Fall 2018 Liam's Legacy: Reflection on Energy Equity and Justice

March 11, 2019

ISyE major Julianne McCallum reflects on her participation in the Fall 2018 Liam's Legacy Symposium and her attendance at the Just Energy Summit.  Our Spring Liam's Legacy Symposium, Local to Global: Perspectives on Community Health, is THIS THURSDAY, March 14th.  Registration is required and we only have a few spots left!  Liam's Legacy is presented by Serve-Learn-Sustain in partnership with the School of History and Sociology (through a grant from the Gertrude and William C. Wardlaw fund in support of the Conference on Human Rights, Changes, and Challenges).

Most people don’t give much thought to energy on a daily basis: when you get up to make your coffee, you don’t think about the power plant down the road that was just called online to meet the surge in demand caused by all the Atlantans getting ready to go to work at once. Every time you send an email, you don’t think about the 4 grams of carbon released into the atmosphere from powering not only your computer, but also the data centers processing those bits of data.

But for some people, energy isn’t an expectation, it’s a luxury. While it may seem that energy security shouldn’t be an issue in the United States, it is – just not in the form you might think. We may have stretched out the transmission lines to rural areas with F.D.R.’s Rural Electrification Act, but energy insecurity is pervasive today through affordability and burden. Electricity has rapidly integrated itself into nearly every second of our waking moments, so much so that it is widely regarded as an associated basic need on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The U.N. asserts that not having access to electricity is essentially not having access to equitable opportunity.  

It’s this idea of energy equity and justice that drove the discussion not only at the Liam’s Legacy Symposium, hosted by GT Serve-Learn-Sustain, but also the Just Energy Summit, hosted by the Partnership for Southern Equity. I was grateful to not only attend the Just Energy Summit, held at Morehouse College, but also moderate the conversation during the morning sessions of the Liam’s Legacy Symposium.

Our speakers at the morning session for Liam’s Legacy Symposium were Dr. Khalil Shahyd of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Dr. Diana Hernandez of Columbia University, and Dr. Christina Fuller of Georgia State University. The conversation spanned from defining energy justice for the average person to drawing on both personal work and experiences to enrich the conversation surrounding climate change, gentrification, housing equity, to illuminating what energy has to do with all the above. We drew connections to the student experience at Georgia Tech and our expanding sustainability focus on campus; panelists advising students to not only educate themselves on the topics at hand, but also go out and do the research.

For a primer, I came into the weekend having worked at two very different positions in or advocating for different parts of the industry. I’ve worked at a utility, and I’m all for alternative energies. I believe human activities are affecting our climate, and statistically a notable fraction of that is from our power generation facilities. As an industrial engineering student, I thrive on data analysis and statistics, but often there is a disconnect between statistics and people. Through my work experience in the energy industry, I have seen entire communities summarized in a few numbers printed on glossy pamphlets. As with any data set, whoever presents it can manipulate its message.

Data can be used for good, though. Identifying patterns and outliers can help develop ways to tackle huge, pervasive issues by targeting the roots and the most affected areas. Speakers at the Just Energy Summit addressed how to understand energy burdens at the register of specific communities. For example, Dr. Toktay of Scheller’s Center for Sustainable Business is mapping the intensity of Atlanta’s energy burden, which is the ratio of a household’s energy bill to its income, down to the zip code. The Summit brought together people from all over the country and from many walks of life – advocates, industry partners, scholars, and otherwise – to personalize and discuss energy equity and energy justice. These topics aren’t frequently engaged by an industry in which white people are rarely in the minority, as they were at several sessions.

The concept of energy justice takes environmental justice a step further, integrating larger issues of representation, housing equity, and the overall structure of the current economic system, several of which bridged the symposium and the summit. Energy burden – and closely linked, energy insecurity – disproportionately affect black and other minority communities because our history has created the current social structure. The fear of having the lights turned off causes more physical, mental, or emotional suffering. Even the investments in energy infrastructure hit these families harder, emphasizing the idea of equity as opposed to equality: the small increase on top of a power bill, though the same for nearly all citizens of Georgia, is harder for some to pay for than others. And these massive projects – where regulated utilities make their largest share of profit – cost more than the energy efficiency program upgrades that could save money for entire communities, while at the same time reducing the need for these new plants. (Fun fact I learned: these programs are apparently required, but Georgia is ranked 38th in the United States for its energy efficiency programs.) As Dr. Christina Fuller suggested during Liam’s Legacy, the health impacts of decisions made in the energy industry also disproportionately affect minority-majority communities, from the placement of power plants in low-income and often black-majority communities to uranium and coal mines wreaking havoc on the health and healthcare of minorities across the United States.

The words of Nathaniel Smith, the Chief Equity Officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity, still stick out to me: energy equity is important because every person is important. In Atlanta’s quest for 100% clean energy by 2035 and its pursuit of sustainable development, including equitable housing, energy plays a pivotal role. Having been invited to sit in on a community conversation not as a contributor, but as a listener, I realize that this was not my conversation. I haven’t struggled with energy insecurity or energy burden, and that is because of my privilege. However, we have a responsibility to be aware of the struggles of low-income communities – whether a newly implemented issue or a side effect of a system that perpetuates poverty – so that we can use our voices to give them a seat at the table to address the issue.