Should the Electric Grid Be Antiracist?

January 11, 2021
Matthew Henry/Unsplash
Joseph Daniel
Senior Energy Analyst

Yes.

That’s it. That’s the post.

Okay. Fine. I guess a one-word blog post isn’t sufficient so allow me to expand on that thought…

What is antiracism?

Growing up I was raised to believe that racism was about what was in your heart. It was about intent. I’ve since learned that having racist intent, while VERY, VERY BAD, is not the end of the line. Over the past few years, I’ve learned a lot about antiracism. I’m by no means an expert on the subject, but one thing I’ve learned is that positive intent does not absolve your negative impact.

Antiracism is about recognizing that regardless of intent we must examine the impacts of our decisions and actions. The same is true for institutions.

Is the grid really racist?

With this in mind, it becomes painfully clear that the current US electric grid delivers racist outcomes. True, the electric grid is an inanimate object, incapable of having intent, but we can document the racist outcomes the grid produces.

Take, for example, this 2020 Berkeley study that, even after accounting for income, black families have higher electric bills. The analysis accounts for a variety of factors, including geography, income, and homeowner status and shows that Black households pay $273 more a year if they are renters and $408 more per year if they own the home.

Even after accounting for a range of variables, including income, researchers have shown that Black households pay more for electricity than white households. Source: The Race Gap in Residential Energy Expenditures, Eva Lyubich. June 2020

This NAACP study from 2017 found that utility company shut off policies disproportionately impact low-income and African American communities. The NAACP had also previously documented how pollution from coal plants has had disproportionately negative health impacts on African Americans. As noted below, coal power plants tend to be disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color.

There are plenty of other studies with similar findings. Like this one from 2019 by researchers at the University of Washington and Stanford University. But this isn’t a recent revelation; this problem has been well documented for decades (see this study from two decades ago led by The Black Leadership Forum or this book by Robert Bullard from three decades ago).

Now, the clean energy side of the industry isn’t without its issues. Despite considerable industry effort, Black families have a harder time accessing rooftop solar and it is more difficult for minority-owned businesses to access energy efficiency. Minority groups are also less likely to be part of the clean energy workforce.

The solar industry’s workforce in 2019 was predominantly white. Source: National Solar Job Census 2019

And it would be hypocritical for me not to point out that UCS’s energy team is disproportionately male, predominantly white, and confronting our own issues with racial justice.

Recognizing these problems doesn’t mean that solar is bad or that we should give up on clean energy. Just the opposite, we have to recognize and name these problems if we want to find ways to actively undo structural racism within the power industry as a whole.

How do we make the grid antiracist?

Before I get into how to make the grid antiracist I want to just say: there is no way for me to come up with an exhaustive list. Nor could I. Making the grid antiracist is going to require hard work by a lot of different people with different perspectives. It is going to require collective action to bring about transformative change. It is going to require national groups (like UCS) to show some deference to local communities and indigenous populations.

In the end, we have to replace structural racism with structural antiracism. Specifically, we have to root out actions, decisions, policies, and investments that perpetuate structural racism. It will require governments at the federal, state, and local levels to pass legislation and implement policies and programs that specifically address the historical injustices frontline communities have endured.

Opportunities to promote structural antiracism in the energy industry won’t be limited to big, infrequent events like bill signings and ribbon cuttings. There are also daily actions that governments, corporations, non-profits, and even individuals can take to help dismantle racism.

For example, two of the most important metrics of the electric system are affordability and reliability. Most state utility regulatory commissions are charged with ensuring reliable power at an affordable price. As analysts, we commonly look at these metrics in terms of averages: the average electricity rate or the electricity bill for an “average” family. I certainly have.

The same thing is true for the most common metrics used to measure reliability.

Looking at averages allows us to conceptualize huge data sets, but it can also hide important information. Not just the tail ends of the distribution but how that distribution falls across different groups. That is why we should more frequently and more carefully evaluate affordability and reliability not just in terms of the ‘average’ customer but how it breaks down along racial and income lines.

This might seem like a small gesture, but once again we in the energy sphere can learn something from antiracism trainings. Think of simple averages as the microaggressions of the energy data reporting world. Asking someone where they “are really from,” or complimenting a person’s “barely noticeable accent,” might seem small (hence the micro, in microaggressions) but those constant, small acts, perpetuate an environment of exclusion. They create a toxic workplace culture that can poison the opportunities for some to succeed.

It is hard to find answers if we never ask the questions. How do we make the grid antiracist? We start by asking questions and then work hard to find the answers.