Why do African American families use less energy than white households, but pay more for it—literally and figuratively? It’s true. The average African American family emits 20% less carbon dioxide than the average white household does, yet we are more susceptible to increases in energy and water costs that result from climate change. As extreme weather events like blizzards, droughts, and heat waves become almost routine, more and more black families can’t afford to heat and cool their homes. Communities of color also pay more of the hidden costs of our fossil-fuel based economy. Climate change has an outsized impact on the health and economic security of African American families, who are far more likely to breathe polluted air and live next to sources of pollution like coal plants.
But today, a revolution in clean energy gives us the chance to correct this injustice and level the playing field for communities of color. For decades, renewable energy was out of reach for most Americans. Only the wealthiest could afford innovations like solar panels and electric cars. Not anymore. Now clean energy sources like solar and wind are not only economical—they’re huge cost-savers for businesses and families alike.
In less than a decade, the United States has multiplied its production of wind power threefold, and solar power more than twentyfold. In many places, clean energy is already cheaper than conventional power. Further, consumers have more choice and more control over how much energy they use through smartphone apps and new technology. But we still have a long way to go.
Every American deserves access to clean, affordable energy. If we transition to an economy that’s fueled by 50% clean energy by 2030, electric bills in the United States will be reduced by more than $40 billion. Subsequently, families would see their disposable income increase by as much as $650 annually. The biggest beneficiaries would be low-income families, who spend a much greater share of their income on electricity than higher income households do. Just imagine: millions of Americans would no longer be at the mercy of their utility bills. Black families in particular would have a brighter and more secure energy story to tell.
Investing in clean energy does more than save money on bills—it also creates jobs that communities of color sorely need. Last year the solar industry added jobs 12 times faster than the overall economy. More than twice as many Americans now work in the solar industry than in coal mining—and a quarter of workers in the solar industry are people of color. When these clean energy jobs are created—which they absolutely must be—we have an opportunity to make sure that these are good-paying jobs and that they are available to communities of color.
In the Washington, DC, area, Mark Davis created WDC Solar to provide low-income citizens of Washington, DC, with a solar program. Since 2012, WDC has installed more than 125 solar systems in DC through tax credits and private funds, at no cost to low-income homeowners with good credit. Through his partnership with DC Sustainable Energy Utility, Mark started a program that has funded solar panel installation provided funding to install panels on more than 300 homes. And once the panels are installed, the extra power results in a profit every month—money going back into the community he’s working to transform. Mark is just getting started; this year he plans on launching programs in New York, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.
While Mark is training a new solar work force and bringing solar to the DC community, Wahleah Johns is working to bring clean energy to places that often times don’t even have electricity. Wahleah, a member of the Navajo (Dine) tribe and the community of Forest Lake atop Black Mesa, Arizona, has been advocating for native communities to diversify to renewable energy for the last decade. As a tribal member of the Navajo Nation, she’s watched resources from tribal homelands provides cheap electricity for California, Nevada, and Arizona, while her people are left to deal with pollution and dwindling water.
Working with the Black Mesa Water Coalition and Navajo Green Economy Coalition, Wahleah helped win legislative victories protecting groundwater, expanding green jobs, and advancing environmental justice. As vice chair of the Navajo Green Economy Commission, Wahleah develops economic opportunities in clean energy and traditional economic practices on the Navajo reservation.
Wahleah’s community education efforts helped establish a Just Transition Fund through the California Public Utilities Commission. This fund provides $4 million to renewable energy development on tribal lands. Wahleah helps bring solar to reservation schools and communities, and is developing a residential solar program for the 50% of Navajo Nation residents who don’t have access to electricity.
The clean energy revolution is an incredible opportunity to give African Americans a better, more just seat at the table in our new economy. Now more than ever we must seize the opportunity to reverse energy injustice and shift power to the very communities that have historically been left out.
At Green For All we see a number of ways in which we can drive this investment. There is a tremendous opportunity held within the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent clean power plan implementation at the state level. States will be developing and implementing plans to bring down carbon in the coming months and years. We must ensure that as we look at curbing carbon, we do so in a way that drives growth across green sectors, and focuses investments in the communities most impacted by carbon and pollution. We also believe strongly that polluting industries should pay for the privilege of dumping carbon into the atmosphere. In California, the value collected from the cap-and-trade system has created a fund that has been used for everything from free solar panels for low-income families, to free bus passes for youth and seniors, to millions of dollars for new affordable housing. We must cap carbon (and make sure there are environmental protections for all communities in those programs), and we can’t give away that value; we must invest in our communities.
The clean power movement is gaining steam—now is the time for us to make our voices heard. Investing in clean energy will lower our energy bills, improve the health of black communities, and create more, better-paying jobs for people of color. Now that’s real power. Throughout our network, we see individuals, businesses and organizations committed to people and the planet. We need to re-up our investment in these people and follow their lead to a future that is truly green for all.