Energy justice is an emerging topic that is receiving attention at the federal and state levels. The U.S. Department of Energy is actively working to implement the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative, a goal that 40% of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy flow to disadvantaged communities. At the state level, some state legislatures have considered measures related to energy justice. Building off the tenets of environmental justice, energy justice refers to the concepts of equity, affordability, accessibility and participation in the energy system and energy transition regardless of race, nationality, income or geographic location.
Advocates for energy justice promote policy measures aimed at reducing energy costs and burdens on low-income customers, avoiding disproportionate impacts and ensuring the equitable distribution of the benefits of energy generation, transmission and transition, access to reliable and clean energy, and participation for communities in energy sector decision-making and development. This paper will examine recent state policy related to energy justice, including energy affordability, infrastructure siting, community renewable energy development, and the incorporation of energy justice considerations into broader emissions reduction and renewable energy programs.
Energy Affordability and Access
The affordability of and access to reliable energy is at the heart of energy justice. Referred to as an “energy burden,” studies have shown that communities of color and low-income families pay a significantly higher share of their income in energy costs. National data show that on average, low-income households pay nearly 9% of their income in energy costs—three times more than non-low-income households. An estimated 25% of households have a high energy burden, considered to be above 6% of household income. An additional 13% of American households have a severe energy burden of paying more 10% of their income on energy. The energy burden has been an issue for communities and legislators for decades and is the impetus behind federal programs such as LIHEAP and other state programs that provide direct financial assistance for low-income families’ energy bills.
Siting of Infrastructure / Participation in Development
Energy justice advocates are also concerned with the siting of energy facilities and infrastructure. Borrowing from decades of environmental justice advocacy, energy justice is concerned with potential pollution, noise or health impacts from energy generation or transmission facilities. On the other hand, communities may benefit in some ways from the siting of certain energy facilities. For example, some states are pursuing the transition away from coal facilities by siting solar (Illinois) or nuclear power (Wyoming) on those former coal sites in an effort to keep jobs and economic development in the community.
Regardless of the impacts associated with the siting of infrastructure within low-income or marginalized communities, participation and representation in the decision-making process surrounding the siting of energy infrastructure is a major tenet of energy justice. Many states have been pursuing legislation that promotes community participation or the consideration of energy justice issues during energy facility siting decisions.
Some states, such as New York, have established councils or task forces aimed at including energy justice and other equity issues in decisions surrounding the state’s energy transition. The state’s Climate Justice Working Group is comprised of representatives from “environmental justice communities” that advise the state regarding the economic and environmental impacts of the state’s transition to clean energy, including clean energy development, energy efficiency programs and low-income energy assistance.
New Jersey enacted SB 232 in 2020 to require the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to evaluate environmental and public health stressors for “overburdened communities” when issuing permits or licenses for regulated activities and facilities. Applicants must submit an environmental justice impact statement for any new or expanded facility, which would include certain energy facilities and infrastructure.
Virginia enacted SB 851 to promote a clean energy transition that benefits low-income and historically economically disadvantaged communities. There are numerous provisions addressing energy justice issues in the bill, including an expansion of the state’s PIPP to reduce energy costs. Notably, the bill also requires the state PUC to ensure the development of new or expanding energy facilities does not have a disproportionate impact on historically economically disadvantaged communities. Additionally, the commission should consider whether the placement of renewable energy facilities provides benefits to those communities and displaced fossil fuel workers.