What Is Energy Equity? Aiding an Equitable Energy Transition. Skip to content

What Is Energy Equity and How Can We Enable an Equitable Energy Transition?

The Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) has been at the forefront of the clean energy transition, incorporating equity into its core principles over several years.

In our pursuit of a deeper understanding of energy equity and SEPA’s role in fostering it, we had the opportunity to sit down with Mary Palmer, Director of Energy Equity & Inclusion at SEPA.

What is Energy Equity?

Interviewer: I think many readers have been exposed to the terms diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, access, and belonging. Many have likely participated in training at their workplaces, but can you explain the term “energy equity” and elaborate on what it means?

Mary Palmer: Usually when people refer to DEIJ/A/B, they are talking about training like unconscious bias or policies related to hiring and internal processes that foster inclusion. Those internal initiatives support energy equity, but they are different. Energy Equity is about ensuring that the benefits and burdens of energy policies, programs, and technologies are fairly distributed and that the processes used to develop and implement them are inclusive and accessible. Striving for equity in the energy system also includes addressing past harms and injustices and proactively working to prevent future ones.

Interviewer: That’s a lot packed into one paragraph!

Mary Palmer: It is. I’ll break into the main parts and elaborate. Within the energy system, there are a lot of opportunities or benefits. These include jobs within electric companies, opportunities to start new businesses like installing clean energy systems, developing software to support electric vehicle charging stations, building manufacturing facilities, launching clean energy communications and public relations firms, and more.

Interviewer: But there is the other side of the coin, right?

Mary Palmer: Unfortunately, yes. There can be environmental and health hazards related to energy projects. The industry is anticipating a reduction of these point source emissions as we transition away from fossil fuels. However, there are still manufacturing processes and mining considerations related to clean energy production that can be negative. In the past, these facilities were placed near communities, often poor and people of color, without sufficient consent. The contaminants would then leak into the air and local water sources. There’s also the program side. Many companies have set up programs to encourage people to install solar panels on their homes or buy electric vehicles. I credit these programs for really getting early adopters over the initial hump. But, we also need to consider how to engage community members who do not own their homes or rely on public transportation.

Interviewer: So there are many layers to just this one part?

Mary Palmer: Thanks for pulling me out of the weeds! Yes, in fact, we should have a few follow-up conversations to dive deeper into each of these and some of the innovative solutions that we think could be replicated.

Interviewer: Good idea! So what about the other aspects of the definition?

Mary Palmer: The second part of the definition addresses the accessibility and inclusivity of the processes used to develop and implement clean energy policies and programs. The last sentence is referring to the need to recognize the historical, cultural, and institutional dynamics that have led to inequities in the energy system.

What is the Role of Equity in the Energy Transition?

Interviewer: Could you shed light on the role of equity during the energy transition? What opportunities do you see for the 2030 club members, events, working groups and internal operations?

Mary Palmer: Absolutely. Whether it’s policy, energy resilience, or the adoption of clean energy technologies, we’re looking at these through an equity lens.

Earlier I mentioned the need to address the accessibility and inclusivity of the processes used to develop and implement clean energy policy and programs. Well, an integral part of that is being able to identify communities and how well state programs are serving them. Our resilience team worked with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s (NCDEQ) State Energy Office to create a mapping tool that identifies equity-related characteristics of communities across the state and compares their need for various types of support.

For our 2030 Club members, this approach opens up new opportunities. It’s not just about reaching carbon reduction targets; it’s about doing so in a way that uplifts communities. This could involve prioritizing energy infrastructure upgrades in disadvantaged communities or leveraging clean energy projects and technologies as vehicles to create regenerative economic opportunities.

Finally, SEPA has become known for co-hosting RE+ events throughout the year. Our programming team works diligently with our co-host SEIA to ensure the educational content is dynamic and evaluates solutions with all impacted parties. I’ll never forget, one of the first sessions I attended at an event was about rate design, and it included the perspectives of a utility, solar developer, policy-maker, and an organization that offers workforce development services to low- to moderate-income customers. These conversations are difficult, but they model the inclusion of the variety of perspectives and experiences necessary for shaping a holistic approach to energy solutions.

Internally, SEPA is committed to practicing what we preach. In 2021, SEPA partnered with Cream City Conservation to conduct an employee culture assessment survey and develop SEPA’s Roadmap to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice. Creating the plan was just the first step. The DEIJ Workgroup, a committee of rotating staff members, works collaboratively to implement this plan, helping SEPA stay accountable to its DEIJ commitments. Learn more here.

What are the Key Considerations for Achieving an Equitable Energy Future?

Interviewer: What are you most excited about in the energy equity space this year?

Mary Palmer: In the industry at large or at SEPA?

Interviewer: Both

Mary Palmer:

The Department of Energy released an update to its equity action plan in February that includes five new strategies to bolster energy equity; the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) made an important ruling that granted Tribal nations more power to block hydropower projects on their land, and there are so many innovative ways that our members are rolling out new initiatives. These give me optimism because they signal that the commitment to energy equity will be here in the long term.

SEPA believes in the efficacy of invoking systematic approaches to tackle challenges. This is why we develop playbooks, frameworks, and other tools for our members. One of which is a comprehensive toolkit of transportation electrification benchmarking and metrics called Benchmarking Equitable Transformation. We have many more projects under development this year that I am excited to see come to fruition.

We are expanding the map that I mentioned earlier to include some features that will help bridge the gap between utilities and regulators and the communities they serve. We are exploring mechanisms to make public charging rates for electric vehicles on par with at-home so that non-homeowners can also charge their vehicles affordably. We are asking the difficult questions about emerging technologies, such as carbon capture and hydrogen, to ensure equity is being considered on the front end, and we are investing in and elevating its community of EE&I change-makers.

This last part makes me especially excited. The initiatives that I am leading to develop meaningful reciprocal relationships with our members and community-based organizations are the backbone of what will drive the change toward a more inclusive and sustainable world.

Interviewer: I know that we need to wrap this up, but any last thoughts?

Mary Palmer:

Energy equity does not exist in a vacuum. It exists because of the legacy of historical, cultural, and institutional dynamics that have led to inequities in the energy system. Facing the roots of those issues can be deeply personal and painful. But, I am convinced that we can do this. I’m also convinced that we can create a new legacy. Energy equity is more than a way to address the past. It’s also a catalyst to explore a plethora of opportunities. Opportunities to increase Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM) education, cultivate innovation, create regenerative economic opportunities, spur economic development, and inspire civic engagement.

We encourage our readers to become active participants in this journey by exploring SEPA’s tools and events, staying informed, and advocating for equitable energy policies within their organizations.

Together, we can work toward a future where clean energy is accessible to all.

To learn more and get involved, reach out to Mary Palmer, Director of Energy Equity and Inclusion at [email protected].

Before you go, discover your role in the equitable energy transition by checking out these related resources from SEPA’s Energy Equity & Inclusion page and Knowledge Center. You can start making a real difference today.