Why An Energy Equity Framework Is Necessary for Athens’ Transition to 100% Clean Renewable Energy
Updated: Jan 12, 2020
By Nnenne Onyioha-Clayton ~
Source: Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire, Illustrating Equality VS Equity, 2016, <www.interactioninstitute.org>
Equity is the fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. Improving equity involves increasing justice and fairness within the procedures and processes of institutions or systems, as well as in their distribution of resources. Tackling equity issues requires an understanding of the root causes of outcome disparities within our society. (1)
Climate justice occurs only where equity is the central principle used to formulate any measures that combat climate change, such as the transition to a clean and renewable energy economy. The term energy equity is described by the Partnership for Southern Equity as “the fair distribution of the burdens and benefits from energy production and consumption” (2). Pursuing this in practice effectively translates to an equitable redistribution of burdens and benefits that requires a comprehensive reconstruction of public policy and infrastructure. Historically, marginalized communities in the US have suffered the greatest environmental, health and economic repercussions of a racialized hierarchy of capitalism; which include but are not limited to systematic economic disenfranchisement, lack of affordable housing, gentrification, displacement, higher exposure to industrial pollution, inadequate access to healthcare and transportation, predation by the banking and criminal justice systems, and a lack of worker protections. More specifically, the frontline communities most defenseless against the effects of climate change predominantly consist of low-income, African American, Latiñes and other marginalized groups of people; who are least resourced to cope with climate change events such as droughts and floods (3). These households shoulder an energy burden up to three times higher than other homes, spending a significantly greater proportion of their income to meet their energy needs (4). The burdens mentioned are risk factors that amplify vulnerability to adverse climate change impacts in profound, even life-threatening ways. The converse is also true, in that climate change, in the absence of equitable policy implementation, would exacerbate these existing burdens and injustices.
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, wreaking the greatest flood damage upon low-income Black neighborhoods as a result of badly maintained levees buckling under its onslaught (5), the displacement of hundreds of thousands in the aftermath foreshadowed other disaster recovery tragedies to come. These included the sad devastation of Puerto Rico in 2017, which similarly highlighted the paucity of preventative planning, access to resources and timely interventions for its impoverished residents (6). Both events threw into stark relief the fact that the greatest consequences of climate change are largely faced by poor communities that contribute the least to the problem, and that its effects may precipitate forced destitution and involuntary migration. This disproportionate impact of climate change on marginalized communities has been termed the “climate gap” (7); and as environmental destruction progresses, so it widens. It is therefore incumbent on policymakers and community stakeholders to work to shrink this gap while building community resilience, so that persisting socioeconomic and racial disparities therein are reduced over time. Urgent measures would include removing systemic barriers to accessing resources and economic opportunities, making renewable energy sources and utilities cheap and readily available (thereby reducing the energy burden on low-income communities), extending free or inexpensive mass public transit, ensuring access to quality healthcare and education, instituting family safety net programs, advancing worker and civic empowerment, and building careers pipelines into the burgeoning renewable energy economy. Such an undertaking would be far-reaching, holistic, collaborative, and vital for fighting the environmental racism long-ingrained in extractive capitalism.
In 2019, Athens joined its neighbors Atlanta, Clarkston and around 150 other cities in the US in committing to a just and equitable transition of community and workforce to a renewable energy economy between 2035 and 2050 (8). If the hyper-local efforts of all these cities to reach their 100% renewable energy targets are combined, a Sierra Club analysis predicts that the US will be on course to meet 87 to 110 percent of the terms of the Paris Agreement of 2016, notwithstanding the US withdrawal from the agreement in 2019 (9). According to a report prepared by Assistant Professor Mijin Cha of Occidental College, et al, for the Climate Equity Network in 2019, successful examples of a just transition away from fossil fuels share four key guiding principles, or “four pillars of a just transition” (10). These are: i. strong governmental support, ii. dedicated funding streams to support transition programs and efforts, including job training and creation iii. strong, diverse coalitions, and iv. diversifying economic opportunity.
Translated to a local level, 100% Athens’ Renewable Energy Initiative's work of building energy equity has gained early support by the local government. A 100% Clean and Renewable Energy Resolution was passed by the Mayor & Commission on May 21, 2019 (11), which includes equity language that prioritizes low-income and marginalized communities in the transition (12). Its equitable execution demands investment in low-income and marginalized communities; and that officials implementing energy policies, crafting programs, and allocating budgets explicitly seek input from these same communities from early planning phases onward to ensure that the solutions developed properly address their needs. In addition, dedicated public funding streams are being established for local projects, with the acquisition of $15.8M of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funding to invest in the 100% Athens Renewable Energy Project (13). Although low-income housing and public buildings have been earmarked to receive the first wave of SPLOST funds for renewable energy upgrades and retrofitting, it is essential that additional funding streams are established to meet these and other requirements expressed by the community. A critical component of this work is the development of an “equity ecosystem” (a notion and model developed by the aforementioned Partnership for Southern Equity): a community-wide network of civic and political resilience and resources comprising community members and activists, leaders, advocacy groups, institutions, and small businesses. This network would work to advance equitable policies, programs, resource allocation and opportunity access for marginalized groups in ways that would improve their ability to survive, recover and thrive in a world increasingly destabilized by climate change.
An energy equity plan for Athens will begin to take shape in January 2020 and continue evolving over the following 18 months, largely coordinated by the Athens-Clarke County (ACC) Office of Sustainability and overseen by 100% Athens steering committee members. This plan is likely to encompass a wide array of measures, from creating citizen oversight committees for the transition; to retrofitting low-income housing for energy efficiency; to solar panel installation on public and private premises; to electrifying the local bus fleet; to expanding electric vehicle charging infrastructure throughout the county; to extending walking, cycling and public transit routes; to developing carbon offset programs; to policy revisions, zoning laws and green building ordinances that increase overall livability for residents while aggressively pursuing zero carbon emission goals; to designing equitable disaster recovery plans; to medium and long-term climate impact assessments; to securing institutional and business commitments to a just and equitable transition to 100% renewable energy; to establishing unionized job opportunities for marginalized communities in emerging renewable energy industries; to the nurturing of a regional and economic culture that prospers with diversity. Key decisions are to be made with members of our frontline communities firmly seated and heard at the table.
We at the 100% Athens Renewable Energy Initiative apply our efforts to this project as a matter of great urgency, because our county may struggle to adapt to the demands of climate change conditions should we fail to invest the time and resources necessary for fixing systemic equity issues sooner rather than later. To commit to our ultimate goal of universal inclusion in the transformation of our shared energy and resource foundations is to commit to all the goals that would make this possible. Our success in this regard is contingent upon implementing robust equity solutions at an aggressive pace in order to meet climate change targets at the requisite scale, and within a time-frame of twelve to fifteen years. The cost of not doing so may be the accelerated fragmentation and displacement of our communities, with inter-generational consequences.
The work of transitioning Athens to a just and equitable renewable energy economy is just beginning. The primary equity goals of 100% Athens REI’s community outreach plan in 2020 is to empower marginalized community members with the tools and resources to meaningfully shape and engage in this transition, and to facilitate the formation of an Equity Oversight Committee. This, we believe, would be the best way for us to start and to continue. To learn more, to ask questions, or to get involved, please contact us here. For updates, you can follow us on Facebook here.
(1) Kapila M, Hines E & Searby M 2016, Why Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Matter: Definitions, Independent Sector, viewed December 2019,
(2) Partnership for Southern Equity, 2019, Just Energy: Clean Power to the People, viewed December 2019 <https://psequity.org/just-energy>
(3) Buford T, 2018, Climate Change and Vulnerable Communities — Let’s Talk About This Hot Mess, ProPublica, viewed December 2019, <https://www.propublica.org/article/climate-change-and-vulnerable-communities-lets-talk-about-this-hot-mess>
(4) American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, 2016, Report: "Energy Burden” on Low-Income, African American, & Latino Households up to Three Times as High as Other Homes, More Energy Efficiency Needed, viewed December 2019,
(5) Morse R, 2008, Environmental Justice Through The Eye of Hurricane Katrina, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, viewed December 2019, <https://inequality.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/media/_media/pdf/key_issues/Environment_policy.pdf >
(6) Schwartz E and Sullivan L, 2018, FEMA Report Acknowledges Failures in Puerto Rico Disaster Response, PBS, viewed December 2019, <https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/fema-report-acknowledges-failures-in-puerto-rico-disaster-response>
(7) Morello-Frosch R et al, 2009, The Climate Gap: Inequalities in How Climate Change Hurts Americans and How to Close the Gap, viewed December 2019,<https://dornsife.usc.edu/assets/sites/242/docs/The_Climate_Gap_Full_Report_FINAL.pdf>
(8) O'Bryan D, 2019, 150 Cities (and Counting) are Ready for 100% Renewable, Sierra Club, viewed December 2019, <https://www.sierraclub.org/articles/2019/12/150-cities-and-counting-are-ready-for-100-renewable>
(9) Levy S, 2017, Transitioning Cities To 100% Clean, Renewable Energy Will Help America Meet Paris Agreement Commitments, Sierra Club, viewed December 2019, <https://content.sierraclub.org/press-releases/2017/06/new-sierra-club-report-transitioning-cities-100-clean-renewable-energy-will>
(10) Mijin Cha J et al, 2019, A Roadmap To An Equitable Low-carbon Future: Four Pillars For A Just Transition, viewed December 2019, <https://dornsife.usc.edu/assets/sites/242/docs/Just_Transition_Final_Report_2019.pdf>
(11) Gayer J, Ritzler C and Averett M, 2019, Athens-Clarke County Commits to 100 Percent Clean and Renewable Energy, viewed December 2019, <https://www.sierraclub.org/press-releases/2019/05/athens-clarke-county-commits-100-percent-clean-and-renewable-energy>
(12) 100% Athens, Athens-Clarke County Commissioners and ACC Office of Sustainability, 2019,100% Clean And Renewable Energy Resolution, viewed December 2019, <https://www.accgov.com/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/4254>
(13) 100% Athens, 2019, 100% Athens' Renewable Energy Project 11, viewed December 2019, <https://www.accgov.com/8915/11-Renewable-Energy-Project>