In our new Clean Energy Intersections blog series, we’ll explore how renewable energy has the power to address and alleviate many social and environmental concerns, in addition to its power as a worldwide economic force. In this installment, Amy Haddon examines the intersection of renewable energy and environmental racism:

Recent world events have called attention to the social and environmental challenges faced by underrepresented populations around the world.  Many of these challenges are exacerbated by the impacts of climate change or by the unending quest for natural resources to meet our growing, global consumer demand.

A recent example that has galvanized people to action across geographies is the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil project that has come into direct conflict with the indigenous tribes of North America.  The proposed pipeline poses a danger to sacred sites and threatens the waters of Lake Oahe, which abuts the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.  Although the pipeline project is estimated to be more than 87% complete, it has met considerable and sustained resistance from these tribes and their allies.

What underpins scenarios like the Standing Rock protest is that the burden of the environmental and social impacts is disproportionately borne by the disenfranchised, including those living in poverty, communities of color, indigenous peoples, and those at the “bottom of the pyramid.”  This is known as environmental racism.

Environmental racism is a form of discrimination.  In these communities, residents lack the political clout, economic power, or ability to otherwise resist the intrusion of environmentally and socially damaging projects.  When factories are built, toxic waste is dumped, or when conventional power plants are generating, these impacts inequitably affect the people living nearby.

Similarly, the larger global results of industrialization—such as climate change—create untenable living conditions that unreasonably impact coastal, island, and rural communities.  Impacts such as ocean acidification, sea level rise, and drought affect increasing numbers of humans and result in the loss of property, displacement (leading to an increase in refugees worldwide), and war.

While prized as a low-carbon source of electricity, renewable energy can also ameliorate environmental racism.  For savvy companies with responsibility goals across the social and environmental spectrum, renewables prove to be an efficacious means to meet those goals.  For example:

  1. Renewable energy is a growing job sector throughout the world. These jobs are prevalent in rural geographies that are ideal for large-scale wind and solar projects.  While some jobs in renewables require an advanced degree, presently, the fastest growing job in the U.S. is the wind turbine technician.  Renewables also bring an infusion of finance into rural regions, as projects lease land from farmers and ranchers and bolster local economies.
  2. Renewable energy generation relies on clean technologies, which, in addition to being low-carbon, also prevent air pollution and improve air quality in the regions where they operate. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that wind power alone saved the U.S. economy more than $7B in healthcare costs in 2015 by reducing power sector emissions by 6%.
  3. Renewable energy generation produces relatively few byproducts when compared to its conventional counterparts. For example, both coal and petroleum refinement result in a substance known as coke.  While relatively smoke-free compared to coal, coke is highly carcinogenic.  Methane—a byproduct of the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process that releases natural gas—is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and fracking wells have been associated with higher risk pregnancy and premature birth.
  4. Renewable energy uses a fraction of the water required to produce electricity from conventional generation. Both coal and natural gas-based electricity rely heavily on freshwater during the extraction and generation processes.  As global water pressures continue to mount, this gives renewables a significant advantage in water-stressed regions.
  5. In nearly 60 countries, solar power is now the cheapest form of new energy. These countries are predominantly low-income and so the affordability of electricity is critical in bringing power to the people in these geographies.  Renewables in many developing countries, particularly in parts of Africa, are leapfrogging fossil fuels entirely and rapidly scaling accessibility to life-changing energy sources.

To learn more about how renewable energy can help you meet your cross-functional responsibility goals and alleviate environmental racism, contact us today.