understand communities and where they come from. I think it’s really important for those of us who want to be supportive to do our homework a little bit before going out to approach communities. This is, I think, just an initial step to build trust.
Thinking through a tribal nation, if I were to want to approach a tribal nation, even in a posture of wanting to be supportive and in partnership, it’s on me to do my homework, understand the history of that tribal nation, understand their struggles, understand their challenges, understand what they value, understand their priorities. My understanding of the community will never ever be perfect because I’m not part of that community. But having a community’s context in mind, I think, is just incredibly important as you even start the process of thinking about how to support a community.
Then two, there are so many aspects of what we’re trying to achieve now that involve engaging with communities, wanting to get communities’ input into our thinking when it comes to projects, our thinking when it comes to policies, and then from there, designing and even implementing them.
From the start, I think it’s really important to think through what it means to actually do deep and authentic community engagement. Part of that means meeting the community where they are. And so, for me, I’ve got to think about, “Who are the people in the community that I want to hear from?” “Where are they physically?” I should be going to them. “Are people working nine to five?” If so, how can I bend my schedule to be able to accommodate their schedules? Regular people have kids. And so, if I’m in a posture of wanting to have people come to a meeting with me, maybe I provide childcare. I provide food. I help with transportation resources.
Those are really, I think, concrete things that we can all think about very easily. That’s kind of low-hanging fruit, honestly, when it comes to supporting communities to be in partnership with us.
Radina: That is such a great point. Thank you. And I agree that making engagement within the energy space more accessible is, in a sense, low-hanging fruit.
Some states are starting to do it. I think some public service commissions—thanks to a lot of pressure from community-based organizations and advocates—have started, for example, to hold hearings at times that enable people to go within the communities as well. But that does seem to still be the exception, not the norm. So definitely, I think this is part of the solution. Hopefully, more people will start picking up these really simple steps.
This episode focuses particularly on energy equity, and justice. But as you have highlighted throughout our conversation, there are other important frameworks that can guide energy decision-making. One of those, for example, is you’ve talked a lot about tribal nations and how to support them in their effort to adopt clean energy, to redress historic harms related to energy and how it has been produced and delivered or not in communities that don’t currently have access to electricity, for example.
That is not a discussion before public service commissions, because public service commissions don’t have jurisdiction, and it’s really not very often discussed in the energy space.
Other frameworks can include energy democracy, just transition, climate justice. And it makes me wonder, are these frameworks truly separate and individual from each other, or are they part of a comprehensive whole? What advice would you give to policymakers and advocates and others working in this field on how to treat them as a comprehensive whole? I guess that was a very leading question.
Melanie: You’re asking a great question. Yeah, a little bit of a leading question. But I agree with you. Yeah, for me those different frameworks really are a part of a larger dialogue around environmental justice, and climate justice, and energy justice. They are all interrelated.
For me, what I found helpful is really thinking through the just transition framework as a way to think about how all of these different systems work together. Just transition is a term that has been used for quite some time. A lot of your listeners might be familiar with just transition relating to workforce. Workers who currently work in the fossil fuel industry may need support to transition to a clean energy economy. That’s certainly a part of a just transition. Again, that’s been a bit of a traditional use.
Today, just transition has a broader meaning. The Just Transition Analysis Framework and Strategy is one that was led by an organization called Movement Generation. They’re affiliated with the Climate Justice Alliance. This is a framework that really is a way to think about how a lot of different systems work together and to think about how to transition away from systems that support an extractive economy. Again, thinking through that disinvestment in frontline, environmental justice, communities of color. So thinking about how to transition away from a system that supports an extractive economy to a network of systems that support a regenerative economy.
And so, for me, this just transition framework is awfully helpful for bringing it all together. It’s about economic justice. It’s about environmental justice. It’s about energy justice. It’s about climate justice. It’s about a lot of different systems. Again, thinking through, “let’s stop being extractive and let’s be regenerative.”
My advice for new allies, new policymakers who want to enter this space, and regulators and advocates is to think about it like that. What can we do to support this transition to a clean economy, and make sure that we’re moving away from technologies, wealth models, and the treatment of our people and our planet that today and historically is extractive and towards technologies, wealth models, and the treatment of people and our planet that is regenerative?
I do want to touch on energy democracy a little bit, because I think that’s an important piece of this systems thinking framework. Energy democracy really is an exciting principle. This is a principle that requires building relationships with tribal and Black communities and others who have borne the most negative impacts of our current energy system.
It means seeking their guidance, understanding their energy priorities, and their values. It means ensuring that this transition to clean energy reflects what they need and value. It means they get to share in the power of planning and decision-making. And for many communities, this means even owning their energy assets themselves. And so it really goes to democracy. What is democracy? It’s “we all get asay.” We all have a place at the table. We all have power in decision-making. And taking a little step further towards energy sovereignty, a community gets to own. A community gets to have control where they’ve been deprived of ownership and deprived of control in the past.
So I think those are a couple of interesting concepts that your listeners probably are starting to hear a little bit more. We’re starting to hear about energy democracy and energy sovereignty a little bit more in the conversation around energy equity and energy justice.
Radina: We are, and that is really encouraging. And I hope that listeners walk away from this episode hopefully with renewed optimism for the work and with a commitment to viewing energy equity and everything that we’ve talked about today as not a separate issue from how we regulate energy, but as the guiding framework for it, as you’ve said so well throughout our discussion.
Melanie: There are a lot of things that give me hope about how we can achieve a just transition. Some of what gives me hope are just real concrete examples going on right now that demonstrate what a just transition can look like.
One of my favorite examples is the Sunset Park Solar project in Brooklyn, New York. This is a community solar system that’s owned and operated by a cooperative of local residents and businesses. One of the organizations involved in the Sunset Park Solar project is a local environmental justice nonprofit called UPROSE. They’re building a community solar array on top of the Navy Terminal in Brooklyn.
Again, it’s community-owned. It’s community-operated and managed. The people who are benefiting from that solar array are community members who are saving money on their electricity bills, and they’re generating wealth for their community. This is an example of the type of project and the type of effort that, really, a just transition is all about. This embodies energy democracy, energy sovereignty for the community, wealth-building, regenerating in the community, and moving away from extraction.
This is an environmental justice community. This is a community on the industrial waterfront in Brooklyn, New York where there has been a lot of industrial pollution, a lot of other impacts from industry, a lot of transportation impacts, lots of things going on there. It’s just so exciting to see this really, really powerful local community taking their power and building power quite literally. And it’s quite wonderful.
Then there are lots of examples of indigenous nations in the U.S. leading the way on community-led renewable energy. One example I like is that there’s a Native American-led group called the Indigenized Energy Initiative. They’re working with tribal communities in the Midwest to break colonial constructs and to elevate tribal sovereignty when it comes to energy.
Indigenized Energy Initiative is, again, working with a number of tribal nations under an approach that’s culturally sensitive, inclusive, and systems-based. They’re supporting tribal nations’ goals to develop and own their own solar resources. At the same time, they’re growing workforce development and job opportunities. This Indigenized Energy Initiative, I believe, is working with around about 10 tribal nations across the Midwest. They’re diminishing poverty. They’re working to mitigate the effects of climate change. Again, they’re achieving sovereignty within tribal nations using the power of the sun. I just think that’s so, so cool and just, again, something that sparks hope for me and keeps me optimistic.
Then one project I wanted to point too that The Nature Conservancy is working on is in Southwest Virginia. It’s called the Cumberland Mining to Solar Project. In the Appalachians, in the Eastern U.S., this is a region that is covered in forests. It’s full of biodiversity. This is a region that also used to be a hotspot for coal mining, and that was central to the local economy. But as the mining industry has shrunk, communities in the Appalachians have faced growing unemployment and leaving behind acres of degradative lands. The Nature Conservancy is working in partnership with Dominion Energy, Sun Tribe and Sol Systems in working to develop solar energy on those degraded warmer mined lands in that Cumberland Forest region.
And so when issuing the RFP for solar developers, we specified that only projects on former mined lands would be considered. And we also said in our RFP that proposals needed to specify how they would engage with and provide environmental and economic benefits for the local communities in those mining communities. In the RFPs, we talked about jobs—temporary and permanent jobs, local jobs, job training programs, local hiring commitments, support for community organizations, and more. When this project is built, we’re looking at about 120 megawatts across the board on a few different parcels that will be built on about 1,700 acres of land that used to be used for coal mines, again, in Southwest Virginia.
It’s just super exciting to be a part of an organization that is thinking like this—how can we use land better for renewable energy projects but make sure that we’re really thinking clearly about engaging with communities in the area in an authentic and partnership manner, and also making sure that the communities are going to be realizing benefits from those projects?
Radina: Thank you so much for those amazing examples. It really is so encouraging to hear all of the amazing work that these groups and people are doing. Thank you, Melanie, for joining us today. It’s been wonderful having you as our guest. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and passion with us. And I look forward to hearing all about the great work you’ll continue to do.
Melanie: Thank you, Radina. It’s been awesome talking to you today.
Radina: And that’s it for today’s episode. A huge thank you to Melanie Santiago-Mosier for being our guest, and to you for tuning in. Yours truly with optimism, Radina.
This episode of The Energy Optimist was produced and recorded by Radina Valova, edited by Mari Hernandez, Gwen Brown, and the team at Podcast Engineers. And graphic design was provided by Nicole Wilson. If you enjoyed this episode of The Energy Optimist, subscribe to our email announcements about new episodes by visiting IRECusa.org/TheEnergyOptimist. Or you can find us on your favorite podcast streaming service.