Racial Inequality & Clean Energy

January 6, 2021

As we start 2021, it can be tempting to leave behind the horrors of 2020. In 2020, we saw the spread of coronavirus across the world, impacting individuals’ and communities’ lives across the board. Coronavirus has not only affected human life, with influences penetrating our natural world. We explored how coronavirus has impacted the environment and what lessons we can bring into the fight against climate change in our Planet with Pandemic series. Despite cases increasing rapidly, the vaccine offers a small light at the end of the tunnel; if we remain vigilant, it seems that this too shall pass.

Amidst the pain of the pandemic, the world watched the realities of racial inequality come into media focus. The murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in the United States sparked worldwide protests of systemic racism. Such injustices reverberated across the globe – racism is not a problem confined to the United States. With a COVID-linked attack on a Singaporean student and disproportionate use of police stops on black people, racism is still deeply present in the UK.

Unfortunately, it has taken horrific events for racism to come into the forefront of our focus now. Although the ‘trending’ aspect of this issue has been left in 2020, we need to continue to listen more deeply to underrepresented voices, be honest where we have gone wrong in the past and be committed to learning and changing for a more equal future.

Racism is not just a social issue – the systemic nature penetrates deep within all aspects of society, including renewable energy. Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people tend to have smaller carbon footprints, yet they often suffer from the impacts of climate change more severely. A just transition can only be sustainable if it includes the voices of BAME communities and addresses racial disparities.


How does racial inequality relate to renewable energy?

On a wide scale, BAME communities are impacted more severely by pollution from the fossil fuel industry. Black British Africans are 28% more likely than their white counterparts to be exposed to air pollution, with air pollution being concentrated in the 20% of poorest neighbourhoods in England and in areas with a greater proportion of black people. In fact, legal history was made last month when the cause of death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah in south London was determined to be air pollution.

It is no coincidence that a disproportionately high number of BAME deaths from coronavirus has been observed in the UK; coronavirus has tracked existing social determinants of health. BAME households represent more than half of all overcrowded households, are less likely to own their home and have up to 11 times less green space to access. The same can be seen in the United States, as black Americans on average are exposed to 1.54 times more hazardous pollution than white Americans, regardless of income and are more likely to live near highways, airports and refineries. This results in African Americans having higher rates of asthma and lung cancer, causing African Americans to be three times more likely to die from coronavirus than white people.

In the United States, more than any other racial group, African Americans suffer from energy poverty, paying upwards of three times more than white households for energy, as they are more likely to live in older, energy-inefficient homes. This causes an increased energy demand to heat or cool, resulting in a higher energy burden. In the UK, the same can be seen, with 16% of BAME households being in fuel poverty compared to 10% of white households. Coronavirus further exacerbates this difference, with higher bills from the increased time at home creating a higher risk of supply shutoffs.  Fuel poverty impacts more aspects than just saving energy, carbon and money, as warmer homes influence health; energy efficiency improvements to a fuel poor household’s home can be paid back in saved NHS treatment costs alone within 7 years.

Many energy efficiency solutions that save money in the long term, like insulation and roof-mounted solar, require upfront costs and homeownership, excluding many black communities. Landlords are disincentivised to install energy efficiency measures, as the renter is the one paying the energy bills. This prevents minority communities from participating in the clean energy transition and forces them to bear the burden of rising energy costs; many BAME communities are paying more due to the guaranteed feed-in, which offers payments to those with onsite renewable technologies, without having the chance to partake. In turn, high and upper-middle-class white people disproportionally benefit from the feed-in tariff.

We must understand how different forms of vulnerability interact with energy policies and subsidies to avoid exacerbating these existing injustices. Given the impact climate change has on BAME communities, the clean energy transition cannot continue to focus solely on the participation from the white, upper-middle-class population. Instead, we must create inclusive energy programmes, enabling a just energy transition.


What we can do

As a company in the renewable energy sector, we must strive towards and help influence energy policy and the renewable transition. Environmental professionals are the second least diverse profession in the UK; the sector as a whole and the organisations within need to promote and create opportunities for the BAME community. The disadvantages influencing career progression in the BAME community are worsened by the fact that the environmental sector does not always engage with issues that minority communities face. We therefore must develop fair climate policies that address both social and ecological values. To do that, we must listen to BAME voices and promote their needs.

We must look within and ensure that we are an anti-racist organisation to promote such societal changes. OnGen is ensuring that our working environment promotes inclusive recruitment and progression opportunities. With start-ups, it is a common mistake to leave diversity and inclusion for after the company grows. However, we recognise the benefits a diverse team brings to creativity and innovation; healthy debate enables diverse ideas and effective decisions. We, therefore, aim to create a clear stance on diversity and have been participating in unconscious bias training and discussions around racism in our industry and society.

Our renewable energy feasibility assessment software is affordable and easy to use by non-energy experts, removing the barriers that traditional consultants pose to renewable deployment. We understand that our software can only be used online, which is why we offer a service where we complete the assessment on our clients’ behalf. We can connect clients with funders who can help minimise the initial investment needed to deploy renewable technologies. We also can link clients with installers and manufacturers; we would love to help elevate BAME owned businesses where we can. When expanding beyond the UK, we aim to create a product that is usable by all and therefore, we welcome feedback on how to ensure our software is suitable for all communities, big and small.

As we strive for a cleaner and greener future, we must ensure that nobody is left behind. We welcome feedback, discussion and participation to ensure the creation of an anti-racist renewable sector. We hope you join us in enabling a just transition that is accessible and inclusive to all.