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JISEA 2021 Annual Meeting Podcast – Energy Equity (Text Version)

In the keynote discussion of the JISEA 11th annual meeting Shalanda Baker, U.S. Deputy Director for Energy Justice and Liz Doris, laboratory program manager for state, local, and tribal governments at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, discuss how to bring equity into the clean energy transition so all communities can benefit.

Liz Doris: I am thrilled to be having this conversation today with Shalanda Baker. She is the inaugural Deputy Director of Energy Justice at DOE. This is a new role that levels up the importance of addressing equity challenges in the department in alignment with national goals. So, I had the luck of briefly meeting Shalanda a few years ago while I was working on my doctorate at Northeastern where she was a professor, and like many who I have had the awesome privilege to watch introduce herself over the last few months I was immediately struck by her thoughtfulness and multifaceted and calm approach to, like, the biggest challenge we've ever had.

So, as we shift into this gear we're really happy to have her in this position and also here at JISEA to have a discussion with all of us about her goals and roles. So, I think, Shalanda, that everyone has heard enough from me, so I'd like to get to it, if we could welcome Shalanda. Hello, Shalanda.


Shalanda Baker: Hi, everyone. It's a great pleasure to be here with you.

Liz Doris: So, to start off, Shalanda, you—this position at DOE I just find so exciting—but can you tell us a little bit about how the role came to be and how you came to be in it and how you're envisioning it?

Shalanda Baker: Sure. Sure. So, I'm the first ever Deputy Director for Energy Justice, which still blows my mind. I mean, I feel like I've lived nine lives. So, I'm a lawyer by training and I spent some time as a project finance lawyer, which means I really got to understand how large-scale energy projects were built. And I spent the first part of my legal career working mainly on oil and gas, a little bit of wind. And in 2008, I actually got a call from our firm management when I was working at a big law firm in Boston, and they said, "Hey, Shalanda, we know you're interested in international work. Do you have any interested in going to our Tokyo office?" And I mean, I immediately said, "Of course, yes."

I mean, at that point I was about two years into my time at the firm. I was getting pretty burned out on the “deal life.” I mean, those of you who have friends who are lawyers or maybe are recovering lawyers yourselves know that the hours that corporate lawyers have are just ridiculous. And so, I was working around the clock. And I moved to Japan in the fall of—it was 2008. I got there a week after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection. So, my life got even more chaotic and I quickly transitioned from being a corporate lawyer, project finance lawyer to a bankruptcy lawyer.

And so, there I was in Japan working with some of the most sophisticated institutional investors and wealthy clients to preserve a financial system that was fundamentally broken. I mean, all the indications—I mean, if you can remember 2008, all of the—there were many in this sort of world of academia that said, "Look, our system is fundamentally flawed; we need to rethink it." And at the same time I was just sort of working to plug that system up. It was also the hottest year on record, so that is unfortunately a milestone that we have successfully plowed through. But it was also the year that President Obama was elected. And so, I remember sitting in my office in Tokyo just crying with joy watching President Obama talk to his supporters at Grant Park in Chicago and just thinking, "This is a new day."

And so, there was sort of this confluence of events that led me to have my own reckoning with myself and reckoning with what I wanted to do as a lawyer. And so, within a year I had made plans to essentially leave my job. So, I quit my job during the middle of the financial crisis and basically packed up and bought a one-way ticket to Mexico. And this is—when I talk to students about my story I say, "Do as I say, not as I do." I mean, this was incredibly risky. I had no plans. The only big goal I had was to work with people somewhere in the world in service of justice. And my real image was that "Okay, I'm going to work with indigenous peoples or people in rural communities in Latin America. And we're fighting against oil and coal and gas." I had learned a lot about folks in Colombia who were fighting against mining and the mining industry. I mean, the mining industry there had polluted their waters, and these were Afro-indigenous people and I thought, "Okay, I'm going to work with people like that."

But I found myself in Oaxaca, which is a place that has become near and dear to my heart. It's in Mexico. It's the second poorest state in Mexico. It's also home to sports teams, distinct indigenous groups. And the people that I met in Oaxaca who really changed my life forever were from a place called the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. And the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is a narrow strip of land that separates the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. And NREL actually has done some mapping there [that] indicates that this place is one of the windiest places on Earth. And the people in that region were experiencing an extractive and exploitative type of clean energy development that was really replicating inequality and very much mirrored the same type of divisive and dirty development that I knew about in Colombia.

And so, that was my big awakening. And I realized that we could in fact replicate inequality or exacerbate inequality in our transition away from fossil fuels if we were simply relying on the same mechanisms. And so, that started me down this path of energy equity, energy justice. At that point there was no such term. And in fact, in the broader environmental movement a lot of people were not even speaking about equity. They were so concerned with making sure we were going to avert catastrophic climate change issues of equity were very much seen as sand in the gears. I mean, it was—equity would slow us down. Equity was something we could think about after the fact. But I knew based on my work in Mexico that we should think about issues of equity at the outset.

And that work took me down a long path in terms of scholarship but also I took those lessons to Hawaii where I spent some time as a professor—and I can talk more about that. And then, most recently I taught at Northeastern University and I was, as you mentioned, a cofounder—I don't know if you mentioned this, actually—cofounder and codirector of an organization that was committed to—and is—continues to be committed to providing technical assistance to frontline communities and environmental justice organizations who need to be a part of the energy debate, that need to be a part of the energy policymaking process, but don't always have the same technical expertise or legal research and capacity essentially to participate in those conversations.

And so, most recently I was happily ensconced in my life in Boston running this organization that was very much making an impact on the national level and I got a call from the transition team asking if I would consider doing this role to essentially advance equity at DOE. And again, I'm happy to talk more about what that all entails and what enticed me to take on, I think, the biggest challenge of my lifetime.

Liz Doris: No biggie, huh? I do think it—

Shalanda Baker: [Laughs]

Liz Doris: I hadn't thought about the chafing issue that you mentioned between—but now that you mention it I do recall for several years we talked about the urgency of climactic change on the international scale and it really—there wasn't a huge part of that conversation, and certainly—and that was when a lot of our research got developed, and that was a huge part of that conversation that was—and it was really focused on that. So, that sounds super exciting.

Shalanda Baker: Yeah. I mean, so I've taught about renewable energy development in the global South as well using Mexico as a case study, but we can think about sub-Saharan Africa; we can think about other parts of the world—Brazil—where the call was to go big. The call was to go with big energy facilities. So, in Mexico now they have 2,200 installed megawatts of installed capacity of clean wind energy facilities, and that's about two dozen different projects. One of the largest projects in Latin America, in the Caribbean is devastating the landscape. It's not sustainable in any way.

But the business model of sort of pushing folks to go big to maximize economies of scale, we can see that in Brazil with hydro and dams, we can see it in sub-Saharan Africa where it's like "Let's build the biggest projects we can conceive of," and it doesn't take much to realize that those types of big projects, the impacts are devastating in those communities. And those impacts become magnified when we consider that many of those folks don't even have access to the electricity that's being produced, or they're being charged a premium. And so, again, the models, the business models that we've used are just inadequate for the moment.

And thankfully, I mean, the silver lining of the climate disaster that we're seeing is that going big no longer really makes sense from a resilience standpoint. And going centralized isn't the most resilient way to ensure that folks have power in this ongoing climate emergency. And so, it's great that the business models don't always align with the real need for sustainable, reliable electricity. And those business models, as we know, have done such harm in the fossil fuel industry and continue to do so in the clean energy transition.

So, I just wanted to make sure I put those points out there.

Liz Doris: The negotiations have been all about equity—right?—at that level and yet somehow our—I think what you're saying is our business models are rippling in the same way to get to actual humans, right? So, it's not mapping right.

Shalanda Baker: Absolutely. I mean, we still have to grapple with structural inequality. We still have to grapple with geopolitics. We still have to grapple with local politics. Right? Just because we're creating this new infrastructure and this transition it doesn't mean that that system will sort of suddenly be within a system that is broadly equitable. Right? We still have to grapple with the inequities that make—that will make this technology inequitably distributed and that will create harm in the communities that have already been marginalized by their governments.

And so, it all has to be kind of on the table. And I think the slides that you're presenting, Liz really—I mean, the underlying kind of—the essence of what you are saying is we cannot think of technology as neutral. It is always being deployed within a complex social system. And so, as we're developing technologies, as we're engaged in research, we have to consider the social dimensions of the deployment part of this. So, yeah, we have to grapple with that. The time for grappling with that is long overdue. I mean, it's in our faces in so many stark ways.

Liz Doris: Yeah. It is. It's—


Liz Doris: So—I know. Yeah, but lots of work. But a good time to do it, I guess. So, the—I think one of the—let's see, how do I want to—I have my list of questions over here, which is what I keep looking at. So, here at JISEA we have this group of government and private sector researchers and investors and all these different kinds of people, right? Can you speak a little bit to—from where you're sitting, what are the most important things that different kind of groups can be looking at right now on a large scale to sort of push this forward?

Shalanda Baker: Sure. Sure. So, I mean, I think that we have to get out of our silos a little bit and begin to have conversations with people who are living many of these challenges. We have to co-create, which means that the research questions that we're developing have to really resonate with the challenges that people face. I mean, we could think about COVID as an example of how we need to break out of silos. We—the national response is largely "Go home. Go inside of your homes. Shelter in place. We're going to ride this out." But that national response ignored that some people don't have safe homes, that some people can't even afford housing, can't even afford electricity. And as a result we kind of have this sort of cascade of issues that emerge from people paying a lot for electricity and housing [is] insecure because of the ongoing economic crisis that has unfolded.

And so, any responses that we're creating to a big problem, a wicked problem, as climate change has been called, has to be, again, deeply rooted in the lived experiences of all Americans. We have to think about the most vulnerable as we're crafting those solutions. And so, I think for academics it's about sort of saying, "Look, I don't have all the answers." So, those people who said, "Look, I know nothing about energy equity," it starts with having a conversation with folks who know a lot about that because they're living it.

For a long time the discourse in the environmental community was "Oh, Black and Brown people don't know anything about climate change, don't care about climate change." I mean, that was the narrative. But to the contrary, they are living it every single day. We need look no further than Texas. We need look no further than Hurricane Harvey and Maria. I mean, these are places where there are core folks of color, island communities where they absolutely understand the need to ensure that we move into this climate movement with their interests at heart.

And so, scientists should be having those conversations with deep humility. I think policymakers and the business community need to think about ways to de-risk capital. And that is to say, how can we get resources to frontline communities so that they can make their community more resilient with storage and with microgrids? How can we innovate to create a backstop and to make sure that—so, on the policymaking side, on the federal side we can help to de-risk capital. And for private investors, I mean, I think we need to be thinking creatively about the type of financing models that are out there.

And we need to finally stop thinking of these communities as incredibly risky, particularly in the electricity sector. We have data showing that people pay their electricity bills, and while these households don't always have a relationship to bankers and lenders because of historical patterns and redlining, every single family has a relationship to the meter. And so, we need to be thinking creatively about using the meter as a pathway for creative financing.

Liz Doris: Yeah, I think all of these very tactical things—and then, we have to figure out how to roll them up into actually—so that they have a national impact as well as an individual and community impact. And that actually gets me to what I think—because the chat's blowing up—what I think is going to be my last question, which is sort of about what are your next steps? What are the things that you're really focused on in the immediate future in your role to try to help push some of those things forward?

Shalanda Baker: Yeah. So, just, again, I'm the Deputy Director for Energy Justice. I was recruited into this administration to really drive the Justice40 Initiative. And Justice40, for those of you who don't follow every executive order that has been issued, Justice40 appears in Executive Order 14008, in Section 223. And Executive Order 14008 is the "tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad" order, and that provision makes the promise to the country that 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments have to go to disadvantaged communities. And those federal investments include investments in clean energy, energy efficiency, transportation, workforce development, remediation of legacy harm, water infrastructure. And the president has made this promise.

And so, I am at DOE to ensure that that promise gets realized across our complex with this $40 billion budget that includes the labs, that includes our program offices that are doing such incredible work. And so, I am sitting in DOE working on that initiative internally. And so, what that means is that we need to do this, Liz: We need to do the kinds of things that we're doing today. We need to have these kinds of conversations that bring the scientific and technological community into this conversation around equity so that folks realize that they are implicated in this transition and they're implicated by the president's commitment. And so, that's internal work. That's slow. It's hard. And it's culture change work. And so, I'm doing that internally.

I'm also working externally with my various partners across the federal government. And so, I'm working closely with Cecilia Martinez, Dr. Martinez, who is at the Council on Environmental Quality. And her charge is to move this work across the entire federal government. And so, I'm working closely with her and others to advance Justice40 across the federal government. I'm working closely with stakeholders as well who are—external stakeholders who are embedded in the work.

And then, my final sort of priority is really external. I understand that the clock is running. Right? Our time here is short. We're already late to the game. And so, I have a few policy priorities that I think are important to advance now and as soon as possible in this transition, and one is we've got to figure out the problem with energy burden in this country. We have research from folks like Tony Reames and Diana Hernandez that shows—and also ACEEE, which is an industry—which is a nonprofit committed to thinking about issues of energy efficiency, that show that communities of color are paying too much for electricity. The energy burden in some low-income communities is upwards of 20%, which is one in every five dollars, and sometimes it's 30%. So, one in every five dollars of some households is going to meet energy needs. And that to me is unconscionable in a country where energy should be something that is afforded to every single household. And so, I want to reduce energy burden using DOE resources, leveraging our different programs to do that and our technology to do that.

I'm also really interested in that solar disparity that was on your slide. We know from recent studies that, again, holding all things equal—home ownership and income—communities of color simply are not getting access to solar. And that's a structural problem. And this is a classic example of technology going onto a system that is unequal and inequitable. Right? So, we need to, again, deal with why, the drivers of why the solar transition hasn't been equitable.

The third priority I have—so, the second is kind of creating parity between communities of color and majority-white communities with respect to solar adoption. The third priority is that capital access that I talked about. And as a project finance lawyer I'm really interested in structure. I'm really interested in making sure that people have access to the type of capital that's going to get them rooftop solar; it's going to get them the storage that we know is only coming, and it's coming imminently, where people are going to be seeing storage as a way to keep their household safe. So, we need a capital stack or part of a capital stack that can make that possible for households.

And then, the last two priorities I have really relates to wealth and wealth creation. I mean, we're the frogs in the pot. We don't realize just how, I don't know, transformative this moment is. We are in a moment where we have an opportunity to rebuild our entire energy system, and we can do so in service of equity. I liken this moment to our reconstruction. So, Reverend Barber talks about this being the Third Reconstruction, and I think the president has even taken the perspective that we are rebuilding every single aspect of our country. And to do so in service of equity we need to make sure that Black and Brown people, people who have been left so far behind in our fossil fuel system are active participants in the type of businesses we know we're going to need in this transition as well as the jobs that are going to be good, middle class, high-paying jobs that will lift their families out of poverty.

And so, that's the call. And those are my priorities on the external-facing side in addition to the slow-moving, tough culture change, in addition to the coordinating with my counterparts in the federal government to move this initiative across the country, essentially. So, that's all. I'm ready. Let's get to work.

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