Seven Ways to Make City Clean Energy Initiatives More Equitable

By Mansie Hough, Lacey Shaver and Zach Greene

Renovus Solar at work on a rooftop

Renovus Solar offers affordable solar solutions for everyone who pays an electric bill in upstate New York, including residential and commercial clients. (Credit: Stephen Yang)

America’s clean energy appetite continues to grow, with more than 180 U.S. cities1 committed to 100% renewable electricity. As they pursue their clean energy goals, cities are putting a range of initiatives in place — from clean energy plans to residential solar programs — to lower their emissions while also maximizing community benefits2 like improved air quality and the creation of well-paying jobs. 

While these initiatives are promising, many city governments have faced hurdles translating these goals into meaningful and equitable results. Historically, white, affluent residents have benefited from clean energy initiatives while low-income and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) residents have been left behind.3 Cities must ensure that everyone benefits from the clean energy transition.

New research from World Resources Institute and RMI’s City Renewables Accelerator4 sheds light on how cities can support an equitable clean energy transition and why it is so critical that they do so. Here are seven ways city governments can go beyond just lowering greenhouse gas emissions and build equity and community benefits into their clean energy initiatives: 

1. Engage with community members to define problems and co-develop solutions. Authentic collaboration with low-income and BIPOC community members should begin in the planning stage with a dialogue around problems and needs. Consistent engagement and participation at all stages — from data collection through scenario planning and action — is critical to overcoming challenges and reaching equitable outcomes.  

The 2020 Austin Climate Equity Plan5 used this approach, focusing on equity and community collaboration from the start. Similarly, by working with community members to develop metrics and targets, city governments can publicly and transparently track progress toward community goals like equitable resource allocation, lower energy bills and local ownership of solar assets. 

Cities should compensate community members for their time in these engagement efforts by providing participation stipends, transportation vouchers, and free food and/or childcare. 

2. Ensure that clean energy initiatives don’t worsen existing inequities. Even when intentions and data are good, the outcomes of clean energy initiatives may either fail to create more equitable cities or even exacerbate existing inequities. For example, the technical, data-driven recommendations typically found in clean energy plans could potentially contribute to “green gentrification,” when sustainability initiatives price lower-income residents out of their cities.  

City planners in Washington, D.C. used a unique risk-management approach during the creation of Clean Energy DC.6 Each of the plan’s proposed actions was reviewed for its impact on equity and amendments were made to address actions that were likely to increase disparities or create new ones. 

The risks and potential amendments such as expanded engagement with frontline communities and strategic incentives for low-income residents were evaluated by community stakeholders, local and national energy-equity experts, and the planning team. The evaluation methodology and all changes were transparently included in the plan.

3. Direct clean energy funding to BIPOC and low-income communities.  Funding-focused clean energy initiatives must have equity built into their design, with specific goals and measurements to ensure funds go where they’re needed most. 

In Oregon, the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund7 launched a grant program in 2021 for climate action that advances racial and social justice. All grants must benefit priority populations within the community, which are defined in the legislative code to include people who are BIPOC or low-income, people with disabilities and other underserved groups. 

A grant committee made up of residents representing these priority populations provides funding recommendations. Their involvement ensures that funding supports community-chosen projects, that BIPOC and/or frontline communities are involved from start to finish, and that funds are reaching the people who need them most. This contributes to procedural and distributional equity.8

4. Leverage municipal renewable energy contracting to achieve community co-benefits. City governments can use their buying power and contracting processes to expand impact beyond a cleaner grid and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. As cities sign increasingly large off-site power purchase agreements for renewable energy,9 they should include equity criteria in the bid-evaluation process.

The City of Chicago did this in one of the largest and most innovative municipal renewable energy solicitations so far.10 This massive project includes specific requirements for inclusion of equity and community benefits such as the impact contracts will have on local supply chains, job growth, and increased diversity in developer and retail supply companies.

5. Use solar development to create high-quality green jobs.  Government-led on-site solar-development projects offer a key pathway for clean energy to benefit BIPOC and/or low-income communities through local job training and employment.  

For small businesses and nonprofits to benefit from a commitment to site 25 MW of renewables on its properties by 2025, the New York City Housing Authority created a program for community solar projects built by community-based organizations and installers.11 Projects must employ NYCHA residents, develop career-path green jobs, and enroll low-and moderate-income subscribers. 

6. Improve health outcomes by deploying clean technologies. While frontline communities of low-income and BIPOC residents experience disproportionate impacts from air pollution from transportation and fossil-fueled power,12 the deployment of new clean energy technologies — from rooftop solar to electric cars and school buses — tends to happen first in wealthier communities.13  

Cities can help balance this inequity through strategic clean energy projects, as East Bay Community Energy did when it replaced a gas-powered peaker plant — a plant used during times of peak demand — with utility-scale battery storage in a low-income community in Oakland, California. The battery-storage project is anticipated to improve air quality and health outcomes — for example, by decreasing asthma rates.  

7. Remove cost barriers to solar for energy-burdened residents. When paired with energy efficiency upgrades, residential solar programs can help people living in older, inefficient housing who spend a disproportionate share of their incomes on energy bills. (This is known as “energy burden.” It’s higher for BIPOC households.) 

Washington, D.C., for example, is working with local organizations to offer no-cost solar installations to single-family, income-eligible households, with the goal of providing 100,000 low- and moderate-income families with locally generated clean energy.14  

For those who rent or who can’t afford the upfront costs of rooftop solar, community solar programs can provide similar benefits. The New York Solar for All Program, a state-administered utility-bill assistance program, provides free community solar subscriptions and credits for income-qualified utility customers.15   

While integrating equity into clean energy initiatives may seem daunting at first, cities can and must leverage the increasing body of knowledge and community of practice surrounding this issue. No matter which clean energy initiative a city chooses, each step along the way holds opportunities to engage the community, integrate equity, and maximize benefits for those who need them most. 

This is an edited version of an article initially published by World Resources Institute. It was reprinted with permission from the authors.

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About the Authors

Mansie Hough is the communications manager for World Resources Institute’s U.S. energy work. In this role, she oversees communications and editorial strategy, acts as a media contact and liaison, and authors content to help explain WRI’s work on city renewables procurement, electric vehicles, federal energy policy and more. She holds a B.A. in journalism and mass communications with a minor in creative writing from Washington and Lee University. 

Lacey Shaver is the senior manager of city clean energy within the World Resources Institute’s U.S. Energy Program. She designs and manages technical-assistance and capacity-building programs for cities, counties, school districts, community organizations and universities to help them make progress toward their climate and clean energy goals. She holds a B.A. in International Studies from the University of Mississippi and an MPA in Environmental Science and Policy from Columbia University. 

Zach Greene is the clean energy manager in the U.S. Energy Program at the World Resources Institute. He supports local governments and large energy buyers in achieving their clean energy and climate goals. This includes leading cohorts on innovative clean energy-procurement strategies, advising coalitions on wholesale-market issues, and advancing low-income community solar. He previously served as director of communications for former mayor  of Austin, Texas Lee Leffingwell. Zach holds an MPA from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and two B.A. degrees from The American University.

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