A Launchpad of a Precipice: Opportunities to Increase Energy Security through Carbon Reduction and Energy Transitions
Society stands at the cusp of a great transition towards carbon-free energy. Ahead of us is a daunting precipice: we must overhaul our relationship with energy if we wish to sustainably exist on Earth. As we approach this challenge, however, we also encounter immense potential for positive change, and we hold a paramount responsibility to carefully craft carbon reduction, recalibrating existing imbalances in access to energy.
According to a study by the Stockholm Environment Institute, energy systems today are rife with gender and social inequities. As institutions face pressure to go carbon-neutral or carbon-free, it is of vital importance to acknowledge that surmounting the carbon problem will not inherently eradicate all inequality. Therefore, we must explore the social impact of carbon reduction efforts, as well as opportunities to increase equity in access to renewable energy.
As institutions face pressure to go carbon-neutral or carbon-free, it is of vital importance to acknowledge that surmounting the carbon problem will not inherently eradicate all inequality.
One metric through which to measure social impact is by examining employment diversity in the renewable energy sector. According to a peer-reviewed study by the University of California Riverside, the renewable energy industry employs proportionally more women than the fossil fuel industry. And while employing more women in the renewable energy sector is certainly a start, it is important to recognize that there is far more to diversity than gender ratios. An essential component of diversity is employing people of color and people from first generation and low income backgrounds.
In fact, when we look at employment by race in the energy industry overall, the lack of diversity is extremely apparent. The 2020 U.S. Energy and Employment Report includes demographics of employees in the fuel sector. A mere 7% of employees in the U.S. fuel sector are Black, and just 1% of employees are Indigenous.
Although the U.S. Energy and Employment Report does not clearly detail a breakdown of employment by race within renewables, general industry data indicates that there is a serious need to increase diversity in employment. As the renewable industry continues to grow, employers should seize the opportunity to hire qualified people of color.
More broadly, intersectionality is of great importance when analyzing the social impact of carbon reduction. Energy accessibility, or lack thereof, is compounded by characteristics such as race, gender, socioeconomic class, age, family background, and much more.
We can also examine carbon reduction efforts by sector and geography. For example, literature on energy transitions often focuses on industries that are considered politically or economically important, such as in transport, as well as in metropolitan areas and industrial hubs. Sectors and areas that have been historically less powerful are relegated to using what little energy leftovers remain. Currently, low carbon alternatives do not stray from this trend, a misfortune that does not bode well for the future of energy accessibility.
One way to counteract the above trend and increase renewable energy accessibility is by developing systems to quantify the compounding factors that affect energy security. A study by the National University of Singapore attempts to create such a system.
In 2011, Prof. Benjamin Sovacool and Dr. Ishani Mukerjee devised a system that uses 372 indicators to inform energy security measurements. These indicators capture the effect of differences in energy access based on household income, household energy use, retail and industrial energy prices, regional price differences, and more.
Sovacool and Mukerjee’s proposal urges countries to use this system to systematically and thoroughly investigate energy security in order to improve access for those who need it most. When employed seriously, such a metric could be immensely effective in increasing energy equity.
Apart from utilizing rigorous metrics such as those proposed by Sovacool and Mukerjee, there are many steps policymakers can take to improve equity in access to renewable energy.
To encourage increased renewable energy, federal authorities can expand energy efficiency tax credits for commercial and residential institutions. In particular, policymakers can create positive economic rewards and tax benefits for corporations that increase access to renewable energy in low income communities and communities with people of color.
Additionally, state and local governments can focus on initiatives that increase construction of renewables in marginalized communities. This action would not only increase renewable energy security in these communities; it would also create more jobs in such areas.
Local governments in particular can play an immense role in increasing renewable energy equity. From 2015 to 2020, U.S. municipalities created 335 renewable energy contracts, which generated 8.28 gigawatts of power. That is roughly the same amount of energy that the states of Rhode Island, Alaska, Hawaii, and Vermont use altogether.
More municipalities should follow suit. In particular, community solar efforts and solar purchase power agreements can be used to increase energy security in low-income or underrepresented communities.
The potential for policymakers to increase renewable energy access and security is enormous, and should be a major focus in the coming years. Although regulating corporate carbon emissions is important, there is much to be done in the way of utilizing renewable energy to empower local communities.
As mentioned earlier, we can think of society’s current standing in the field of energy as the edge of a precipice. Through methods discussed in this article, we’ve seen that policymakers can turn this challenge into an advantage. Energy transitions are a launchpad that, when utilized appropriately, can increase energy accessibility while also reducing impact on the environment. The potential to do so should be explored and acted upon in this critical period of upheaval in the energy industry.
Last updated 10/19/20
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