The Problem is Environmental Racism
The vision I have for my hometown of East Los Angeles and other communities of color throughout the United States is clear after working as a community organizer for the last 17 years. This vision is grounded in my childhood experiences of environmental racism, and the efforts I’ve made to fight it. When I was growing up, we lived in slum housing. My mother, a single parent of three children, often struggled to make ends meet. Sometimes our utilities were cut off because we simply could not pay the bills; I have memories of not having electricity or hot running water. To this day, I hate cold showers.
When we moved into public housing, things were a little better, but we lived on a major industrial corridor across from a toxic morass of factories. There were several old fossil fuel power plants, transformers, crematoria, rendering plants and the infamous Farmer John’s slaughterhouse. My street was heavily trafficked by diesel trucks; we were often awakened by our apartment shaking to the sound of big rig horns. I walked through these factories everyday to get to the training school where I first learned to type and use a computer. It was not a pedestrian friendly city — I walked on the street with caution, avoiding traffic while observing the blight and industrial operations in my path. At night, when it was quiet, you could sometimes hear the buzz from the transformers and power-lines.
The air smelled bad, but I didn’t even notice that I had acclimated to it. As a child, I had headaches, allergies, and weird rashes. My brother regularly had nosebleeds. Both of us struggled to concentrate in school. It never occurred to me that our health was being adversely affected until early adulthood, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I began to recognize that this was a pattern in other communities as well: local pollution has devastating effects not only on the global climate, but on the health of people living in neighborhoods like mine. Toxic power plants and factories create massive profits, but never for the people who are most impacted by their presence. Instead, these communities are kept poor, crime ridden, and unhealthy by repeated practices of environmental racism.
Because of these experiences, I have dedicated my life to addressing the problem of environmental racism and fighting pollution in communities of color, organizing to shut down an outdated PG&E Hunters Point power plant in San Francisco and prevent the expansion of tar sands processing by Conoco-Phillips and Chevron oil refineries in the Bay Area. I remember a youth member, Julie, in Stanislaus County saying to a full board of County Supervisors, “I would rather see a recycling facility and solar panels in my community, instead of a waste-to-energy garbage incinerator!” Communities know what is best for them– what they need are policy vehicles to help make it happen.
Community Choice: a means to a local community solution
Local Clean Energy Alliance (LCEA) — the organization I work with — has successfully fought to make these solutions a reality by using Community Choice policy. Community Choice allows communities to control their own energy democratically with a local board of elected officials, as opposed to shareholders. The policy was originally adopted in California under AB117 in 2002, but a flurry of monopoly utility-sponsored attacks stifled the policy from being implemented soon after. After the first Community Choice program was finally able to launch in Marin in 2010, in 2014 we formed the East Bay Clean Power Alliance (EBCPA), an Alameda County-wide alliance of various organizations and activists who sought to establish an East Bay Community Choice energy program. As a part of this alliance, the Local Clean Energy Alliance (LCEA) advocated that we demand a commitment to developing local clean energy programs and projects, prioritizing with the goals of affordability, creating clean energy jobs, increased renewables, offering more renewables than PG&E and the California state mandates, a reduction in local and regional pollution, improved local health, and reduced electricity consumption. Above all, LCEA emphasized keeping the energy wealth in our community, and keeping community at the heart of decision making. As a result of LCEA’s advocacy efforts, each of these goals was adopted into the governing documents of East Bay Community Energy (EBCE). Still, in order to start a Community Choice program, the state stipulated that we had to buy and sell energy through the wholesale market, a source which in itself isn’t so green because it requires buying remote energy, including energy from fossil fuels and out-of-state large hydroelectric dams which are harmful to flora, fauna and communities nearby where it is produced.
To counter this, we advocated for a Local Development Business Plan (LDBP)–A Green New Deal for the East Bay. The intent behind the LDBP was to develop local renewable projects and programs as a part of our community choice program. By 2016 we formed a unity position with our labor allies to advocate for a Local Development Business Plan–a plan for how we create local jobs, clean energy projects and program investments in Alameda County. The Board of Supervisors agreed, allocating $500,000 for the LDBP and putting forth a request for project proposals.
It’s not 100% clean energy until it’s in our communities
While California is seen as a leader in the just transition, the reality is much more complicated. We are bombarded with corporate-sponsored false solutions and “carbon free” scams: large hydroelectric dams, glorified incineration methods like biomass, and cap-and-trade pollution schemes that adversely impact poor communities and complex ecosystems, all while using catchy green marketing. Clean energy from remote solar and wind farms are often out of state and therefore outsource the workforce, robbing us of energy wealth and labor income that could be best produced here at home.
While these developments deny our communities the benefits of a renewables transition, other false solutions force us to carry the costs. For example, East Bay Community Energy offers a “Renewable 100” option, a remote renewables opt-in plan that costs the ratepayer a bit more each month. Unfortunately, there are efforts by a minority of white climate activists who think that all cities in the East Bay should default to this more expensive energy option without ratepayer consent; this type of advocacy directly contradicts the core of Community Choice and racial equity ethics.
Many newly Democratically-controlled states are calling for 100% renewable energy commitments by 2050 or sooner. The problem is that the “centralized model” of energy promoted by these policies really isn’t true clean energy. The markets created by these state policies are full of schemes that enable the production of dirty energy. One such mechanism, Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), were designed to track clean energy, but also allow dirty energy to be bought and sold as “renewables.” By relying on centralized models and allowing fossil fuel production to continue, this type of mechanism perpetuates environmental racism, moving us no closer to a just energy transition.
The centralized, remote energy model is costly and dangerous
The Local Clean Energy Alliance has been making a case for true clean energy in communities for over a decade. Local clean energy doesn’t rely on costly and risky distribution and wires the way centralized remote energy does. Transmitted remote energy from long distances actually leads to energy loss, meaning it takes energy to move remote energy into the places where it is used. This infrastructure is not only wasteful, it is also dangerous for the workers and for communities: the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California, was caused by PG&E’s aging, faulty and neglected transmission-wire system, destroyed more than 150 thousand acres and claimed the lives of 85 people. In addition, we the ratepayers have to pay for this often-outdated system of wires and distribution every month in our utility bills. To add insult to injury, PG&E, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and Governor Gavin Newsom are currently laying the groundwork to pass this wildfire debt onto the backs of already struggling ratepayers to keep PG&E in business, despite their proven gross negligence. This corporate remote-centralized energy model functions to keep communities in energy debt and has no qualms about leaving the poor literally in the dark due to utility shutoffs. Now is the time to demand a sustainable model that empowers communities to create clean energy jobs, keep energy wealth, and ultimately build the resilience we need to weather the climate crisis.
We are winning, but the battle for local community solutions continues
After years of community organizing, the East Bay now has a Community Choice energy program that supplies us with electricity while investing in local clean energy programs and projects. The Green New Deal may be stalled at the National level, but thanks to Community Choice policy, the Alameda County city officials who make up the East Bay Community Energy board just approved $5.1M for 2019-2020 towards the following local programs:
Community Investment Fund
Enhanced Net Energy Metering
Demand Response Energy Efficiency
LCEA is positioned to ensure equity in these projects and programs so that they benefit those traditionally shut out of the clean energy economy. We need electric vehicles and charging stations, but we prioritize electrification that benefits us a community. Most poor people don’t have the luxury of buying a brand new car, but can certainly benefit from electrified public transportation or replacement of old diesel garbage trucks.
Dirty energy and corporate greed has been at the center of environmental, economic and climate inequity for too long. But as the East Bay Clean Power Alliance has shown, by forming alliances with stakeholders, setting clear goals, getting them adopted by local coalitions and organizing every step of the way, cities and counties can take huge steps toward energy solutions that don’t leave the most vulnerable among us behind. The vision I fight for would provide renters with affordable clean energy from local shared solar programs, electrify public fleets, create dignified employment, and promote the health of communities. These are the building blocks of a just energy transition for the East Bay and beyond.
Jessica Guadalupe Tovar is a longtime Environmental Justice organizer and advocate based in the Bay Area. She currently works to advance equity in clean energy solutions through her work at the Local Clean Energy Alliance.
Local Energy: A Green New Deal for Our Communities, by Jessica Tovar, The Trouble, July 22, 2019.