Viral Inequality and Climate Justice

Several cities have modeled an economic recovery that centers environmental justice. Political will is necessary to ensure a safer and healthier future for all communities.

May 7, 2020, 7:00 AM PDT

By Joan Fitzgerald

Neighborhood Development Corporation

The Higher Ground neighborhood Development Corp marches in the October 2019 Black Cowboy parade in Oakland, California. | Sheila Fitzgerald / Shutterstock

Evidence is accumulating that both incidence and death rates from Covid-19 are higher in low-income areas and communities of color. Blacks and Latinos are being hit with a double whammy in the Covid-19 pandemic. They are more likely to be in low-income jobs that leave them exposed to the virus—delivering groceries and packages, stocking warehouses, preparing catered snacks for airlines, working in unsafe packinghouses, providing care for the elderly, etc.

Because they live in neighborhoods that tend to be highly polluted, Blacks and Latinos are more susceptible to asthma and related conditions that leave them more vulnerable to the virus In New York City, for example, the Bronx has considerably more cases than the other boroughs, concentrated in predominantly Black and Latino areas that also have the highest rates of pollution and asthma.

We need to make sure that the factors that created this disparity are addressed in a post-Covid recovery. The strategies need to address not just the perils of low-wage work, but the high-pollution environments where so many low-income people live. And several cities are showing what can be done.

For example, Oakland's climate action plan creatively addresses the unequal distribution of environmental harms. West Oakland is one of several local low-income communities of color that are unjustly burdened by hazardous and polluting facilities.

West Oakland is home to three freeways, the port, a wastewater treatment plant, and a jet fuel-powered peaker plant that all contribute to high levels of pollution and result in higher rates of asthma, stroke, and congestive heart failure and lower life spans than more affluent communities in Alameda County. West Oakland is a priority community for the city's program to achieve deep carbon reductions in buildings along with fuel switching—replacing natural gas stoves and space and water heating with electric units.

Fuel switching improves indoor air quality and reduces emissions. A new Rocky Mountain Institute report reveals that gas stoves produce significant indoor toxic emissions, with higher risk in low-income households. Citywide, fuel switching alone could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent. Making buildings more energy efficient would result in another 12 percent reduction. While fuel switching improves air quality, efficiency measures help to reduce energy burden—a documented disparity in which low-income families spend a higher proportion of household income on electric and natural gas utility bills.

But there's more to Oakland's justice-oriented climate action planning. East Bay Community Energy, a community choice aggregation program in Alameda County created in 2018 with a mandate to buy 100 percent clean energy, approved three purchase agreements for solar power and battery storage in 2019 to provide enough power and energy storage to replace the 40-year-old peaker plant in West Oakland. The solar arrays will be placed on the roofs of low-income housing and provide 500 kilowatts of power and 2 megawatt-hours of storage capacity.

In addition to reducing the energy burden and providing cleaner air, the strategy will benefit residents by creating a more resilient power supply. Solar plus storage acts as a virtual power plant that can be drawn upon if the power goes out—accidentally due to storms or deliberately to prevent wildfires as PG&E has done.

San Francisco-based Sunrun is the developer of the project. It is one of several projects that will allow the company to democratize renewable energy by developing at least 100 megawatts of solar on affordable housing in California neighborhoods where more than 75 percent of tenants earn less than 60 percent of the median income. 

Daniel Hamilton, Oakland’s sustainability manager, says Oakland has funding mechanisms in place for part of this work through a $600 million infrastructure bond passed by voters and statewide zero-interest on-bill financing that are paid back with energy bill savings. Oakland and Alameda County offer the Energy Upgrade California program offers rebates to residents and building owners, as much as $4,500 for a single-family home and $750 per unit for multi-family buildings. 

Oakland also draws funds from California's Low-Income Weatherization Program, which promotes switching from fossil-fuels to electric heat pump technology, a move that can electrify more than 90 percent of California's residential thermal energy use. Further, Energy Upgrade California, a public goods charge on investor-owned utility bills is another funding source. Finally, Oakland's work receives funding from the state's Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing program, which is using proceeds from California's cap and trade program to install solar on low-income multifamily housing. The program will offer more than $100 million in rebates through 2030. Low-income residents will receive credits for the energy produced.

Oakland is a pioneer but not an outlier. The municipally owned Austin Energy’s Community Energy program allows customers to subscribe to receive all their energy from locally produced renewable sources. In early 2018, Austin Energy signed a Power Purchase Agreement with Power Fin Partners for its second community solar project, the 2.6 megawatt (9,054 panels) La Loma Community Solar Farm in the low-income community of East Austin. The customer rate, which can be locked in for 15 years, is a little over a cent higher per kilowatt than Austin Energy's regular rate.

Austin Energy is further committed to making half the energy from the farm available to low-income residents who qualify under the utility's Customer Assistance Program at a reduced rate of $.0277 per kilowatt and to providing free weatherization services to income-qualified residents who subscribed to La Loma's solar power. The program provides free insulation, window and door sealing, and appliance replacement. The discount is subsidized through Austin Energy's Community Benefits Charge.

We know how to improve building energy efficiency to reduce the energy burden. We know how to combine solar with storage to create clean virtual power. Existing financing models make doing both a feasible alternative for addressing the viral inequality affecting the nation's low-income neighborhoods. What's needed to make these strategies more broadly available is the political will.

Joan Fitzgerald is a professor in the School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Her latest book, Greenovation: Urban Leadership on Climate Change, was published this March by Oxford Univ. Press.

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