07/28/2014 06:05 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2014

Green Energy Access for All


The word "equitable" is not one we often use when discussing our nation's energy policies, but it needs to be if communities of color plan to have a meaningful role in the energy revolution happening in America.

As one of the Co-Chairs of the National Policy Alliance -- an organization that counts amongst its membership the majority of the nation's black elected officials -- I've seen many great opportunities pass our community by and I don't want this one to be another. All Americans use energy in their daily lives and we often don't give it, or the policies that govern it, much attention until it is too late, like during a major storm, or when it hits our family budget. Whether we're looking at the costs or the opportunity, in the form of jobs, for example, our voices need to be part of discussion that is often being had without the benefit of our input.

The National Policy Alliance believes -- as we hope most Americans do -- that our environment is something to hold dear. We believe that we should be exploring new opportunities to expand the use of cleaner technologies that lessen pollution and its harmful effects on our climate. As we all benefit from a clean environment, so too should we fairly share the costs of the policies being designed to achieve our objectives. Unless clean energy is affordable to all economic demographics, its promise is limited.

Washington, D.C. hasn't been known for doing much lately but there is still plenty of money that flows from there to various companies and organizations through subsidies. Unfortunately, it doesn't always get to the people it was meant to or drive the right types of behavior and technologies. Even worse is when then these subsidies become feed at the trough for corporate interests. This is the situation we're seeing in the form of some green energy projects -- where policies supported by President Obama to improve our environment, are then hijacked by corporations and financial experts to improve their own bottom line.

A little known policy called "net metering" is a perfect example of where energy policy and sound economics collide. The unfortunate outcome is not good news for many of us. Net metering was originally designed to incentivize diverse power generation but when banks saw they could bundle the federal incentives and use them to lower their own tax exposure, it went from being an incentive to a green energy bonanza.

Net-metered consumers, whom are generally more affluent homeowners that can afford rooftop solar panels (or other forms of self-generation), save money on their electric bills -- some by generating their own electricity, but mostly because they are no longer paying the true costs of using the electric grid. What does that mean for apartment dwellers, low-income communities, those of us with less than perfect credit, or those of us who don't live in a house with correctly pitched roof for solar panels? We end up paying those grid costs that net-metered consumers no longer get charged. Because many economic policies are like a balloon - when you squeeze one side, it puts more pressure on the other -- net metering benefits a few by spreading the costs to all the others. A policy that has less affluent customers (the ones who usually can't afford to own these kinds of technologies) subsidize more affluent customers (the ones who can) - even if it does increase support for cleaner electricity -- is unfair and morally questionable policy. If we thought predatory lending was bad, try predatory subsidizing.

Policymakers across the country need to understand the regressive and unjust nature of net metering policies and take steps to fix it. Some states like California and Hawaii -- both leaders in green energy -- already have called out the imbalance being created by net metering and have begun to adjust their policies. Now it is time for others to do the same.

Black, brown or white, we can all be better stewards of our environment but let's be sure to have equitable policies that allow all communities to benefit on the same terms.