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Canary Media is covering Climate Week NYC 2023. Read more.

Four advocates share how to make electrification more equitable in cities

Canary Media and Rewiring America invited experts on urban electrification onstage during Climate Week NYC. Here are key takeaways from the event.
By Maria Gallucci

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Two women speak into microphones at an event
Energy equity advocate Daphany Rose Sanchez (L) and Canary Media reporter Maria Gallucci share the stage during Climate Week NYC. (Luke Liu)

NEW YORK CITY — As an unprecedented amount of federal climate funding pours into cities across the United States, local officials and community leaders face a crucial challenge: making sure that everyone can fully participate in the transition to cleaner, electrified homes and transportation systems.

On Monday, at the outset of Climate Week NYC, Canary Media and the nonprofit Rewiring America invited experts onstage to discuss how they’re working to make urban electrification more accessible. Our panelists underscored the need to remove barriers for lower-income residents and communities of color in particular — folks who tend to spend the biggest share of their income on energy expenses and who are disproportionately exposed to harmful air pollution, both indoors and outside.

Here are some of their key takeaways from this week’s Electric Happy Hour, edited and condensed for brevity.

A woman with glasses, medium skin and dark hair in a ponytail speaks into a microphone
Daphany Rose Sanchez speaks at Electric Happy Hour in New York City on September 18, 2023. (Luke Liu)

Daphany Rose Sanchez, Kinetic Communities Consulting (KC3), executive director

Many times, when we think about climate action, we think about technology, about heat pumps, about solar. But we forget about the people aspect. Low-income communities of color and immigrants are already in a very real scenario of climate disaster in their day-to-day lives. So to me, climate action is more about making sure they have a place to live, that they can breathe, work and participate in society.

KC3 is a relatively small consulting organization; we launched six years ago. A lot of the work that we do is uplifting our existing ecosystems. We’ll translate the clean energy tech that sounds very fancy — which, in reality, is just general construction — and put it into plain English for our community-based organizations to understand and assess where in their existing infrastructure or programs they can integrate those systems.

One of our partners is the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which supports home ownership in Black and brown communities. As an organization that’s not in the clean energy sector, they trusted me to see how we can work together to assess people’s homes, do energy efficiency and mobilize renewables in a way that creates ownership opportunities that are not exacerbating financial burdens. Climate work doesn’t start because there’s the Inflation Reduction Act; it starts because there’s a community that’s involved and is motivated.

A woman with medium skin and shoulder-length dark curly hair wearing a ruched peach-color dress speaks into a microphone
Chandra Farley speaks at Electric Happy Hour in New York City on September 18, 2023. (Luke Liu)

Chandra Farley, City of Atlanta, chief sustainability officer

Growing up, I remember my grandmama and auntie saying, Shut that door, you’re letting the air out. Close that refrigerator door, shut that light off before you leave the room.’ All of these things are sustainability and climate resilience. These are strategies that were innovated and perfected by Black and brown folks, poor folks, as a matter of survival. And now it’s been repackaged and sold back to them and us in a really confusing utility program — something that people don’t understand how to access or can’t get financing for.

Now we’re in a historic moment for climate investment. What can we do to make sure we don’t leave behind the people who brought us these technologies and innovations in the first place? We can’t always come with this technocratic language. You’ve got to talk to people like who they are. They’re our neighbors.

We just launched the WeatheRISE ATL program using American Rescue Plan funds to directly serve the city of Atlanta proper. We’ll be weatherizing and talking about electrification and solar opportunities; we’re also incorporating workforce job training and minority business development in clean energy. We’re trying to connect the dots because this isn’t just an opportunity to reduce energy burdens on households. We’re also creating healthier homes and healthier communities because of the economic opportunity that comes along with that work.

Tiya Gordon, left, speaks at Electric Happy Hour in New York City on September 18, 2023. (Luke Liu)

Tiya Gordon, Itselectric, co-founder and COO

I live in New York City, and when I looked at getting an electric vehicle in 2021, I had to rule it out because there’s almost no place to charge an EV in the city. And that’s the problem: No one is going to get an electric vehicle if they can’t see where they’re going to charge in their neighborhood.

At Itselectric, we avoid the largest barrier that everyone faces in the deployment of public EV charging: access to infrastructure. It’s very time-consuming to make those utility connections for on-street charging. So we pull our power directly from buildings and run a charger to the curb. Why would a building owner let us do that? Because we revenue-share back to them. There’s a benefit for them seeing this charging infrastructure in their neighborhood.

For us, it’s not only about private car owners — it’s for ride-share. Uber and Lyft, they all need to go electric by 2030. But only 16 percent of the charging infrastructure is in New York’s outer boroughs, where many of ride-share drivers live. So when you push them to move to fast chargers, they’re actually losing 20 percent of their weekly earnings in the time that it’s taking them to reach these chargers and to find a charger that actually works. We need to find solutions that can help everyone across the board have equitable transitions to electrification for transportation.

A woman with medium skin and long, dark hair wearing a green paisley scarf speaks into a microphone
Sneha Ayyagari speaks at Electric Happy Hour in New York City on September 18, 2023. (Luke Liu)

Sneha Ayyagari, The Greenlining Institute, clean energy initiative program manager

We’re a public policy advocacy group that was started to fight the legacies of redlining. We’re based in California, but over time our work has expanded to other places. As part of the legacies of redlining and disinvestment, we see a lot of high energy burdens. So there’s a lot of opportunity to take advantage of the new Inflation Reduction Act funding and existing resources to shape it in a way that makes building electrification and decarbonization accessible to everyone.

One of the things we’d really like to see the additional funding going toward is making sure that renters are not displaced. We don’t want electrification to change the fabric of communities. We want to make sure to prioritize the renters as well as the mom-and-pop landlords who have been part of their communities for generations. Part of that is making sure that, during these major renovation programs, people have the resources to not be displaced from their homes or are fairly compensated. It’s really important to include tenants from the very beginning to make sure that they’re anchored in the program implementation and also in the evaluation programs.

We see the clean energy transition as a way to build wealth and to continue to build upon the practices and technologies that have been innovated in communities of color. I think as policy advocates, it’s easy to get caught in the wonky details of everything. What’s important is really to ground-truth: to go back to the communities, to the people who are experiencing these policies, and make sure we learn from them.

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Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.