The quest for equitable climate solutions

Sweeping legislation in the US, including the Inflation Reduction Act, is infusing hundreds of billions of dollars into new climate and energy technologies, funding research, development, and implementation. But as the money begins to flow, there are open questions regarding who will benefit most, and who might bear the brunt of unexpected consequences. 

Shalanda Baker, director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity at the US Department of Energy, spoke at MIT Technology Review’s ClimateTech event in Cambridge about the need to simultaneously address climate change and equity and the possibility of seeking justice during the energy transition. You can watch her full talk below. 

Afterwards, Baker sat down with us for a conversation about how to distribute the benefits of new technologies and address community concerns around new projects. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

In your session, you talked a little bit about these situations where climate change and inequality intersect. Could you give some examples of clear cases where we can achieve progress on addressing climate change and inequality at the same time?

I like to think about the [low-income] tax credit program—it’s a 20% additional tax credit for investments in solar, wind, and clean energy.  

I’m really excited that my office leads that program as the program administrator in partnership with Treasury. And over the last nine months or so, we’ve designed a program that we think will actually move the needle for low-income households, so they’re going to get access to solar and wind through either community energy, rooftop solar, or small-scale wind. 

That access obviously helps to fight the climate crisis while also, if we’re successful, bringing down the overall cost of energy for those folks and actually bringing true economic benefits to those communities.

We think about a lot of clean energy technologies as being good for communities—like, having more access to cheap power is obviously a good thing. But there are also things like the hydrogen hubs or carbon removal, where there might be environmental impacts, especially for projects that still involve fossil fuels. How is your office navigating that and addressing those concerns?  

Your question reminds me of the 1970s, which was the high-water mark for environmental laws and legislation making it to the books, with the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. All of these new laws protecting our air and water were beneficial for many, many, many communities around the country. But communities of color, in particular, were saying: “We’re not seeing the benefit of these laws.”

So fast-forward 50 years to the climate movement, where we have this unprecedented legislation, and it’s all to tackle the climate crisis. 

And communities are saying to us, “We’re not going to see the benefits of this locally, even though in the aggregate we may be reducing carbon dioxide emissions. You’ve already been polluting me for 50 years, then you’re going to put carbon dioxide removal technologies in my community and site other facilities that will add more impacts.”

So how do we deal with that? How do we prevent the mistakes of the past? The only way to do it is to hold ourselves accountable, and to hold companies that are availing themselves of taxpayer dollars accountable, through our community benefits planning framework.

We also empower communities to be at the table, not as recipients of information but as partners and experts and negotiators in the room as these technologies are being talked about and as the development impacts are being discussed. And the hope is that they’re going to win this time—that they’re going to get economic development, they’re going to get job creation.

No community is a monolith. But we’re talking to folks to really understand what they need and how we can best provide them with the capacity to be at the table.

There’s been lots of discussion specifically around the planned direct-air-capture hubs in Louisiana and Texas, including recent reporting from E&E News laying out communities’ concerns that they haven’t been consulted. You said that you don’t want communities to be just recipients of information. Do you think that there has been adequate communication engagement as these projects have been announced and the response has started to come out?

We were in many of those communities. When you look at a map of the country where existing fossil-fuel infrastructure is, it’s the Gulf South—outside of New Orleans, South Texas. These are places where we know that if we’re going to fight the climate crisis, we’re going to need to mitigate emissions in those areas.

So my team organized two different roadshows where we brought delegations of DOE colleagues to those places to meet the communities that would likely be impacted by the work that we’re doing.

That created a foundation of relationships and information being shared with those communities. At the time, we didn’t know when and if projects were coming to those communities.

So fast-forward to September, when the direct-air-capture announcements were made. One is going to be in the Corpus Christi area—we were there in April. One is going to be in Lake Charles—we were there in June.

So we had already created relationships, and our colleagues already understood what those communities look like. We had a small meeting with advocates we had met with in both Corpus Christi and Lake Charles, and we said, “These are announcements that are going to be made.”

The developers that were the winners of these awards were charged with doing the engagements on the ground. But we heard in some of those meetings, “This is the first time we’re hearing about this.” So that’s a problem—we understand that.

And then subsequent to that, folks were asking a lot of questions. So now we’re going back to Lake Charles, and we were in Corpus [Christi] a couple of weeks ago, to actually meet with community members and talk to them.

I will say that this is messy. I will also say that we’re building it as we go. We’re teaching a lot from my office to other parts of the agency about how to do community and stakeholder engagement. We have a lot of expertise around the agency, but we’ve never done engagement at this scale. We’ve never been an agency that does industrial development. 

So we’re learning a lot. We’re listening—my ear’s to the ground, the secretary’s ear is to the ground. And we’re operating in real time to try to adjust based on community concerns. And there’s more to come. It’s not the end of the story.

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