Inequity in Energy

As I reflect on the events of the past few weeks, I have been thinking about how our work at Spark Northwest fits into the movement to address systemic racism. We know that it is not just law enforcement. Racism shows up in the clean energy sphere, perpetuating gross inequalities about who benefits from the transition to less expensive green energy. We have a lot of work to do.

Black, native and people of color are much more likely to live and work near high-polluting industry and fossil-fueled power plants, with devastating effects on their health and life expectancy. Unequal impacts of COVID-19 are directly related to that disparity. Energy burdens, i.e. the percentage of a family’s income that goes to energy bills, are much higher for people of color as well.

Although we would like to hope that a transition to a clean energy future will erase the unequal health and wealth impacts, it will not unless we address root causes. So far the adoption of locally generated renewable energy has largely been the province of white homeowners. This is a confounding mismatch between who benefits from clean power and who is most harmed by the dirty fossil fuel system. The truth is most clean energy solutions have been designed by and for people with white privilege.

How can we counteract this injustice? In the coming months there is a chance that COVID recovery funds will make their way into our region. Hopefully some will prioritize clean energy and creation of green jobs. But new funding will only make an equitable difference if it is deployed in a way that explicitly recognizes historical inequities, prioritizes the needs of black, native and other marginalized people, and is designed with input from those impacted communities. Specifically, because we will inevitably have limited resources, the first priority for funds should be areas with severe environmental health disparities. This map shows exactly where those areas are in Washington.

This step would help. Even so, is it anywhere near enough? What if energy was a right and not a commodity? Would we overhaul how people are charged for electricity based on their ability to pay? Could large-scale polluters subsidize communities choosing to create their own clean energy? How can we imagine our clean energy system shifting the balance of power? These are the questions we ask as we develop our strategy for clean energy policy and projects in the coming year.

I invite you to join Spark Northwest as we explore ways to ensure the transition to clean energy is not thwarted by our racist history. The future can be better, and we are committed to making it happen.


Andrea Axel
Executive Director
Spark Northwest

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