Energy equity. That’s when everybody regardless of race or income can enjoy the benefits of clean power and energy efficiency. In the last few years, more and more Americans have started to generate their own solar power while using energy more efficiently, saving them money and helping the environment. But too many people of color and low-income families have had to settle for dirty energy and high utility bills.
This is a problem and energy equity is the solution.
Secure Futures’ new Business Development Associate Jeff Gowdy, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, is all about energy equity. In his short time with our company, Jeff has already helped us focus on the opportunity to deliver solar power to marginalized communities throughout the Southeast.
In an initiative to combat both the energy cost burden that black and brown communities face and the barriers that prevent people of color from transitioning to solar power, Jeff is setting out to make the clean energy revolution more inclusive.
Energy Equity as a Social Right
“Energy equity means equal access to clean and affordable energy for everyone. Our country is slowly but surely combating systematic racism in all areas, and I feel responsible to do my part in making sure that my communities have equal access to the social and financial benefits that come from clean energy,” Jeff says.
Through our collaboration with the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, Secure Futures has already helped shed light on the connection between social equity and environmental sustainability.
Research on urban heat islands in the city of Richmond has exposed patterns of climate and environmental inequity that low-income black and brown communities continue to experience due to a history of “redlining” by mortgage lenders. Before it was outlawed, redlining kept neighborhoods segregated by race. And that produced a separate but unequal allocation of resources resulting in a lack of green space and excess of paved surfaces in areas with many black and brown residents. That in turn made those neighborhoods several degrees hotter on average than areas with a higher population of white residents.
This phenomenon prompted us to learn more about “energy burdens,” defined as the percentage of gross household income spent on energy costs (electricity, home heating and transportation). According to a report by the Climate Reality Project, the median energy burden for African-American households is 64% greater than for white households, and 24% greater than for Latino households. What is clear is that the less money you make, the the more of your income you’ll have to spend on energy.
This has major implications for the health and well-being of people in these communities. “Families who have to devote higher proportions of their income to utility bills may have to make trade-offs between heating and cooling their homes or affording other necessities, such as food, medicine, and childcare.” In the United States, 44% of households, or about 50 million, qualify as low-income.
Even more interesting is that geographically, low-income households have the highest energy burdens in the Southeast and Appalachia where Secure Futures does most of our business. A high energy burden is considered to be at 6% and 10% or above qualifies as a severe energy burden. In Richmond, the energy burden is as high as 8.2%, a very scary reality for too many local families, and one compounded by the difficult economy of the Covid pandemic.
So how has this happened?
Racial Discrimination in the Energy Industry
According the National Resources Defense Council, utility providers in low-income neighborhoods areas make the lowest investment in energy efficiency programs. Then, regulations that favor monopoly utilities can make it more expensive for households and businesses to go solar, which is especially harmful to areas with lower average household income. This means that communities that could benefit the most from solar power and other energy efficient alternatives face the least access and engagement.
The problem is especially acute in the Southeast, but low-income families and people of color face high energy costs and obstacles to clean energy across the nation. According to census data used by Google’s Project Sunroof initiative, black- and Hispanic-majority census tracts — neighborhoods where African Americans and Latinos make up at least 50% of the population — had much less rooftop solar than white-majority census tracts and even census tracts where there is no racial or ethnic majority.
Not only this, but nearly half of US households typically neither own their own home nor live in a home with feasible roofs, both of which are obstacles to installing rooftop solar. Shared solar can be a good option for renters or homeowners who can’t put solar on their roof. But many can’t afford to pay the monthly membership fees for a conventional community solar project. And low-income homeowners who are blessed with solar-ready roofs usually cannot afford to invest thousands of dollars to buy or even lease a solar array.
“In order for the solar industry to reach its maximum potential, it cannot exclude certain demographic groups,” said Deborah Sunter, engineering professor at Tufts University who worked with Project Sunroof. “This is incredibly important, not just for climate adaptation, but also for social equity.”
So, it’s clear that black and brown homeowners lack access to clean energy enjoyed by other Americans.
Given this reality, it is not surprising that African Americans make up only 7.6% of the solar workforce, with the highest proportion in the manufacturing sector.
That makes Jeff a pioneer in our industry, especially in a customer outreach role, and we hope that Jeff’s story will serve as an example for other black professionals that the solar industry welcomes their talents, skills and dedication. Secure Futures is especially pleased to support Jeff’s initiative for energy equity to make it easier for people of color to go solar.
“The lack of diversity in Solar is a microcosm of the lack of diversity in STEM. I am a proud graduate of a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) and I have personally experienced the disappointment of not seeing anyone who looked like me in STEM positions,” said Jeff. “Tragically, the solar industry is very similar. Due to lack of representation, communities that would benefit the most from solar are being ignored, undereducated, and exploited in the energy sector.”
Black Colleges as Potential Solar Leaders
Jeff thinks that the best place to start making energy equity a reality is among some of the leading institutions in the black community, Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Known as HBCUs, ever since Reconstruction these institutions have been dedicated to removing limitations to career and life success through higher education. Jeff thinks that these schools will also be interested in helping to remove barriers to clean energy. The election of Vice President Kamala Harris, graduate of an HBCU (Howard University in Washington, DC), has shone a media spotlight on the 107 HBCUs across the South and beyond.
Jeff is also an alumnus of an HBCU, Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. He’s now beginning an outreach campaign to engage these higher education institutions on the financial and social benefits they can reap from installing solar.
As a member of the first African American Greek-lettered organization, Epsilon Zeta Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity INC, Jeff has extensive experience in serving his community with programs such as “A Voteless People is a Hopeless People,” “Go-To-High School, Go-To-College,” Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America, and the March of Dimes. Jeff plans to start his awareness initiative within North Carolina, as it boasts more than a dozen HBCUs.
While the majority of American universities and colleges have long benefitted from state and federal government financial resources, HBCUs have only recently been included in this support. As a result, HBCUs have been denied the range of opportunities to implement sustainability improvements that are now common across the higher education world.
Solar for Schools, Hospitals and Businesses will also Help Homeowners
As one of only a handful of solar providers licensed in North Carolina to provide on-site solar power at no upfront capital cost through a service agreement, Secure Futures will help reduce the major hurdle to commercial-scale solar by removing the high initial cost required in the past. Our intention is to make clean energy and the savings it brings widely accessible to everyone.
Secure Futures specializes in helping colleges and universities go solar. They’re good candidates for clean energy because solar helps them save money that they can put into teacher salaries. Also, solar panels right on site can be excellent tools for hands-on classroom education on clean energy technology and the exploding job opportunities in the new clean economy.
For his initiative to bring solar to these HBCUs, Jeff intends on hosting educational webinars, circulating educational materials, attending HBCU conferences and much more to raise awareness of the need for energy equity and show how bringing money savings and clean energy to everyone is more practical today than ever before.
Putting solar on college campuses will help the whole community go solar, spreading out from these high-profile institutions to churches, hospitals, commercial businesses and ultimately, homes. Described as “seeding,” or social diffusion by those who lead the study into census tracts, it’s expected that a single early adopter can lead to a neighborhood cluster of solar arrays. If even one HBCU jumps on the solar bandwagon, this might inspire a domino effect and establish a clean energy movement among this marginalized group.
As a Certified B Corp company, Secure Futures is committed to a three-pronged approach of profit, people, and planet. B Corp certification is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk. We take pride in doing good by our communities and are excited to be diversifying our efforts and making strides to combat the energy inequity that our neighbors struggle with.
“The world urgently needs to transition to clean energy as quickly as possible, according to scientists,” says Jeff. “America is going to have to take the lead. Black and brown Americans have always been at the forefront of progress in civil rights and a fair economy. Today’s challenge is just as big and our whole society will only succeed if people of color play a leading role. The interest is there. The opportunity has been missing in the past. Fortunately, we’re at just the right place to fix that and build a clean energy economy that includes everybody.”