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Nathaniel Smith, chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity and Rahwa Ghirmatzion, deputy director of PUSH Buffalo in Buffalo, NY.

Commentary: Putting power into the hands of the people in 2018

After a year of unrelenting attacks on clean energy from the new crew in Washington, 2018 is shaping up to feature more of the same. Whether it’s pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, working to reverse the Clean Power Plan, or opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, it seems the Trump Administration has never met a dirty-energy policy it doesn’t like.

But at the same time, in communities across America, people are choosing to ride the wave of clean energy that is remaking the energy industry in the U.S. and around the world. And 2018 is shaping up to be a year when neighborhoods, towns and cities take control over their own energy destinies, working to promote a just transition to clean energy for all, regardless of income, race or zip code.

We work for two organizations – one in the Northeast and one in the South – committed to moving to an equitable clean energy economy. As solar, wind and other sources of clean energy become increasingly cheaper forms of power, we’ve seen firsthand how clean energy development can improve lives and create much-needed economic opportunities, especially in low-income communities and communities of color. We, and other like-minded organizations, are working to make sure that our nation’s energy future helps revitalize these communities.

In cities across the U.S., the need is great. In November of last year, the national unemployment rate among black Americans was 7.3 percent, more than double that of the white population (3.6 percent). And in Atlanta, where the Partnership for Southern Equity is based, the median income for black households is $27,000, while the median income for white households is almost $85,000.

When Atlanta committed to move to 100% clean energy last year, we saw a golden opportunity to create good jobs and promote a cleaner, safer and healthier environment in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. We are working to ensure that as Atlanta transitions to clean energy, everyone is included in the economic benefits, job growth, and wealth creation that follow. If we do things right, once-marginalized people will be able to participate and prosper in a more sustainable city.

In Buffalo – one of the most diverse and poorest cities in the country – rough winters and old housing stock mean many residents pay more for heat than they do for rent. In one neighborhood, PUSH Buffalo has worked with neighbors to buy 120 parcels of land, renovate and rent out 84 green affordable apartments, and weatherize hundreds of homes. We took an abandoned building filled with garbage and turned it into our region’s first net-zero house – which creates as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year – training 43 men and women from the neighborhood to do clean energy work in the process. We have restored vacant land, developed green infrastructure projects, set up a hiring hall, and built up a youth center that is always busy. And we’ve started our first community-owned solar project, at an abandoned school we’re turning into affordable apartments for seniors, with a multi-generation community center at its heart.

In the new year, we can expect Washington’s assault on clean energy to continue. But across the country, local leaders and everyday individuals are refusing to let what happens in Washington define what happens in their own communities. They are forging ahead to promote a cleaner, more equitable energy future for all. They’re banding together to keep building on the progress made in places like Buffalo and Atlanta.

Let’s support them. Let’s make 2018 the year we put clean power in the hands of the people.

Rahwa Ghirmatzion is the deputy director of PUSH Buffalo in Buffalo, NY. Nathaniel Smith is the chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity in Atlanta, GA.

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