Powering Strong Communities

Environmental Justice: A Critical Consideration in the Energy Transition

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act have heralded significant investment in clean energy technologies, providing new funding and tax incentives for building a clean energy economy. More than 466,000 megawatts of new generation capacity are under development in the United States, and more than three-quarters of the capacity in the last stages of development is solar or wind. The incentives to develop battery storage, wind, solar, and other energy infrastructure projects contribute to the power sector's continued efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

The power sector’s energy transition to low-emitting and cleaner forms of electric generation may face challenges when siting energy projects near communities that have historically been underserved or have experienced a disproportionate share of the pollution burden from energy projects. The following discussion seeks to offer thoughts on moving a project forward in an underserved community by using tools to engage meaningfully with the community, implementing mitigation strategies to address community impacts, and ensuring community benefits are identified and delivered equitably.  

As some of these projects move forward, environmental justice considerations may be raised at the federal, state, and local levels. Federal agencies, project developers, and utilities have acknowledged the need to address the effects of their programs, projects, and policies on disadvantaged or underserved communities. Considering the needs and requests of communities that have been historically marginalized or underserved is not only about reducing resistance to clean energy projects but also about gaining a deeper understanding of how energy projects can support environmental goals and an equal distribution of economic development and innovation opportunities across a utility’s service area.

The Biden administration is committed to ensuring the concerns of underserved communities are heard and reflected in the federal government’s priorities, policies, investments, and decision-making. Environmental justice is broadly defined by four principles: restorative justice, distributive justice, procedural justice, and recognition justice; however, there are many definitions. For example, EPA defines environmental justice as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Many states and localities have their definitions as well.

The commitment to environmental justice and equity is being integrated and formalized into federal agency policies through executive orders, regulations, and civil rights laws. For new power generation projects, environmental justice considerations are included, for example, in federal permitting under the National Environmental Policy Act, which might include considering disproportionate impacts on underserved communities. Some state and city laws require environmental justice consideration in zoning and land use requirements. In addition, federal and state taxes and grant programs may also include environmental justice considerations. These considerations are driven by consumers and federal policies calling on companies to incorporate environmental justice into their environmental management, sustainability, and governance practices.

What EJ Advocates Want

Environmental justice advocates seek to ensure historically marginalized and/or overburdened communities are treated fairly and represented in decision-making on projects that affect the community’s health and well-being. The end goal is typically to ensure equitable distribution of project benefits and burdens to all affected community members.

Environmental justice communities are not monolithic and don’t share all the same concerns. Community concerns might include a lack of community engagement in the early planning process, impacts during construction, public safety, loss of farmland (land use limitation), siting near areas of significant cultural importance, job losses, and effects on property values.

Understanding community concerns can shape project implementation in critical ways. Utilities are challenged to identify relevant communities and begin meaningful engagement early in the process  when siting, designing, constructing, and preparing to decommission an energy storage project. A first step in addressing environmental justice concerns within a community may center on building and maintaining a relationship with community leaders, advocacy groups, and relevant stakeholders. Engaging with these groups can help identify community concerns with new energy projects.

Meaningful Engagement

The Environmental Protection Agency has used the term “meaningful involvement” to convey: (1) potentially affected populations have an appropriate opportunity to participate in decisions about a proposed activity that will affect their environment and/or health; (2) the public’s contribution can influence the regulatory agency’s decision; (3) the concerns of all participants involved will be considered in the decision-making process; and (4) the rule-writers and decision-makers seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected.

Meaningful engagement can take many forms, from active early consultation with individuals who know and hold the respect of their community to engagement in project format and design based on local community and accessibility, building capacity within a community through training, and follow-through using techniques that build trust.
Meaningful engagement is important as many rapidly developing clean energy technologies may be unknown or unfamiliar to communities. It can lay the groundwork for a factual basis for discussions and assist in dispelling misinformation and resistance to a project. Community members may be able to identify alternatives, solutions, or potential benefits that might not otherwise be known or accepted by others. This expertise may be invaluable for a project.

Common Mitigation Strategies

Tools like EPA’s EJ SCREEN and Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool can assist in the siting of energy projects to avoid further affecting communities that already shoulder higher pollution burdens. In some cases, these tools can help utilities identify communities that might benefit the most from siting energy projects if the community’s needs and concerns are well understood. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District collaborated with partners to develop a tool that helps inform resource allocation and reduce growing economic disparity in their service area.

When planning an energy project, utilities can consider design and operational approaches to mitigate risks to communities. Such approaches might include changes to the project footprint that may increase project buffer zones, decrease the structure height, or adjust the configuration for the site. Utility-scale solar projects that have removed all vegetation can present environmental justice concerns due to soil erosion and flooding. Revegetation of such sites can address runoff and loss of soil and sediments. Some community concerns with battery storage projects can be mitigated by communicating approaches to meeting all relevant building electrical and fire codes and standards, installing safety mitigation technologies, and providing training for first responders. While such mitigation measures may not resolve all community concerns, public power utilities must seek to identify and realize all available community benefits.

Community Benefits

Public power utilities regularly consider community benefits when siting energy projects. Benefits might include jobs and job security, access to renewable energy, energy efficiency, grid resilience, and investments in infrastructure upgrades. The benefit can flow to community members, organizations, the public sector, project developers, and labor unions. Project agreements are another tool to ensure accountability for new energy projects to deliver positive outcomes for specific communities or address environmental justice concerns. Project agreements can safeguard federal investments to create local opportunities in underserved and underinvested communities. They might include project labor agreements, community workforce agreements, community benefits agreements, and community benefits plans. The construction and real estate industries have used these types of agreements.

Over the coming decade, the IIJA and IRA have allocated the federal government to spend $1.25 trillion on transportation, energy, water resources, and broadband infrastructure. These investments will overhaul U.S. infrastructure and create new opportunities for under-serviced and under-invested communities. Provisions in both laws require clean energy project applicants to submit community benefits plans.  

An Equitable Transition

Energy is a critical enabler of the modern economy and society. As such, an effective energy transition will include thought leadership and collaboration around what an equitable energy transition should look like and require active participation from the community, local governments, businesses, and individuals. While the conversation about an equitable transition is multifaceted, public power utilities are well-positioned to engage as they are familiar with their communities, community leaders, and principal environmental concerns.

The energy transition creates challenges and opportunities for environmental justice communities near energy projects. Considering environmental justice concerns for all clean energy projects is critical. This means engaging meaningfully with communities, implementing mitigation strategies to address community impacts, and ensuring community benefits are identified and delivered equitably.