Can the race toward renewable energy in states across the country fuel an economic renaissance in the communities of color hit hardest by pollution from fossil fuels?  It’s an idea that an alliance of New York-based environmental justice organizations is intent on moving from armchair discussion to reality, with support from Groundswell – and the ear of the Governor’s office.

For generations, communities of color in America have shouldered a disproportionate burden of pollution from the fossil-fuel energy economy and its polluting infrastructure, as well as the health impacts that accompany it.  Meanwhile, the American Association of Blacks in Energy estimates that only 1.1 percent of jobs and 0.01 percent of revenues from the energy sector go to African Americans, even though African Americans put upward of $40 billion annually into the energy sector as consumers. 

“You have this large transfer of wealth that’s racially delineated,” said Kartik Amarnath, the energy planner for the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA), a citywide partnership of grassroots organizations that represent city’s most environmentally burdened communities. 

With an initiative called “REVitalize,” the alliance is working to flip this model in three New York communities by transforming the role of the city’s environmental justice organizations from adversary to advocate.  The name “REVitalize” is a play on REV, Gov. Cuomo’s ambitious initiative to remake New York’s energy systems and reduce its carbon emissions, and a clever reminder that the state should not neglect its most vulnerable communities in its bold new plan. 

 “If we’re going to move toward an energy economy that addresses our climate goals, we need to do so in a way that is inclusive of the very people who have been burdened by the polluting energy economy traditionally,” said Amarnath. “The environmental justice movement has historically and mistakenly been seen as a reactionary movement. REVitalize is an intentional step toward something that is prescriptive rather than adversarial – not just countering what’s happening, but prescribing solutions as well.”

In the energy-burdened communities of West Buffalo, NY, one of those solutions is a community solar array that will lower subscribers’ energy bills and add a physical economic asset to the neighborhood.  The grassroots organization People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo) has started construction on what will be the first community-owned solar project in New York that specifically serves low-income residents.

Community-owned solar also is expected to be part of the solution in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, led by UPROSE, the borough’s oldest Latino community-based organization. Sunset Park is one of the City’s last industrial waterfront communities. UPROSE is leading efforts to facilitate a just transition of the neighborhood into a manufacturing and supply hub for the region’s growing climate and economic resiliency needs, particularly by establishing a local clean energy economy.

In the Bronx’s Hunts Point neighborhood, residents struggle with one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, disproportionate air pollution, and flooding risks during severe weather events. To enhance community resiliency, THE POINT CDC is exploring community-owned solar in tandem with battery storage to ensure resilient energy reaches residents, as well as the neighborhood’s massive food distribution center that supplies the entire metropolitan region. 

In each community, NYC-EJA and neighborhood groups are first focusing on establishing pilot projects, then on scaling and replicating them, and finally on integrating the project-based and development-based work into wider comprehensive energy plans that are community led and driven.

Throughout the process, the organizations will be advising their cities and Gov. Cuomo through the newly established Environmental Justice and Just Transition Working Group on how to bring clean energy opportunities to the state in a way that captures both environmental and economic value for neglected, underserved and climate-vulnerable New Yorkers.

A 27-year-old advocacy organization, NYC-EJA didn’t initially set out to change the energy landscape of its member communities. They are what executive director Eddie Bautista has called “accidental energy advocates,” discovering along the way that ConEdison was making multi-million dollar decisions about energy management in these neighborhoods with no community input or awareness.

Through its REVitalize initiative, the organization has drawn a number of collaborators into its orbit, including New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, solar advocacy organization Solar One, and Sustainable Capital Advisors. Groundswell is on board to advise on tactical ways to build community power through community owned energy. 

“Because projects of this kind really have no precedent, we’re looking forward to Groundswell helping us envision what this looks like once we win,” said Amarnath.  “Once our projects are online, how do we develop meaningful ways of collaborating and communicating with potential subscribers in our communities? How do we help really incubate community energy leaders who can speak on these things and have the literacy to sustain community-led energy moving forward?”

Ultimately, Amarnath said, the goal is to create a model of energy planning that ensures community-led energy development and provides meaningful democratic grassroots ownership of energy infrastructure and project revenues.

Stay tuned for Groundswell QAs with leaders from each of three pilot communities: PUSH Buffalo, UPROSE and The Point CDC.