Op-Ed: Ensuring Underserved Communities Fully Benefit from Green Economy

Energy-efficiency programs are a perfect way to generate green jobs in communities that need jobs the most
Richard Smith, left, and Dave Daly

April 22 marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Amid the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and its extraordinary impact on the health, economic and social well-being of our state, Earth Day is a historic milestone deserving of celebration and sustained action. It also is an appropriate time to recognize New Jersey’s progress in meeting the challenge of climate change, particularly as we plan for the state’s economic recovery due to the coronavirus.

Gov. Phil Murphy recently stated, “As our state responds to COVID-19, we see up close the vital link between public health and economic development, the same relationship that drives our administration’s efforts to reduce health risks from pollution and climate change through initiatives that also grow our clean-energy economy.” The 2018 Clean Energy Act and update of the state’s Energy Master Plan have helped put New Jersey on a path to sharply reduce harmful greenhouse-gas emissions that threaten our planet. As we take the next steps toward a greener future, we must ensure that disadvantaged communities share in the progress that is made, particularly as we think about the importance of energy efficiency.

While most people recognize the environmental value of solar and wind power, the economic potential of energy efficiency — which offers similar climate benefits at lower costs — has been largely ignored. Using less power could cut harmful emissions in half by 2050 and achieve nearly $700 billion in energy savings, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Retrofitting homes and businesses with modern energy-efficient LED lighting, smart thermostats and other energy-saving equipment and appliances will create thousands of good-paying jobs while also cutting utility bills for low-income residents, who typically spend a more significant share of their income on heating and cooling.

Energy efficiency is the energy industry’s fastest job-growth sector. Unfortunately, African Americans are significantly underrepresented, holding only 8% of the sector’s jobs. That statistic shows that local community voices are essential to discussions about how energy-efficiency programs are implemented and promoted to underserved communities. Energy-efficiency programs are a perfect way to generate green jobs in communities that need jobs the most.

Creating economic opportunity for those who need it most is one of the main reasons the New Jersey NAACP is working with PSE&G to implement the state’s energy-efficiency transition in a fair and equitable manner. This partnership means that PSE&G will invest capital to accomplish public-policy goals, including universal access to energy-efficiency services, as well as programs that create and support workforce development and small businesses in urban communities.

However, providing the right incentives is key to attracting the capital needed to implement energy-efficiency programs at a scale that maximizes public benefits. If done right, those benefits — cleaner air, lower utility bills and greater economic opportunity — can be shared by everyone.

New Jersey’s Clean Energy Act offers us a roadmap on how to turn the economic downturn of the COVID-19 pandemic into genuine economic stimulus, particularly for our most vulnerable communities. The act underscores the need for the large-scale deployment of capital to achieve our clean-energy goals. We believe that cooperation between business and community leaders to encourage policymakers to implement strategies that protect customers’ pocketbooks, are financially sound and are inclusive of community interests is a formula for real success. New Jersey has a great opportunity to move forward with plans to leverage the potential of energy efficiency that, in addition to saving money, reducing emissions and slowing climate change, can help grow the economy by creating thousands of jobs and business opportunities that will include communities of color.