The sun as the center of a new campaign for economic and racial justice

PowerUp NY in stalled solar panels in Brooklyn on October 10, 2010, as part of 350.org's Global Work Party. (Flickr / 350)

PowerUp NY in stalled solar panels in Brooklyn on October 10, 2010, as part of 350.org’s Global Work Party. (Flickr / 350)

Another indication of how crazy this country has become: Some people are coming out against solar energy. Solar technology has dropped in cost to become competitive with other sources for electricity. Some energy companies are apparently worried that their fossil fuel and nuclear sources will become financial liabilities; coal already is with the new EPA regulations.

Instead of welcoming the opportunity to come into the new age of renewable energy, the dinosaurs among us are resisting the change. In over 20 states there is push-back, reportedly coordinated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, supported by fossil fuel kings the Koch Brothers.

One method is to take away subsidies given to homeowners who want to solarize their roofs. Another is to charge an additional fee for homeowners who succeed.

To support these measures, the message is being circulated among low-income households that their electricity rates will need to be raised in order to subsidize the higher income people who can afford rooftop solar. In a racialized society, this effort is also coded: “You people of color are being charged more so the white folks can get away with paying less.”

The utilities’ rationale is that they need to pay for transmission lines even when an increasing number of people are using “distributed energy” — that is, electricity from their roofs. The maintenance money for the lines needs to come from somewhere, so people without solar panels have to pay extra to cover the system. It sounds reasonable, but it is also completely contradicted by studies that find that other advantages of rooftop solar compensate the utilities just fine, especially by increasing the resilience of the grid.

Not everyone wants to get into this climate justice struggle, but some activist Quakers have decided to make it their next campaign. Earth Quaker Action Team, or EQAT (pronounced “equate”), succeeded — after 125 actions in five years of campaigning — in pushing PNC Bank out of financing mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. On September 16, EQAT launches its next campaign, challenging energy corporations to take responsibility for creating jobs and benefiting poor communities by making a major shift to locally-generated solar power. EQAT plans to keep jobs and racial/economic equity in the forefront of all campaign strategy.

This is EQAT’s second campaign that works the related issues of climate and economic justice, but the new campaign adds racial justice to the mix. Using a campaign format to connect those dots is not easy. Bernie Sanders struggles to relate racism to economic justice within an electoral campaign, for example. A book can show relationships more clearly, as Naomi Klein does brilliantly in “This Changes Everything,” and EQAT chair Eileen Flanagan does in her moving memoir “Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope.”

EQAT spent months researching and discerning, in small groups and retreats. The group ended up finding that the sun was its center of gravity. Its new campaign identifies choices that an energy company must make, then confronts the company’s leaders until they make a choice that reduces poverty, benefits people of color and slows climate change.

Launching a new campaign

Installation of rooftop solar panels is a high job-producer for a range of skills, can be focused on particular neighborhoods,and reduce energy costs for poor people. Solar panels have dropped in price. Coops and small businesses can mount them on suitable roofs. EQAT networkers have been told by black ministers that homes and churches can be saved by this simple program with multiple impacts. What’s missing is capital. So, why not look for that from the investor-owned companies whose fossil fuel plants have led our country to a carbon crisis?

On Wednesday, EQAT starts its Power Local Green Jobs campaign with PECO, the utility that serves Southeast Pennsylvania. PECO transmits most of its electricity after buying a traditional mix of oil, gas and nuclear-generated power. The state legislature has said that Pennsylvania utilities must increase the (presently tiny) proportion of solar generation in their mix of sources. The next increase is slated for 2016.

In August, EQAT met with PECO managers and proposed a first step: to meet the required 2016 increment with solar generated from suitable rooftops in North Philadelphia, and get the solar panels installed by people from the area, as well as unionized workers. North Philadelphia is widely known for historic disinvestment and racist marginalization, as well as a base for resistance expressed in many ways, including successful nonviolent campaigns.

While networking with grassroots leaders in North Philadelphia, EQAT members heard not only about the desperate need for jobs and reduction of energy bills, but also that solar is already on people’s radar. Some rooftop panels have been placed and individuals have been trained for installation. The area includes roughly 200,000 African-Americans and 100,000 Latinos. For me, there is a personal stake; for decades I’ve had African-American family members who lived in North Philly, and I still do.

PECO will decide soon whether to accept EQAT’s urging to obtain electricity from North Philly’s rooftops, but it already knows the next phase in EQAT’s campaign. The group’s second demand is that PECO change its energy mix away from fossil fuels much more substantially, deriving solar from suitable rooftops in other high unemployment areas in its service area, as well as from North Philly.

An electric utility must get its electricity from somewhere, and therefore must take responsibility for its choices. If it chooses, it can invite bids from solar producers who will get their energy from suitable rooftops in a particular neighborhood, and offer “seed grants” that enable such producers to build the capacity to follow through. The choice whether or not to do that will be influenced by the utility’s bottom line, of course. The choice can also be influenced by an appeal to the common good, backed by a steady campaign of nonviolent pressure. That’s where groups like EQAT come in.

Recently a group of Philadelphia-area labor leaders held a public meeting with labor activists from New York City, at the union hall of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The goal was to explore ideas for reaching Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s goal of “the greenest city in America.” EQAT members were there in strength, knowing that resistant energy companies in other parts of the country are already playing the familiar card of divide-and-rule, trying to set communities of color and whites against each other. The historically white craft unions, as well as middle-class white suburbanites, remain vulnerable to this racist script.

EQAT held several mini-actions in Philadelphia this summer to prepare for the launch of its new campaign. (EQAT)

EQAT held several mini-actions in Philadelphia this summer to prepare for the launch of its new campaign. (EQAT)

Racism: Who, us?

EQAT membership, while successful in generational diversity and attracting people who are not Quakers, is still largely white, like much of the environmental movement. While preparing for a campaign that has white activists networking with people of color, EQAT is reaching for the next level of training. Facilitators from Training for Change, as well as from within EQAT, have been leading a series of workshops that assist members to loosen up racist and classist baggage. The goal is to evolve an organizational culture where whites are allies of each other as well as of people of color. Training for Change consultant Erika Thorne reminded us that white middle-class people tend to avoid conflict and to privilege one communication style, so we aim to engage more easily in conflict within EQAT and to embrace a wider diversity of communication styles.

Three contributions to the national movement

EQAT’s new strategy might be useful to the national struggle in three ways. One is to confront the “solar divide” that follows class lines in the rooftop panel industry. Middle and owning-class homeowners are solarizing at a far more rapid rate than working-class people, even though the relief from high energy bills is needed more among the working class and poor. Without criticizing the smart decision of increasing numbers of people who can afford to solarize their houses, EQAT’s campaign calls attention to those whose need is greatest. It also shows individuals who have solarized their own houses how they can go beyond their own privilege to be part of the larger struggle for justice.

Another strategic gambit is to use the technique of a direct action campaign to make progress. All the education in the world cannot move institutions whose wealth depends on the status quo, nor the politicians who they control. EQAT demonstrates a successful alternative, which focuses activist energy just as a magnifying glass gathers the sun’s rays into power that can ignite a piece of paper. For scattered and tired activists, the focus of a campaign is a blessing.

The third use of EQAT’s campaign is to encourage others to go on the offensive and increase their chances of winning. In too many states, the solar activists are on the defensive, fighting to keep their subsidies up and costs down. Folk wisdom is clear and it is backed by no less a strategist than Gandhi: “The best defense is an offense.” Campaigners can set far-reaching goals for energy companies, and act as if the climate crisis is as urgent as we say it is. Most importantly, we can do it in a way that shows solidarity with the working-class communities of color that are now being sent the message by the utilities that, when environmentalists win solar, working people pay.

As I heard civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin say over and over, there really is an integrity that unites racial and economic justice. Expressing it in action is not easy, but express it we must.

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