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Energy justice is the next civil rights issue

Shalanda Baker thinks clean energy can help heal America's legacy of racism. That's why she's joined the Biden Administration.

By Erick Trickey

The air in Port Arthur, Texas, smelled like sulfur. It stung the nose of 7-year-old Shalanda Baker, a city girl spending a summer with her father in the Gulf Coast refinery town.

The murky-brown Gulf of Mexico also “carried a stench,” Baker, a Northeastern University law professor, writes in her new book, Revolutionary Power, “but my dad and the other men dipped their nets and lines, in search of shrimp, crab, and fish, into the oil-slicked waters.”

To Baker’s father, who worked for the local electric company, Port Arthur was simply home. But it was, and still is, a deeply inhospitable environment in the shadow of six petrochemical plants, including the nation’s largest oil refinery. The American Lung Association gives the city’s air quality a grade of F. “Port Arthur is the epicenter of our modern fossil-fuel industry,” Baker says — which makes it an epicenter of the climate crisis. It’s also a classic example of a community facing environmental injustice — a place where people of color make up 80% of the city’s residents and live with unusually high amounts of pollution.

For Baker, that’s personal. “I come from a family where people have died too young, in their 30s, 40s, 50s,” she told a group of environmental justice advocates on a Zoom call this winter. Heart disease killed her father at 53 and her uncle at 38. It contributed to her grandmother’s death at 44. Baker believes Port Arthur’s dirty air contributed to their early deaths — and studies have found direct links between air pollution and both lung cancer and atherosclerosis, or clogged arteries. “I didn’t get to know that part of my family because of the type of place that Port Arthur is,” she said.

Her late father’s hometown helped form Baker’s worldview: that electricity is the next big civil rights issue. That idea launched a career that took her from Japan to Mexico and from Hawaii to Boston, where she co-founded the Initiative for Energy Justice at Northeastern to include people of color in the fight against climate change. Now, it’s taken her to Washington, D.C.: Baker, 44, was recently appointed the U.S. Department of Energy’s deputy director for energy justice.

The new frontier of environmental justice, though, might not look exactly like Port Arthur. Instead, it could be a town in the shadow of a wind farm. That’s a surprising insight from Baker’s academic work and a challenge in her new job: to bring forgotten voices into conversations about energy — not just about fossil fuels, but about wind and solar energy as well.

Energy justice starts with the idea that injustice is baked into today’s fossil-fuel-driven energy system. People of color and the poor are more likely to live near polluting power plants. Power blackouts hit their neighborhoods more often. Energy bills take up a huge share of their household budgets. The effects became clear in Texas in February, when unusually cold weather taxed the state’s electricity grid, leading to rolling blackouts that affected some communities far more than others.

But the concept of energy justice also extends to the climate movement — and, Baker argues, that’s especially important as new voices take over Washington and our energy industry transitions to solar and wind. Without a commitment to energy justice — to advance the interests of communities like Port Arthur, and to make sure they benefit from solar and wind power — Baker warns that the clean-energy industry could leave the disadvantaged behind, just as today’s energy industry does.

“Often, communities of color have seen this environmental movement as something that’s apart from them,” Baker said in an interview this winter, pursing her lips and furrowing her brow as she emphasized the divide. “Reframing that, so that communities of color see themselves as participants in this transition, will be really powerful.”

Revolutionary Power — a book whose cover image shows fists raised in Black Power salutes, with one fist holding a wind-turbine tower — begins with two tales from Baker’s life. The first is her childhood summer visiting her father in Port Arthur (she grew up with her mother, in Austin). The second is a year she spent living in Oaxaca, Mexico.

In 2009, Baker was living in Tokyo and working at a corporate law firm, drafting documents for large energy project transactions, including fossil-fuel and renewable energy. She was 32, a Northeastern University law school graduate, when the Great Recession and global warming prodded her conscience. While her family back home struggled financially, she says, her colleagues in Tokyo were working to protect wealthy clients from the economic collapse. Meanwhile, the Earth was setting new records for the warmest year ever.

“I had decided to become a lawyer to make the world a better place, not to help perpetuate inequality and preserve a broken system,” Baker writes. She quit her job and headed to Mexico to brush up on her Spanish. “In January 2010, I landed in the city of Oaxaca on a one-way ticket, with the only sure thing being that I would work with someone, somewhere, against injustice.”

In Oaxaca, the poorest and windiest state in Mexico, Baker met Indigenous activists opposed to large wind-farm projects in the region. At a dusty meeting hall in the mountains, she listened to the activists’ complaints. They reminded her of other communities’ arguments against oil and gas developments: “dispossession, displacement, environmental harm, unfair contracts, [and] racism,” she writes.

Baker warns that the clean energy industry could leave the disadvantaged behind, just as today’s energy industry does.

A wind farm can seem like an obvious win for the fight against climate change: It’s renewable energy, so it has to be good. But Baker cuts against that orthodoxy and introduces a new idea: Before you decide a clean-energy project is worth pursuing, you have to consult the people who will be most directly affected — and make sure they participate and benefit.

That step is still missing in Oaxaca, where many critics have recently amplified the concerns that Indigenous groups voiced to Baker more than a decade ago. In Oaxaca, “wind energy development has faced social conflicts between communities, which has resulted in bitterness, violence, legal proceedings, a canceled project, and even one death,” four Mexican scholars reported in a 2020 paper. “It seems that the only beneficiaries are the farmers who rent their land for the installation of the wind turbines.”

Baker returned to the U.S. determined to press the wind and solar industries to do better. She began by teaching courses on climate change and human rights at the University of Wisconsin and University of San Francisco law schools. In 2014, she took a job as a law professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and founded the law school’s energy justice program. Shortly after she arrived, Baker held listening sessions on Oahu’s North Shore, where immigrants and farmers live near famed surfing beaches. In all, she talked to more than 100 people about their hopes for the future of energy in Hawaii.

An enthusiastic speaker with a positive lilt in her voice, even when she’s speaking about injustice and the climate crisis, Baker has a wide, slightly gap-toothed smile. Her eagerness reflects her idea that a key to energy justice is getting people to participate in conversations about electricity. “One of the things that struck me right away about Shalanda was her curiosity and her approach to learning,” says Melissa Miyashiro, managing director for strategy and policy at the Honolulu-based Blue Planet Foundation. “I remember her taking very deliberate efforts to meet with as many people as she could and just listen.”

Sometimes, those listening sessions helped Baker with traditional fights. She joined the advocates who successfully fought to block a Florida company from acquiring Hawaii’s main electrical supplier — a deal that many worried would raise energy rates for Hawaiians.

But Baker found that the voices she was hearing in Oahu were also absent from conversations about renewable energy. Oahu’s North Shore was home to all of the island’s wind farms, yet its residents had little say about their development. “The state was allowing the siting of large-scale clean energy in rural communities and communities of color without really engaging them in that process,” she recalls.

In some ways, Hawaii was on the leading edge of the renewable energy movement. Its leaders saw solar and wind power as a way to relieve the state’s heavy energy burden: Hawaii’s electricity rates are twice the national average, because it generates most of its power from imported petroleum.

So in 2015, Hawaii became the first state to require its electrical utilities to generate 100% of their power from renewable energy sources by 2045. At the same time, Hawaii passed a community-solar law, meant to allow renters and condo owners to buy a stake in community-run solar energy projects.

But when Baker met with environmental advocates and solar developers to talk about how to implement community solar, they balked at her idea of including low-income people. “I said, ‘Where do we fit equity into what we’re doing?’” Baker recalls. “It was like heads were exploding.” She says environmentalists and developers were reluctant to “create any ambitious carve-outs for low- to moderate-income people,” afraid that such a requirement would derail the whole effort.

Baker calls that notion “climate change fundamentalism,” and says it’s common among well-intentioned, longtime environmental advocates: They think the climate crisis is such an emergency that clean-energy development is all that matters, not whom it benefits. “In Hawaii, I realized that a lot of the traditional environmental advocacy organizations … didn’t have an equity analysis,” Baker says.

Today, some of Hawaii’s environmental activists say Baker was right. Hawaii’s community-solar law is “a failure as a program so far,” says Isaac Moriwake, managing attorney in Honolulu for the environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice. Red tape has kept Hawaii’s solar-energy boom from reaching beyond homeowners to renters, let alone lower-income people, Moriwake says. And residents of Oahu’s North Shore have organized against two large wind farms, arguing that one was built too close to a town and a school and that both farms’ turbine blades kill endangered species, including the Hawaiian hoary bat.

“Dr. Baker was ahead of her time in advancing this discussion of energy justice in Hawaii,” Moriwake says. “If we don’t get the community engagement, involvement, and empowerment side of the equation right in this clean-energy push, at the very least it’s going to delay and sidetrack us. And it might actually sabotage this entirely.”

Baker took the lessons she learned from Hawaii and Mexico — where she also went on a Fulbright scholarship in 2016 — and applied them to her work at Northeastern, where she joined the faculty in 2017.

Some of Baker’s work has illuminated ways that government can neglect disadvantaged populations — and how seemingly benign political catchphrases can justify inaction. In 2018, Baker and a Northeastern colleague, public-policy professor Laura Kuhl, spent a week in Puerto Rico to see how rural communities had coped with power losses after Hurricane Maria. They learned about small solar-energy projects that community groups had set up to keep people’s cell phones charged and the local wells pumping out water. The groups had acted on their own because the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, already bankrupt before the storm struck, had failed for months to restore power to their towns.

Baker and Kuhl also sent two Northeastern students to the island to interview residents. The students found that the word “resilience” — usually a positive concept among sustainability advocates — had acquired a negative connotation among Puerto Ricans. It turns out, Baker says, that government officials there often cited the “resilience” of the people, as they coped without power, to deflect attention from the failures of the long-neglected electrical grid. “Resilience was something being used by the government as a term to sort of say, ‘We have no responsibility for what’s going on here, and the people of Puerto Rico are resilient,’” Baker says. “So because they’re resilient, that means that there’s little government intervention.”

To encourage governments to do better, Baker co-founded the Initiative for Energy Justice in 2018. The organization produces an Energy Justice Workbook and a Justice in 100 Scorecard, which advise policymakers, activists, and scholars on how to include the poor and people of color in the transition to clean energy. The initiative has also advocated for fair energy policies across the United States. It has questioned the decisions that Pacific Gas and Electric made to shut off power during California wildfires. And it has argued that many states were too quick to end their moratoriums on utility shutoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As more and more states pass their own clean energy laws — seven states now require their electrical utilities to switch to 100% clean energy by mid-century, and 23 more have adopted renewable energy standards — the initiative is demanding that energy justice be part of the calculation. “We’ve now incentivized most utilities just to sell electricity,” Baker says. “We can incentivize them to put clean energy in communities of color.”

This cutting-edge argument is just starting to catch on. Baker is a fan of New York state’s 2019 clean-energy law, which requires 100% clean electricity by 2040 and declares that 35% of the benefits of the state’s clean-energy and energy-efficiency spending should go to disadvantaged communities. Subin DeVar, director of the Initiative for Energy Justice, is working with groups in Washington state to bring equity to the state’s 2019 law that calls for 100% clean energy by 2045.

President Joe Biden has declared that he’ll bring that same goal to his climate agenda. On January 27, Biden announced the Justice40 Initiative, which calls for 40% of the benefits from climate-related federal investments to go to disadvantaged communities. Baker’s new job in the Department of Energy will be to turn that intention into reality.

“It feels like it’s a do-or-die moment, and I’m up for it,” Baker told environmental-justice advocates on a February 25 Zoom call. Her description of her job revealed her far-reaching aspiration: “trying to heal this legacy of structural racism in our country through energy policy.” In practical terms, Baker will work within the vague language of Biden’s order to define which disadvantaged communities should benefit and how.

“There’s tons of research initiatives that are being run out of the Department of Energy, and that will be an interesting place to think about equity issues,” Baker says. Biden has proposed major investments in clean energy, some of which could fall under Baker’s purview. Justice40’s benefits don’t have to be all direct spending, Baker notes — they can include health benefits and access to jobs.

Through Justice40, Baker could reduce poor people’s energy burdens, says Olivia Nedd, access and equity director of Vote Solar, an advocacy group. While the average American spends about 3.5% of income on energy costs, some disadvantaged people spend as much as 19% of their incomes to keep the lights on, Nedd says. Department of Energy programs such as weatherization assistance, to make homes more energy-efficient, are meant to help low-income people, but “they aren’t getting the people who need it the most,” Nedd says.

Changing that won’t be easy. Government help often skips the neediest for many reasons, environmental-justice groups say. Federal aid, instead of flowing to the most troubled communities, often goes to moderately disadvantaged places that know how to work the system. And poor communities often disagree with the government about whether a program will truly benefit them.

Still, by the time the administration is done, Baker says, “I think we’ll see more clean energy in polluted communities. We’ll see more jobs — union, high-paying jobs, with an opportunity for advancement. We’ll see businesses that are spearheaded by folks that come from disadvantaged communities.”

If Biden’s climate agenda succeeds, Baker hopes it will benefit the places where she’s directed her professional work. In Hawaii, she hopes that on Oahu’s western shore, “where a lot of the dirty generation is,” native Hawaiians and people of color will have their own clean-energy businesses and share energy from small wind and solar projects. “We know that in the climate future we face, we’ll need a more nimble electricity system and grid,” she says. She imagines solar panels on public housing, cutting the energy costs of the people living there.

In California, “we know that wildfire threats are going to become more commonplace,” Baker says. “If that threat is hundreds of miles away, it shouldn’t affect you in an urban area. You should be able to disconnect and have a battery that keeps your refrigerator cold and keeps you connected to a ventilator if you need one.”

And in Port Arthur, her father’s hometown, Baker hopes to see access to solar energy, less pollution, and new jobs in the clean-energy economy for oil and chemical-plant workers. Where sulfuric fumes now rise from refineries, workers could build twirling wind turbines and shiny panels that soak up sunlight. “We need to make sure,” she says, “that those communities who have been supported by this industry have a new role to play in the clean-energy economy.”

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Erick Trickey is Experience's Associate Editor. He has written for Politico Magazine, The Washington Post, Boston magazine, and more.

Top photo: Central American migrants pass by wind generators in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Cristopher Rogel Blanquet / Getty Images


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