Op-Ed: Making the Case for Clean Energy in Frontline Communities

Laureen M. Boles | July 23, 2019 | Opinion
Prioritizing solar and battery storage in low-income communities and communities of color would create economic opportunities where they’re most needed

Laureen M. Boles
Climate change is the greatest existential threat that we have experienced. Yet the threat of climate change is not equal in all communities. The legacy of environmental racism has caused communities of color and low-income families to bear the brunt of disparate pollution and climate impacts for many years. With every major storm, flood and fire, we see the racial and economic disparities that exist every day in our society amplified and intensified.

This was certainly the case for New Jersey residents during Hurricane Sandy, where four of the five hardest-hit counties were among the poorest in the state. Communities of color and low-income communities are often located close to toxic industrial sites and natural gas pipeline infrastructure, have lower quality building stock, and lack adequate savings and insurance to rebound after a catastrophic event. These frontline communities are where climate change is being experienced first and worst.

In New Jersey, African Americans make up 21 percent of the total population living near oil refineries, and 74 percent of the state’s brownfield sites are located in communities below the poverty line. As policymakers shift from establishing a bold vision for our clean-energy future, to the details of implementation, we must acknowledge the significant burden already borne by frontline communities.

In 2017, I called on the next governor of New Jersey to integrate environmental justice and equity directly into our state’s climate change strategy. Recently, Gov. Phil Murphy released the first draft of his Energy Master Plan, meant to serve as an outline for how to achieve New Jersey’s ambitious climate goals by 2050.

Murphy’s plan provides seven strategies to drive New Jersey’s clean-energy transition and establishes ambitious targets, including making all vehicles electric and getting all electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050. But by far the most important part of the plan is the recognition that we cannot achieve climate change resiliency in New Jersey without addressing the disparities endemic in low-income communities and communities of color. This is acknowledged by the plan’s sixth strategy, which calls for support to community energy planning and action in low- and moderate-income and environmental justice communities.

By prioritizing the deployment of clean technologies like solar and battery storage in frontline, low-income and environmental justice communities first, New Jersey will take an important step toward resilience and unlock economic opportunity in communities that need it most. The Energy Master Plan must ensure that the right incentives are in place for frontline communities to benefit from New Jersey’s clean-energy goals.

Lower electric bills, emergency backup power

Rutgers University recently completed a study comparing the cost and application of different energy storage technologies, which will be essential to ensure that variable resources like solar and wind can supply New Jersey residents with energy 24 hours a day. The study found that distributed clean-energy storage, like batteries powered by rooftop solar, can deliver significant benefits for environmental justice communities in the form of lower electric bills, emergency backup power, and supporting the growth of electric vehicles. Additionally, these clean-energy resources will bring jobs and community revitalization in areas with high unemployment.

A recent paper by the energy think tanks Gridworks, GridLab and the Center for Renewables Integration also concluded that New Jersey can harness distributed clean energy to realize its goal of 100 percent clean energy. It calls for targeted incentives to extend the environmental and economic benefits of distributed clean-energy resources to realize the Energy Master Plan’s goal to “support local, clean power generation in low- and moderate-income and environmental justice communities.”

The Energy Master Plan is a move in the right direction, but still has room for improvement. The state of New Jersey can establish an incentive program for battery storage in single-family and multifamily dwellings, with a special focus on environmental justice communities. This program can be modeled after successful programs such as the Self-Generation Incentive Program in California and the District of Columbia’s Solar For All Community Solar initiative.

Let’s invest in resilient, clean-energy solutions that deliver economic benefits directly to communities. By investing in energy efficiency and community and rooftop solar projects in frontline communities, more New Jerseyans will be able to benefit from and contribute to the growth of the clean-energy economy in our state.