Highlights of the 2020 Vision Summit Consumer Panel

In early 2020, before COVID-19 swept the country, IREC held our annual Vision Summit conference. The 2020 Vision Summit gathered leaders from all over the country to discuss clean energy and strategies to surmount the barriers to reaching  100% clean energy. 

One of four panels of experts, Consumer and Community Benefits of Clean Energy panel included five speakers, each with a different perspective on clean energy work. Their insights contributed to a vibrant discussion of equitable access to clean energy for all consumers. This article will highlight the factors that impact equitable access to the ability to use clean energy and be employed in clean energy,  as well as how we can improve issues of inequity.

There were five speakers on the panel: 

Together the panelists answered major questions facing the clean energy industry today about how to ensure equitable access to the benefits of clean energy are accessible to all. 

Factors that Affect Access to Clean Energy

In order to make progress in creating a clean energy industry that 100% of consumers have access to, our panelists believed that the overall focus should be on educating consumers and refining program design.

Consumers have differing wants, needs, and finances to work with when thinking about getting involved in clean energy. Some consumers may want to know how their house’s energy system works, where they can get energy from, or how they can save money. Others may want an energy system that is easy, cheap, or doesn’t require them to know or do anything.

Education on clean energy options and benefits are not always easily accessible or known to those living in frontline communities (those that bear the first and worst impacts of climate change—typically communities of color and low-income communities), but it is important for those communities to know their options so that they can reap the benefits of clean energy.

Clean energy program design may not always match what a community truly needs. For that reason community ideas and opinions are essential to good program design. Straightforward program design, along with outreach campaigns grounded in the needs of the audience can lead to successful clean energy programs in underserved communities.

The Role of Clean Energy and Energy Efficiency in Healthy Homes

The panelists stressed that one of the reasons access to clean energy and energy efficiency is so important is that it has a significant impact on health and safety. An important topic of discussion among the panelists was the importance of stable and healthy housing; unfortunately, having a healthy house has not historically been accessible to everyone, especially those in frontline communities. 

Healthy homes go hand-in-hand with both physical and emotional health. Households with high energy burden homes or homes with environmental pollutants such as lead or dander from pests, have negative health outcomes. Residents may be forced to move homes because of high energy bills or health concerns due to the home. These moves take an economic and emotional toll on residents and their families. When homes are instead built efficiently, with proper weatherization, and residents have access to affordable renewable energy, emotional and physical health outcomes improve.

“There is increased interest in understanding the potential home occupant health benefits of energy efficiency investments due to improved indoor air quality, safety, and comfort. Energy efficiency providers are exploring ways to work with health partners to leverage the energy efficiency workforce,” as nonprofit E4TheFuture explains in its publication Occupant Health Benefits of Residential Energy Efficiency. “While delivering energy efficiency, workers can identify opportunities that may improve health outcomes, particularly for occupants with pre-existing health risks linked to their home environment.”

Job Creation in Frontline Communities

Employment opportunities in clean energy can alleviate poverty in frontline communities and lead to increased wealth. Workers that are cross-trained in multiple fields, such as health and clean energy, earn, on average, $4-8 more than those trained in a single trade, yet the field lacks these types of cross-trained workers. 

The panelists agreed that all people, no matter their income level, should have access to these types of opportunities and that focusing on workforce development at the local level can tremendously improve the lives of those living in frontline communities.

The panelists pointed out that inclusive hiring practices also have the benefit of helping companies gain new customers in communities they may not have traditionally served, thus increasing equity in another way. They highlighted lack of trust of clean energy companies, particularly solar, in some communities, due to actual or perceived scams. Hiring trusted members of local communities, and equipping them with information, can lead to more consumers in the community placing their confidence in clean energy. 

How to Better Understand the Needs of Frontline Community Consumers

Our panelists sought to reveal some specific ways which the clean energy sector could improve methods of helping consumers, particularly ones in frontline communities. They answered the questions of what they believed consumers would want them to know, as well as how the private sector could better serve these communities. 

What Do Consumers Want the Clean Energy Industry to Know? 

Consumers seem to desire participation in clean energy and want access to its benefits. The panelists discussed topics that they believed consumers would want the clean energy sector to know. First, every household is different and requires different energy solutions. Listening to the consumers and the community is the best solution to these differences because the people know what their specific needs are. Second, educating the public on the cost and benefits of a clean energy project is crucial because in the past, there has been a disconnect between the two. Third, constancy and consistency build trust and permanency over time. Lastly, projects, utilities, and organizations should be honest, approachable, straightforward, up-front, and easy to access.

What Can the Clean Energy Private Sector Do to Better Serve Frontline Communities?

According to our panelists, clean energy companies have a responsibility to provide clean energy and energy efficiency services to underserved communities and they gave advice on how this can be done. They recommended the creation of more comprehensive clean energy programs in frontline communities, as well as investing in workforce development, toolkits, and job training. 

Companies may also benefit from partnership with the public sector to expand funding available to these communities. Meeting consumers where they are financially is important in establishing trust between the two parties. Lastly, the private sector should remember that they are responsible for building a social impact bond, a partnership that aims to improve social outcomes for this specific group of people.

Actions Our Panelists Believed are Necessary to Progress Toward 100% Clean Energy Goals

In addition to highlighting the importance of access to clean energy and energy efficiency benefits from an equity standpoint for individuals and communities, the panelists also discussed how equity connects to our ability to achieve clean energy goals. Here are some of the topics our panelists believed would enable progress toward 100% clean energy goals:

  1. Aggregation: Our panelists believed that towns and cities should be able to choose where their energy comes from, including choosing from a renewable source. Right now, only three or four states have this option available. Moving along in the aggregation process would help push the clean energy agenda.
  2. Social determinants of health: According to one of our panelists, health programs, such as Medicaid, should account for the benefits of energy efficiency and requirements to provide these benefits. As E4TheFuture has noted, “Some states have begun integrating health and energy efficiency programs, to improve outcomes for human health in addition to saving energy. Because health and efficiency projects cross sectors, initiatives are frequently collaborative among departments or organizations.” Although it is an ambitious hope for the future, programs should ensure that beneficiaries are entitled to energy efficiency benefits.
  3. Job Creation: Proper job training helps residents of frontline communities not only acquire jobs, but also receive higher pay. It is important that the clean energy sector makes strategic investments in an inclusive workforce to enable 100% clean energy because that will provide a larger workforce and push projects needed for bold clean energy goals. This includes increasing the number of woman- and minority-owned business enterprises. As the industry grows, it is important to ensure that hiring practices are inclusive so the benefits of employment can reach diverse audiences.
  4. Legal commitment to 100% clean energy: According to our panel, legally-binding commitments to 100% clean energy by state and local governments are necessary to move forward in the process. When decisions are legally binding, progress is achieved more quickly and consumers start benefiting sooner.
  5. Partnerships: Community organizations, government, utilities, and industry organizations need to build partnerships to better serve these populations of vulnerable and underserved communities. Creating partnerships built around teamwork, openness, and honesty is required to maintain good relationships and have success in the field beyond traditional markets.

IREC’s 2020 Vision Summit provided rich information about the consumer and community benefits of clean energy and how access can be improved for frontline communities. It demonstrated why energy justice is an important element of plans to reach 100% clean energy. Improving access for underserved communities provides a strong and larger workforce, new clean energy customers, and benefits to our planet. Looking toward the future, helping these communities will be crucial to reaching 100% clean energy. 

Watch the full video of the panel!

Visit the Vision Summit website