The pollution burden from energy production in the U.S. has long fallen disproportionately on low-income and BIPOC communities — from “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana to uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.
Since its inception in the 1970s, the Department of Energy has had an office dedicated to addressing these disparities, but with mixed results. And so advocates long accustomed to government inaction might be skeptical of the department’s renewed focus on equity.
Dr. Tony Reames, deputy director for energy justice at the U.S. Department of Energy, wants to ease those concerns.
“We’re working through years of a system that has created these injustices,” Dr. Reames said. “And this won’t change overnight. But at some point, it will get to a place where [addressing equity issues] is just the way we do business.
“I would say this is a very deliberate attempt by Secretary [Jennifer] Granholm. To have two senior officials with energy justice in their title was a signal, both internally and externally, that equity and justice are central to everything that we do at the department. She believes that wholeheartedly, and she lives that out in the way she runs the department.”
Congress established the Office of Minority Economic Impact in 1978, the year after DOE was established — at the height of the oil crisis. Now the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, the agency was created to recognize the disparate impacts and affordability challenges of the energy system on communities of color.
In subsequent decades, these functions were highlighted or de-emphasized, reflecting the political climate of the relevant administration. The Trump administration in particular set aside climate justice in favor of emphasizing fossil fuels in its declared pursuit of “energy independence.”
By contrast, the Biden administration is focused on developing clean energy along with directing a just transition for communities adversely and disproportionately impacted by polluted air, water and soil. President Joe Biden signed an executive order calling for equity principles throughout the federal government on his first day in office.
In June 2021, Biden appointed Dr. Reames, an associate professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan and a licensed engineer, as the senior advisor to Shalanda Baker, the first deputy director for energy justice in the agency’s history.
Dr. Reames views the process of decarbonization as indivisible from a consideration of equity.
“A lot of decarbonization discussions can be void of equity,” Dr. Reames said. “As we try to address this kind of global greenhouse gas emissions conundrum, what does it look like at a local level? And then even further down, what does it look like for the individual?”
Energy efficiency, equity and affordable housing
The department’s Justice40 initiative calls for 40% of designated federal investments to be directed to disadvantaged, disinvested and environmental justice communities — in areas including energy efficiency, sustainable housing, and workforce development.
In his role, Dr. Reames oversees a number of initiatives designed to put that policy into action.
“Our  statutory mandate focuses on technical assistance to minority educational institutions and creating jobs for minority populations in the energy sector,” Dr. Reames said. “We also have a statutory mandate to understand energy burdens on EJ communities, communities of color, and then make recommendations to the Secretary of Energy to reduce those burdens and reduce disparities.”
The Office of Economic Impact and Diversity also administers a multi-faceted Equity in Energy initiative, which includes representatives from various sectors of business, nonprofit and community organizations, and provides financial support, technical assistance, workforce development, and online tools regarding energy affordability.
The program also supports STEM-related training along with technical assistance and favored status for minority-owned businesses and those located in economically disinvested communities.
Energy affordability is another key focus of the Equity in Energy program. Lower-income households spend a disproportionate amount of their income on utility bills compared with more affluent households — not just on heating and cooling but also on older, inefficient appliances.
“When I think about energy affordability and housing affordability [it’s] that technical piece, the efficiency of the home, the tightness of the building envelope, the appliances, the efficiency of the appliances and the lighting, for me [that] really bridge the opportunity for a healthy home and an affordable home,” Dr. Reames said. “But this challenge of the cost to make a home efficient is definitely one of those trade-offs that need to be addressed.”
And while much emphasis has been placed on efficiency in new construction, the most sustainable building is the one already standing. With two-thirds of the United States’ existing stock of 111 million buildings projected to still be standing in 2040, incorporating energy efficiency and affordability is key for retrofits as well, Dr. Reames said.
“A lot of the codes address new housing. I’m also interested in what we do for existing housing,” Dr. Reames said. “What are the improvements that can be made to homes that get the biggest bang for the buck? And then, what are the mechanisms through federal funding, state funding, and utility funding that can be braided to make it affordable to make these improvements?”
A just transition
One important aspect of the energy justice division of DOE is ensuring that relevant sections of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act are implemented so that environmental justice communities actually reap the benefits of a transition to energy efficiency.
The department encourages participation among members of environmental justice communities in clean jobs training programs, largely administered through historically Black and tribal colleges, as well as community colleges.
The department also works with entities that have been awarded contracts in negotiating community benefits and labor agreements with members of affected communities. As a process first implemented with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, it is being refined and retooled as the Inflation Reduction Act is put into practice.
Diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility are integral to ensuring that project teams are representative, Dr. Reames said.
“We want a workforce that looks like America. We want project teams that look like America. How [do they work] to make the applicant team diverse? How are they working to make sure they have diverse employees? You see cities across the country encouraging diversity in projects. We can also do that with public resources from the federal government. It becomes not what is just good for you, but how do you bring people along in this process?”
Dr. Reames said the department has developed a “community benefits plan” that requires developers to engage with neighborhood and labor leaders.
“So, if something is coming to Bronzeville in Chicago, have they met with Bronzeville community groups, the labor associations, the workforce development agencies in that community? If it’s a long-term manufacturing project, how many people are they expecting to hire? How are they going to recruit employees from the community that’s hosting? What training are they going to do?” Dr. Reames said.
Lack of such engagement in the past has led to polluting facilities being developed in low-income and minority communities with limited political power, areas known as “sacrifice zones.”
Justice40 is designed to rectify the existence of such sacrifice zones, and in the process, overturn years and even decades of previous standard operating procedures.
“These are places that have a cumulative burden on environmental concerns, energy affordability concerns, transportation, affordability concerns, water and wastewater concerns,” Dr. Reames said. “We can identify places in this country that have populations with low income, as well as all these other characteristics that stand to benefit from the way the government spends its money, but also are protected from additional burden.”
Beyond reducing pollution, the agency wants to ensure communities are empowered to play an active role in the process, Dr. Reames said.
“How are communities able to come to the table [and] participate in decision making, but also are they able to own assets in their own community? Can communities be part of the ownership structure for new infrastructure?” Dr. Reames said.
Clean energy and equity policies often face political resistance, with ensuing debates generating more heat than light — and confusing the public. To counteract this, DOE established an Office of Community Engagement staffed by a special advisor to serve as a “front door” to handle implementation questions from stakeholders.
“I think it moves from a narrative of taking things away from people to bringing people along and being a part of the conversation,” Dr. Reames said. “I do think that the social component of decarbonization cannot be overstated. It means something to them and they’re participating in it.”
Taking a collaborative versus a confrontational position is essential to generating buy-in, according to Dr. Reames, who frames his approach toward reaching people like his parents in rural South Carolina in considering whether to convert from propane to electricity for heating their home.
“When people are saying, ‘Hey, I heard about this mandate to replace all of our gas stoves,’ we can say, ‘No, there’s not a mandate. There are resources for you to replace your stove if it makes sense. And this is why it might make sense for you and here’s a way to do it,’” Dr. Reames said. “It’s just being honest and deliberate in our conversations and our discussions and then putting the information out where it’s digestible. I always think about, ‘Can my grandmother understand the work I’m doing?’
“It’s reframing the narrative. I think that’s what’s key. Because we already choose between stuff anyway. This is just another set of choices and you make the case for the different choices and then people make the choice that’s best for them. I think that’s when we can have more robust conversations, where we attack it from a practical perspective.”
While acknowledging that there is still much work to be done, on one level, the ultimate goal for Dr. Reames is to create a legacy of equity in energy efficiency that can continue without him.
“I see my role as establishing this team with career federal employees who will continue this work once I’m no longer a political appointee,” Dr. Reames said. “I often like to say my ideal state is that I’m no longer in government and nobody knows I left. If we didn’t need an effort focused solely on energy disparities, that would be an amazing day.”