The Clean Energy Economy: Will Blacks Get Left Behind in the Race to Green?
America continues to plod the course toward a clean energy nation – albeit glacially. Though hampered by an aging infrastructure and other factors, widespread clean energy – or power that does not, in its generation and consumption, add pollution or contribute to climate change – appears to be a certainty. Unfortunately, this particular scenario could lead to yet another great divide for African Americans.
As the world slowly moves toward increased clean energy generation, a gap is widening and hindering African Americans positioning themselves to benefit from the jobs and business opportunities that this burgeoning industry is creating. “We’re already creating this chasm. One of the greatest things about this energy transformation is that the opportunities for jobs and business creation for wealth generation in the clean economy are huge,” says Carla Walker-Miller, founder and CEO of Detroit-based Walker-Miller Energy Services.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, renewable energy sources accounted for 12.2 percent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2021. While that percentage isn’t overly impressive, it has risen sharply in recent years and should continue to do so. Allied Analytics estimates the global renewable energy industry accounted for $881.7 billion globally in 2020 and predicts that it will exceed $1.97 trillion by 2030. The market research firm cited rising demand for renewable energy, more legislative and financial initiatives, and higher electricity consumption as growth drivers.
Beyond wealth creation, that disparity has an adverse impact on health in Black communities. America’s transition to a clean energy economy can drastically reduce or exacerbate the pollution levels – and the early death due to pollution and the health effects that are prominent in Black and indigenous communities. “There needs to be an understanding of the differences between positive solutions versus what I call false solutions, which are solutions that look good on paper but actually further drive the gaps in wealth and in health that we see in America,” explained Anthony D. Kinslow II, Ph.D., an expert in energy efficiency and professor at Stanford University.
While tragic, this isn’t news. According to the World Health Organization, 80 percent of people living in cities that monitor air quality – particularly in urban low-income areas – have air pollution above the WHO guidelines. Harvard University has published studies linking inner cities with poorer air quality. “This is because of redlining in the past and the districting of industrial plants, Kinslow explains. “They gave permits to industrial plants and other industrial facilities in Black neighborhoods, and highways were designed and built through Black neighborhoods. All these things produce very unhealthy pollutants to the human body.”
A MASSIVE OPPORTUNITY
With the potential nearly $2 trillion industry, the opportunities for wealth creation in the clean economy are massive. “That’s important to people who know that we were totally excluded in the wealth created by the internal combustion engine,” explains Walker-Miller. “Black people eventually got jobs, but hundreds of thousands of [non-Black] families have made millions of dollars and created generational wealth for their families through the infrastructure that supported the auto industry.”
The clean energy movement is potentially one of the largest transformations of our time, as evidenced by the massive electrification in progress to wean consumers and manufacturers away from fossil fuels. “Taking two steps up to learn about the opportunities for jobs and new businesses that are actually going to support the clean economy is really important,” Walker-Miller advises. “This entire country is going to have to be retrofitted. If you live in a house, work in a building, and worship, then those are three places I guarantee will need retrofitting.”
Kinslow, who also heads Gemini Energy Solutions, a developer of technology to automate the analysis and report writing of energy audits, says his company is leveraging technology to eliminate some of the barriers to entry into STEM-related fields. “So now, instead of someone having to have four years of college [and] three years of training in the field, we hire people after a week of training to do the same work,” he says. Kinslow adds that many trades will be critical to the clean energy movement – including plumbers and electricians. “Focusing on these communities from a workforce development standpoint is going to be essential to reach our kind of goals.”
A LONG, SLOW ROAD AHEAD
But, realistically, the move to wholesale adoption of clean energy is still some time away, with many challenges to overcome first. Among them is that solar panels and wind turbines do not produce electricity consistently on cloudy or windless days. “Our society has become so dependent on the ready access and adequacy and reliability of electricity that most policymakers are not going to say we can just ditch all of these power plants so we can clean up the environment,” asserts Ennis Leon Jacobs Jr., chair of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a nonprofit that promotes responsible and equitable energy choices to address climate change throughout the Southeast.
However, the billions of dollars invested in developing the next generation of lithium batteries to store renewable energy efficiently are just one indicator that a transition to greener energy sources is on the horizon – even if it is a distant one. “If we’re going to transform to renewables, not only do we need batteries that can do that, we now have to figure out how to modernize our transmission grid, so we don’t have that kind of inefficiency staying still,” says Jacobs. “So we got two races that are going on. One is battery technology, and two is the modernization of the electric transmission grid to suit renewable energy technologies.”
In the near term though, it appears the automotive industry will lead the transition to clean energy, thanks to robust consumer demand for electric vehicles. Sales of new light-duty plug-in electric vehicles, including all-electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), nearly doubled from 308,000 in 2020 to 608,000 in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But even with this demand, a critical mass of consumers remain reluctant to purchase an electric vehicle due to long charging times, concerns that the battery will run out of charge before reaching the desired destination and a recharging infrastructure that doesn’t yet compare to the nation’s vast network of gas stations.
The Biden Administration’s stated goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 includes funds for cities and states to help alleviate the energy burden and implement clean energy projects that create jobs and support cleaner transportation in order to reduce harmful emissions in communities. The strategy should lead to government contracts for upgrades, retrofitting and other means to expand the energy grid and access to clean energy.
And while that is positive news if it progresses as intended, Black communities and entrepreneurs must actively participate in the clean energy economy or suffer the detrimental economic and health-related ills of being left behind again.
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