Posted on April 21, 2021

Black People Are Being Shut Out of the Clean Energy Boom

Geoff Dembicki, Vice, April 8, 2021

Ajulo Othow is trying to fix racism and climate change at the same time.

She owns a company in North Carolina that puts solar panels on land owned by Black people. The landowners can potentially earn profits seven times what they might get using their land for crops. The amount they have to pay for electricity—which can exceed 40 percent of people’s incomes in poor rural areas—goes down. And North Carolina becomes less exposed to power outages caused by extreme weather.


Companies like Othow’s are in theory poised for fast growth in the U.S. They could be prime beneficiaries of the $2 trillion infrastructure package now being debated in Congress, which President Joe Biden promises “will lead to a transformational progress in our effort to tackle climate change” while also prioritizing “communities that have historically been left out of these investments: Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American, rural, small businesses, entrepreneurs across the country.”

But the country has a long way to go before Black-owned clean energy businesses become the mainstream in an industry so far largely run by and for white people. “It’s still wrapped up in the systems of the existing economy that we’ve been in for centuries,” Erika Symmonds, the director of workforce development at the clean energy non-profit GRID Alternatives, said. “The industry is coming out of the white supremacist culture we all live in.”

Black workers are underrepresented at companies making our economy greener. Just 8 percent of employees at energy efficiency companies are Black, according to the 2020 U.S. Energy & Employment Report, even though Black people are 12 percent of the national workforce. It’s comparably low for wind, with Black people only representing 8 percent of a workforce that’s 70 percent white. And only 8 percent of solar photovoltaic workers are Black.

Those disparities grow even larger among the people running clean energy companies. The executives of U.S. solar firms are 80 percent male and almost 88 percent white, according to a 2019 industry report. {snip}


This lack of diversity could be skewing business decisions towards the needs of white communities, suggests a study in the scientific journal Nature Sustainability, which found that on average majority white neighborhoods have 21 percent more solar panels installed on their rooftops than Black, Hispanic, and Asian neighborhoods. This is not just about people’s income, the study found, because even relatively wealthy communities of color still have less solar.


The federal government is proposing a solution to this problem. If the Senate approves Biden’s infrastructure bill in its current form, $27 billion could be made available for community-level clean energy projects that might not qualify for traditional loans or financing. At least 40 percent of the investments must go to communities that have not so far benefited from the green economy.