Paula García Knows Renewable Energy Is for the People

March 26, 2024 | 10:10 am
A solar panel reflects the sun in Tayrona National Park in Colombia.Paula García/UCS
Sanjali De Silva
Former Contributor

“Careful with the plants, careful with the trees, careful with the animals,” her grandfather would repeat.

Traveling to the southern region of Colombia as a young child, Paula García remembers being taught by her elders about the deep interconnectedness between humans and the natural world. During visits, her family would echo the teachings of their ancestors, perspectives that García still carries with her today.

As early as the 1920s, United States-based oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil began exploring and exploiting Colombian oil, starting with ExxonMobil’s acquisition of the Tropical Oil Company of Colombia in 1920. The subsequent decades brought expansion, commercialization and ultimately a boom of oil production in the Huila region, where García’s family lives.  Communities there were often not aware of the contracts or projects until troves of equipment and staff would arrive on their land.

“The land is bleeding,” her grandfather said.

García’s grandfather is among hundreds of thousands of Colombians who had no choice in whether ExxonMobil or other oil companies should be welcomed in their country decades ago. Who had no choice in whether health threats like water pollution and lung disease would become permanent fixtures in their lives

Learning about this history from her grandfather was García’s first encounter with the oil industry.

As a young adult, García went to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Universidad Javeriana in Colombia. But as she sat in lecture halls and libraries, García found the lessons her family taught her about the natural world echoing in her mind—she knew she had to be closer to nature. García took volunteer jobs as a park ranger during her summer vacations in Colombia, serving in stations from the Pacific Coast to the Amazonas. She spent extended time with her tierra madre and the people who live deeply interwoven with the natural world around them.

For the rural communities living in or near national parks, electricity was a commodity. Access to communications services and other basic needs was far from the norm. That’s when García noticed something striking. The places where families could watch a fútbol match and communicate with loved ones over long distances had one thing in common: they were powered by solar panels.

“That’s how my love for renewables started,” García said.

A solar panel provides power in Tayrona National Park in Colombia. Credit: Paula García/UCS.

García’s encounter with local renewable sources in Colombia in the late ‘90s ultimately brought her to the United States where she earned a master’s degree in sustainable international development at Brandeis University. Soon after, García put her experience and her education into action, joining a consultant group that helped the Colombian government evaluate what policies could support the large-scale deployment of renewables for the country.

“Something I really care about is to make sure the benefits of clean energy are reaching everyone in our society,” García said. “That has been a big engine on how I approach my work, to ensure that we are sharing the benefits with everyone and reducing the negative impacts it could bring.”

Looking for a hands-on opportunity at the intersection of research and impact, García later found herself at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She wanted her technical expertise to inform venues where decisions about the clean energy transition are being made at both large and local scales.

As Senior Bilingual Energy Analyst and Energy Justice Lead in the Climate & Energy program, García works on projects ranging from national-scale technical analysis projects to advocacy work in grassroots and environmental justice coalitions.

In early 2024, García authored an analysis in partnership with local environmental justice groups GreenRoots, Alternatives for Communities and Environment (ACE), and legal group Conservation Law Foundation, looking at the historical burden energy infrastructure has placed on low-income communities and communities of color in Massachusetts.

The study finds that more than 80% of existing polluting power generation units—and their associated health and safety risks—are located in or within one mile of an Environmental Justice neighborhoods in the Commonwealth. As the state builds toward a cleaner future, the groups are calling on decision makers in Massachusetts to pass siting reform policies that would help ensure a cleaner, more just electricity grid that does not add compounding burdens to vulnerable communities.

“The most meaningful part of my work is connecting with local groups who allow me to understand what community needs really are,” García said. “Working with GreenRoots in the Boston area has given me an on-the-ground perspective into how local communities are impacted by energy decisions. For example, they helped me understand the need to incorporate climate resilience in our energy choices at the outset.”

Engaging local communities early in the process and ensuring information is accessible are among the key things government, public utility commissions, and energy companies can do to ensure projects actually benefit communities. According to García, prioritizing meaningful community participation can speed up an equitable transition to clean energy, rather than continuing to foster large projects that prioritize private sector profits.

Back home in Colombia, García’s family is witnessing the consequences of a fossil fuel-centered energy system. President Gustavo Petro recently made a commitment to stop the exploration of new coal, oil, and gas projects. But the news was severely penalized by the international financial system—the value of the peso and the country’s credit rating took a devastating hit soon after the announcement.

Without support from wealthy countries, nations like Colombia whose economies rely on fossil fuel are left with an impossible scenario where climate goals are at odds with economic incentives.

“I hear people with a genuine concern about the near-term economic impact of such decisions,” Garcia said. “What people are not quite aware of is the severity of what is to come if we do not move away from fossil fuels. We need to connect the dots and ensure a diversified economy where people can see themselves thriving as we take action on climate change, now and in the future.”

Just this year, wildfires in Colombia have devastated many regions and compromised air quality, the Colombia hydroelectric-heavy electricity system is at high-risk from El Niño phenomenon impacts; and landslides and sudden heavy rainfalls are killing dozens of people and leaving hundreds more without a safe place to live.

President Petro spoke to the quandary at COP28 in Dubai.

“Some may ask, why would the president of this country want to commit suicide with an economy that relies on fossil fuels?” Petro said. “We are trying to halt a suicide, the death of everything that is alive.”

The global transition to clean energy comes with a collective responsibility to ensure a just future that benefits all. At the international scale, wealthy countries have a responsibility to support a new clean energy age that will be well-funded and supported. At the local scale, state legislators must champion formal avenues for community engagement in infrastructure projects. A just transition will require a commitment to equity at every level of decision making.

García is among the countless environmental justice champions around the world who are working tirelessly to advocate for a ramp-up of clean energy development that will limit the worsening impacts of climate change. Without persistent attention to justice, however, the transition to clean energy could exacerbate harms inflicted by our current energy system and leave vulnerable communities behind.

“We need a vision that this is feasible, this is doable, and this will be beneficial for all,” García said.