America’s clean energy appetite continues to grow, with more than 180 U.S. cities committed to 100% renewable electricity. While this is promising, more needs to be done to expand the full benefits of clean energy to everyone in these communities. Historically, whiter, more affluent residents have benefitted from publicly funded clean energy initiatives, while low-income and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) have been left behind

Cities are increasingly incorporating equity into their clean energy plans, programs and projects, but many have faced hurdles translating ambitious goals into meaningful results. A paper from WRI and Rocky Mountain Institute's City Renewables Accelerator sheds light on how cities can use different clean energy initiatives to contribute to procedural, structural, distributional and intergenerational equity in their communities. 

How Cities' Clean Energy Initiatives Can Address Inequities 

Cities can play a unique role in expanding access to clean energy in BIPOC and low-income communities. As they pursue their clean energy goals, cities must put in place a range of initiatives — from clean energy plans to municipal procurement to residential solar programs — to lower their emissions while also maximizing community benefits like improved air quality, better health outcomes and the creation of green jobs for those who need them most. 

Each city clean energy initiative will have different equity considerations and community benefits based on the type of initiative and the way it’s planned and implemented. For example, a residential solar program may help to lower monthly energy costs for community members, while an off-site solar installation for municipal operations may have a larger impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  

And, how projects are implemented is just as important as the projects themselves: For example, two solar installations with the same capacity can have very different equity impacts, depending on where they’re sited and the community benefits their contracts require. Cities must carefully consider tradeoffs and layer different initiatives to maximize both climate and equity goals. 

Here are seven ways city governments can go beyond just lowering GHG emissions and build equity and community benefits into their clean energy initiatives:  

1) Engage with community members to define problems and co-develop solutions. 

Authentic collaboration with low-income and BIPOC community members should begin in the planning stage, with a dialogue around problems and needs. Consistent engagement and participation at all stages — from data collection through scenario planning and action — is critical to overcoming challenges and reaching equitable outcomes.  

The City of Austin’s 2020 Climate Equity Plan uses this approach, focusing on equity and community collaboration from the start. Similarly, by working with community members to develop metrics and targets, city governments can publicly and transparently track progress towards community goals like equitable resource allocation, lower energy bills and local ownership of solar assets. Cities should compensate community members for their time in these engagement efforts, such as by providing stipends, transportation vouchers, food and/or childcare.  

2) Ensure that clean energy initiatives don’t worsen existing inequities.  

Even when intentions and data are good, the outcomes of clean energy initiatives may either fail to create a more equitable city or even exacerbate existing inequities. For example, the technical and data-driven recommendations typically found in clean energy plans could potentially contribute to “green gentrification,” when sustainability initiatives price lower-income residents out of their cities.  

City planners in Washington, D.C. used a unique risk management approach during the creation of Clean Energy DC. Each of the plan’s proposed actions was reviewed for its impact on equity and amendments were made to address actions that were likely to increase disparities or create new ones. The risks and potential amendments, which included things like expanded engagement with frontline communities and strategic incentives for low-income residents, were evaluated by community stakeholders, local and national energy equity experts, and the planning team. The evaluation methodology and all changes were transparently included in the plan.    

3) Direct clean energy funding to BIPOC and low-income communities.  

Funding-focused clean energy initiatives must have equity built into their design, with specific goals and measurements to ensure funds go where they’re needed most. In Oregon, the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund launched a grant program in 2021 specifically for climate action that advances racial and social justice. All grants must benefit a priority population within the community, defined in the legislative code to include BIPOC, low-income, people with disabilities and other underserved groups. A grant committee made up of residents representing these priority populations provide funding recommendations. Their involvement ensures that funding supports community-chosen projects, that BIPOC and frontline communities are involved from start to finish, and that funds are reaching the people who need them most. When this all happens, cities are directly contributing to procedural and distributional equity.  

4) Leverage municipal renewable energy contracting to achieve community co-benefits.  

City governments can use their buying power and contracting processes to expand impact beyond a cleaner grid and reduced GHG emissions. As cities sign increasingly large off-site power purchase agreements (PPAs) for renewable energy, they should include equity criteria in the bid evaluation process, as Chicago did in one of the largest and most innovative municipal renewable energy solicitations so far. This massive project includes specific requirements for inclusion of equity and community benefits, such as the impact contracts will have on local supply chains, job growth, and diversity in developer and retail supply companies.

5) Use solar development to create high-quality green jobs.  

Government-led on-site solar development projects offer a key pathway for clean energy to benefit BIPOC and low-income communities through local job training and employment.  

To ensure that small businesses and nonprofits benefit from a commitment to siting 25 megawatts (MW) of renewables on its properties by 2025, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) created a program for community solar projects built by community-based organizations and installers. Projects must employ NYCHA residents, develop career-path green jobs and enroll low- and moderate-income customers as subscribers, including residents of New York City housing.  

6) Improve health outcomes by deploying clean technologies.  

Frontline communities comprised of low-income and BIPOC are disproportionately impacted by air pollution from transportation and fossil-fueled power. However, the deployment of new clean energy technologies — from rooftop solar to electric vehicles and electric school buses — tends to be prioritized in wealthier communities, with less efficient and less thoughtful rollouts (or sometimes none at all) in frontline communities.  

Cities can help flip this narrative through strategic clean energy projects, as East Bay Clean Energy did when it replaced a gas-powered peaker plant — a plant used during times of peak demand — with utility-scale battery storage in a low-income community in Oakland, CA. The battery storage project is anticipated to improve air quality and health outcomes, such as by decreasing asthma rates.   

7) Remove cost barriers to solar for energy-burdened residents.  

When paired with energy efficiency upgrades, residential solar programs can help those living in older, less efficient housing who spend a disproportionate share of their incomes on energy bills (this is known as “energy burden,” and it’s higher in BIPOC households.) Washington, D.C., for example, is working with organizations within the city to offer no-cost solar installations to single-family, income-eligible households, with the goal of providing 100,000 low- and moderate-income families with locally generated clean energy.  

For those who rent or who can’t afford the upfront costs of rooftop solar, community solar programs can provide similar benefits. The NY-Sun Solar for All Program, a state-administered utility bill assistance program, provides free community solar subscriptions and credits for income-qualified utility customers.   

Building a Clean Energy Future in All Communities 

While integrating equity into clean energy initiatives may seem daunting at first, cities can leverage an increasing body of knowledge and community of practice. No matter which clean energy initiative a city chooses, each step along the way holds opportunities to engage the community, integrate equity and maximize benefits for those who need them most. 

City leadership can’t go it alone. Working in close partnership with community-based organizations and frontline and BIPOC community members throughout planning and implementation will bring intimate knowledge of community needs and challenges to create durable, innovative solutions. By co-developing clean energy goals, local governments and communities can make progress towards an equitable clean energy future.