Energy Democracy, #BlackLivesMatter, and the NAACP Advocacy Agenda

May 29, 2015

The NAACP grounds our framing and advocacy around net metering within a construct of energy democracy and social justice.  Given the realities of our constituency, with double-digit unemployment in many of our communities, a white to black wealth ratio of 13 to 1, with African Americans making $.59 on the White American dollar, and with the rampant stripping of voting rights leaving us marginalized in a system of supposed democratic governance, all of this being overlaid with the interconnected daily circumstances of fatal encounters with racial profiling and police brutality.

So, for these beleaguered communities who constantly feel devalued by society, it is quite easy to be susceptible to messaging by the fossil fuel industry that says that net metering (already a relatively inaccessible term and concept within a convoluted and hard to digest utility business model)  is yet another regressive policy that benefits those, with race and wealth privilege, who hold the power in society, and disadvantages those who consistently get the short end of the stick, at times with deadly consequences.

Therefore when we talk about net metering, we must talk about it in the context of transitioning from policies and practices that, without our intervention, will continue to sicken and take the lives of members of our communities, by toxic exposure with 76K coal miners dying of black lung disease since 1968, while year after year the mining industry fought against regulations that would protect workers from coal mine dust;  with African American children being four times as likely as White American children to die from asthma attacks tied to poor air quality for coal fired plants and other facilities; and with the rampant loss of life we are seeing from extreme weather events in our communities and worldwide driven by climate change, which largely results from fossil fuel based energy production.

We talk about net metering as an opportunity to break fossil fuel company monopolies that are actively resistant to transition, by offering options for consumers to generate clean energy and drive this necessary transition. Through distributed generation of clean energy, we can increase community wealth and advance opportunities for communities to be in control of forcing an aggressively paced transition from a fossil fuel based energy economy, to one that protects the environment as well as the health and wellbeing of communities, while decentralizing asset development and strengthening local economies.

At the national level, the NAACP has declared energy to be a a civil rights issue and we are focusing our efforts on aggressively working to ensure that distributed generation of clean energy provides opportunities for communities of color and low income communities to participate in the new energy economy as consumers through options such as solar gardens, community aggregation, virtual net metering etc., as well as through entrepreneurship/business leadership, and employment.

With this framing, messaging, and action undergirding our work in the energy arena, the “Just Energy Policies: Reducing Pollution, Creating Jobs” Campaign has supported NAACP state leadership in Nevada, Indiana, Utah, Mississippi, Colorado, Missouri and beyond in taking a stand on supporting net metering policies that aren’t impeded by prohibitive fees and that allow us all to own a piece of the nation’s emerging clean energy infrastructure expansion.   In Colorado, the NAACP President Rosemary Harris-Lytle led on a joint letter with over a dozen groups calling on Governor Hickenlooper to protect net metering against attacks by Xcel Energy and others.  In Mississippi, the NAACP State Conference President, Derrick Johnson, will be one of the only pro-net metering interveners in a current Net Metering Rate case that is on the docket of the Public Service Commission. In Indiana, the NAACP State Conference President Barbara Bolling-Williams and ECJ Chair Denise Abdul Rahman have spearheaded a statewide campaign which complemented coalition efforts to stridently oppose a fixed charge bill, HB 1320. The Indiana NAACP wrote op-eds, testified at the Public Utilities Commission hearings, participated in the Integrated Resource Plan Discussions, spoke directly with legislators, held community meetings, and they spearheaded a community owned solar demonstration project that will showcase the benefits of distributed generation.  In Missouri, I sat in a meeting with the NAACP First Vice President Adolphus Pruitt when he met with Ameren, a utility company, and called them to task on their opposition to net metering by citing a conversation he had with one of his board members who is a grandmother who unequivocally stated that even if she had to pay more on her electricity bill, she would gladly do it so that she didn’t have to take her asthmatic grandson to the hospital every other week because he was breathing bad air.

If we have any hope of increasing and scaling up a broad base of successful collaboration with solar advocates, there must be recognition on the part of solar advocates that their posture with base building groups like the NAACP should be towards uniting around common aims. That means not coming to groups like the NAACP with the sole purpose of getting us to carry water for their policy goals through writing an op-ed, or showing up at a press/conference or hearing. This approach may have some effect in the short term but, in order to build investment and commitment that endures and that is scalable, there must be an orientation towards amassing strength through shared aims with constituency based groups.

For us, that means we would love to see solar advocates working with solar companies to support communities in having the advancement of net metering be in our self-interests, not just through cleaner air, but also through economic development. This can be done by making strong commitments in:

o   Prioritizing affordable clean energy access for low income communities so that communities can benefit from asset development;

o   Creating accessible training, job opportunities, as well as entrepreneurship and business opportunities for communities of color in particular as well as low income communities as a way of increasing equity in the clean energy space;

o   And finally, with entities that have driven the agenda towards stripping voting rights planning on putting $889 million into the coming elections, we must all lean in together on campaign finance reform and voting rights so that communities (and all of us) feel that our votes and our advocacy on issues like net metering, energy efficiency, renewable portfolio standards, and, indeed relatedly, income inequality and community policing, will actually add value and have a transformational impact.

With the list of social, political, and economic challenges I listed at the beginning, communities don’t have a moment to waste on activities that don’t build power and resilience for our communities. So we collectively must be sensitive and think strategically about contextualizing these policy aims within the lived realities of constituency based groups and we must have an orientation towards yes, short term deliverables, but in conjunction with long term, systemic impact, all the while ensuring that human and civil rights are at least included in the equation, though I know it may be a pipe dream for them to be foundational. We hold this ethos and vision at the center of our agenda and to partner successfully with groups like ours, there must be a shared sense of valuing the importance of centralizing a rights-based agenda.  With a shared vision, we can truly advance a broad and inclusive vision of a rooftop revolution grounded in economic and social justice.

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