The NPA, net metering, and trickle down eco-nomics

Image: Single Mothers Self Defence at a protest organized by Fuel Poverty Action UK in 2013

This is a really brief response to Brentin Mock's piece on Grist about a recent resolution by the National Policy Alliance, an organization of black politicians, on solar energy.

Here's the controversial text from the NPA's resolution:

"WHEREAS, net metering policies allow customers with rooftop solar or other DG systems to unfairly profit from exporting excess energy back to the grid while penalizing customers with basic energy needs who cannot afford rooftop solar or other DG systems; and
WHEREAS, African American households experience disproportionate levels of poverty, exceeding the national average, and have lower household income than their non-African American counterparts; and
WHEREAS, a lack of electric power affordability disproportionately impacts economically disadvantaged sectors and threatens the long term financial stability of our country; …"
Mock, a black journalist who writes on environmental justice matters for Grist, goes on to show some solid detective work on NPA's relationship with the Edison Electric Institute, a right wing think tank with strong links to the fossil fuel industry that's running its own campaign against net metering. 
While I'm glad to see a critical eye cast on the NPA for launching a campaign that is most likely motivated by cronyism and self interest, that doesn't mean that their arguments aren't worth consideration.

I'm generally a big fan of Brentin Mock. But I'm really surprised at his response to this, in that he comes across as saying that the benefits of white upper/middle class consumers putting up solar panels will trickle down to black and low income communities through increased health benefits.
I became aware of Mock's two articles on this controversy through a Facebook post from the Post Carbon Institute (PCI), a green think tank. Here's their own description of the work they do:
"Post Carbon Institute provides individuals, communities, businesses, and governments with the resources needed to understand and respond to the interrelated economic, energy, environmental, and equity crises that define the 21st century. We envision a world of resilient communities and re-localized economies that thrive within ecological bonds."
On the Facebook post, PCI added "This makes us very sad. And even sadder that this is being billed a racial issue. Why must we go there?" Rather than dismiss this outright and be like "You went there?", PCI would do better to examine the reality that the system as it is for market-based solar feed in tariffs in many communities favors white, upper, and middle-class consumers because they are better able to afford upfront costs involved. Yes, some places offer grants, but access to and knowledge of these grants, where they exist (their existence is often overexaggerated) is unevenly distributed.
What the NPA got wrong is that the commodification of energy - not solar panels - is the real culprit here, and that policymakers and nonprofits need to focus their efforts on handling those upfront costs necessary to provide renewable energy co-ops for low income and disadvantaged communities.

Clean energy is not a privilege. It's a right. The progressive case for solar generally doesn't treat it as a right, though. In the US, we're more likely to hear about the promise of green energy jobs for low income communities - again, renewables as a trickle-down solution. 
Fuel Poverty Action a UK-based group that Naomi Klein has called "one of the best campaigns of its kind in the world", approaches clean, renewable energy as a basic right and singles out the market-based energy system as the main culprit responsible for depriving the most vulnerable people in society from that right. Fuel Poverty Action has also recently released its "Energy Bill of Rights". 
1. We all have the right to affordable energy to meet our basic needs.
2. We all have the right to energy that does not threaten health, safety, water, air, or the local environment of a community. 
3. We all have the right to a fair energy pricing system that does not penalize those who use less. 
4. We all have the right to not be cut off from our energy supply. 
5. We all have the right not to be forced to have a prepayment meter.
6. We all have the right to energy that is owned by us and run in our interests.
7. We all have the right to properly insulated, well repaired housing that does not waste energy.
Conclusion: Let's criticize the NPA, but let's not kid ourselves that renewable energy advocacy mostly focuses on benefiting white people in the US. Groups like Groundswell and small cooperatives are doing a great job at incorporating energy justice into their campaigns, but as a whole, green nonprofits need to do better.


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