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Energy Justice to Play Key Role in Clean Energy Funding Decisions

With more than $100 billion in federal clean energy funding set to be distributed for various projects aimed at reducing climate change, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has a big job ahead.

“We are getting ready to take all of that funding information out into the street and into communities,” said Sonrisa Lucero, a special advisor for stakeholder engagement in the DOE Office of Economic Impact and Diversity. Part of that outreach effort includes “energy justice,” which is based on acknowledging and addressing historical inequities in pollution from fossil fuel energy production and the resulting health effects, as well as energy insecurity, in minority communities.

Lucero was the speaker at the Center for Energy Policy & Management's recent “Justice40: Bringing Energy Transition Benefits to Disadvantaged Communities” webinar that was part of the Energy Lecture Series.

“Energy justice explicitly centers its efforts on front-line communities that are experiencing the effects of climate change,” Lucero said, explaining that energy and environmental justice includes four tenets: procedural - broad and meaningful participation in the decision-making; recognition - respect and honor of divergent cultural and local knowledge; distributive - equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens; and restorative - repair harms done to communities and the environment.

Among the questions that must be asked when addressing energy justice are what is the decision-making process; how are benefits distributed and to whom, and “How are we making sure that those who were left out and excluded are now at the front of the line?,” Lucero said.

The DOE’s plan is the Justice40 initiative, which was created during the first week of President Biden’s administration, and requires that 40 percent of the overall benefits of clean energy projects flow to disadvantaged communities. “It’s a whole-of-government approach” to including energy justice in every decision, she explained.

Justice40 priorities include decreasing the energy burden and environmental exposure in disadvantaged communities and well as increasing clean energy access and adoption, access to low-cost capital; clean energy enterprise creation, jobs and job training; energy resiliency and community ownership.

Lucero explained that Council on Environmental Quality has created the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, an interactive map using datasets that are indicators of burdens in eight categories: climate change, energy, health, housing, legacy pollution, transportation, water and wastewater, and workforce development to identify communities considered to be disadvantaged.

The main mechanism for implementing energy justice in the Justice40 initiative is through a community benefit plan, which is a requirement for any project formally seeking clean energy funding and makes up 20 percent of the application’s value. The plan must provide a specific, measurable, realistic and time-based way that the project will meet goals related to diversity, access to good jobs and business opportunities, and workforce and community agreements.

Lucero noted that special reviewers with expertise in certain areas will evaluate the plans throughout the project. She also said that while community groups can have a say in a project after funding is awarded, the DOE is working to develop a better system to get the community involved at a earlier stage.

“The main time to engage is before we even know where a project is going to go,” she said, so the community can have input on what it would like to see and where it should be located. The DOE recognizes there is a “big gap” there and is working on a solution.

But for now, “if a project is awarded in your area, reach out right away because they have to have a community benefits plan,” she said, and community organizations can help shape that project.

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