This Biden Appointee Is Bringing Justice To Green Energy

17:02 minutes

a Black woman smiling at the camera
Shalanda Baker, deputy director for energy justice at the U.S. Department of Energy. Courtesy of Shalanda Baker

President Joe Biden has the most ambitious climate change agenda of any U.S. president in history. A large part of the plan is a shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy, like wind and solar power. A new member of Biden’s energy team wants to prioritize something we don’t normally hear from the federal government: energy justice, or making sure communities aren’t left behind, or stepped on, in pursuit of a greener world. 

Shalanda Baker, deputy director for energy justice at the U.S. Department of Energy and law professor on leave at Northeastern University in Boston, joins Ira to talk about equitable energy, “The Big Greens,” and her new book, Revolutionary Power: An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition.

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Segment Guests

Shalanda Baker

Shalanda Baker is Deputy Director for Energy Justice at the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. President Biden has the most ambitious climate change agenda of any US President. A big part of that plan is a shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy like wind and solar. A new member of Biden’s energy team wants to prioritize something we don’t normally hear from the federal government– energy justice, making sure communities are not left behind or stepped on in the pursuit of a greener world. Shalanda Baker is author of a new book, Revolutionary Power– An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition. She is the new Deputy Director for Energy Justice at the US Department of Energy and a law professor on leave at Northeastern University in Boston, where she’s talking to us today. Welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: I want to say congratulations. You’re in a new White House administration with a first ever position. How does that feel?

SHALANDA BAKER: Well, you know, I’m honored. It is very much the culmination of a career’s worth of work at the intersection of energy and equity. And I think it’ll be the thrill of a lifetime to work with this administration to create an energy system that works for all of us.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the core phrase in your new title– energy justice. How do you describe this concept?

SHALANDA BAKER: In my mind, energy justice is really about ensuring that the benefits and burdens of the energy system are equitably distributed. And further, it’s about censoring the voices of those who have been most harmed and most marginalized by the existing system. So it’s a paradigm shift. It’s about participation, and it’s about equity, and ensuring that folks have a leg up in this new system.

IRA FLATOW: The cover of your book evokes the Black Power fist. Why is this important for you to have this imagery front and center?

SHALANDA BAKER: Sure. You know, it’s funny. I think that the cover can be interpreted so many different ways. Some folks said, oh, it looks like the swords of plow shares! There’s so many different ways that you can interpret the cover.

But I really wanted to evoke the sense of people power. I wanted to evoke the sense of folks coming together to create a system that works for them. And there is also an image of someone holding up a wind turbine, which is to say that we are moving into a clean energy future, and we very much have a stake in that future. So there are a lot of different ways to interpret the cover. But I love the idea that this speaks to the lexicons and the imagery of the Black Power movement as well.

IRA FLATOW: But it’s interesting that you put it that way. Because if you have a fist holding up a wind turbine, that’s a new kind of power.

SHALANDA BAKER: It really is. It really is. And so you know I come to this work having observed energy transitions in Mexico. I spent, gosh, a decade almost of my academic career looking at the impacts of large scale wind energy developments in Oaxaca, Mexico. And I also had a front row seat to Hawaii’s energy transition from 2014 to 2017.

And in each case, it was clear to me that the leaders, the stakeholders, the decision makers who were engaged in that transition, were basically seeing the transition as a technical one, one where we’re simply switching out the fuels from fossil fuel based energy sources to clean energy sources. But they didn’t see the deeper structural transformation that is possible in this transition. And so yes, this is very much a call to communities to get engaged in the very, very, very technical policy elements of this transition.

IRA FLATOW: And how would they do that? How can these communities get engaged this way?

SHALANDA BAKER: Sure. So, I stand on the shoulders of so many activists, who have been engaged in justice movements since the Black Power movement that you spoke about. But we can really mark engagement and environmental issues to the late 70s and early 80s, where we had just seen this incredible decade of environmental legislation get passed, in a bipartisan manner, by Congress. And it was really a high watermark for the environmental movement.

But in the late 70s and 80s, communities of color realize that those laws were not impacting their lives in beneficial ways. And they were still being sought out for the siting of waste, the siting of polluting facilities. And so the environmental justice movement really emerged in the 80s as a counterbalance, in some ways, to the mainstream environmental movement.

And from there, we also saw the climate justice movement really take shape in the 90s and 2000s. And now we have this thing called the energy justice. I would call it a movement that is very much about ensuring that this clean energy transition doesn’t leave them behind. And so there’s already an infrastructure of activism and advocacy related to the environment and climate. And so folks need only plug into those networks to get engaged in this new movement.

IRA FLATOW: And what would be the metrics that you would use to judge whether this new movement is getting the results that you talk about?

SHALANDA BAKER: And this is where it gets really exciting, Ira. So we are transforming every aspect of our energy economy. We are transforming the transportation sector. We’re transforming the energy system, which is to say the electricity system. We are in need of, again, that deep, deep transition, that deep decarbonization work, away from fossil fuels to clean energy.

And what I would use as sort of a measuring stick are a couple of things. One, our community is meaningfully engaged in this transition process. So the rubber hits the road– and not to get too wonky on you. But the rubber hits the road on energy policy in regulatory proceedings around the country. So our community’s really engaged in those regulatory proceedings. Are they getting support, technical assistance, to participate in those hypertechnical proceedings that are really the place where the benefits and burdens are ultimately distributed? So we’re talking about the siting, which is to say the locating, of energy facilities. Are they engage there?

The second piece of that is the distributive justice piece. So are communities actually getting the benefits, the economic benefits, that inevitably will flow from this transition? And so that means communities of color, which so far have been left out of the solar transition, have increased penetration of solar in their communities. There are other mechanisms, such as community solar, where renters and condominium dwellers can engage in this transition by signing into a project or coming together as a community to create their own energy projects.

So those are the things that I’ll be looking at. I’ll also be looking, at the end of the day, how much people are paying for electricity and energy. Are bills still extraordinary? Right now, we know that low income communities and communities of color are more likely to pay a disproportionate amount of their overall income, simply to meet energy needs, which some have seen as a human right. And so in this country, we’ve got to reckon with all of those aspects of our energy system.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the energy system. Is there an actual formal plan and legislation to bring about the kinds of jobs, and the kinds of industry change, that you’re talking about?

SHALANDA BAKER: Well, so the nominee for the Secretary of Energy, Governor Granholm, Jennifer Granholm, is currently making her way through the process. And we are all anxiously waiting to see what her priorities will be, as she hopefully takes that role in the coming weeks. Right now, there are a few different bills, I think, that are on the table in Congress. But there is no actual legislation that has been passed that is specific to this particular energy transition.

So we’re sort of in this lull, where we’re waiting to see, again, what the executive branch comes out with. And I, as an employee, am really waiting for that. And we’re also I think going to let Congress kind of work its process out. But I would be remiss without mentioning this sort of groundbreaking executive order that the White House did issue last week, was on Climate Day, which very much spoke to issues of equity and justice.

And around the movement, you could really just hear a collective sigh, or an exhale, as people realize that we are in a new moment. And we really have an opportunity to create something special.

IRA FLATOW: As someone who was around during the first Earth Day in 1970 and started covering the environment back in that day, it does feel like there is a little bit of that excitement about a new day occurring.

SHALANDA BAKER: Right. Right. It really feels like that. And I don’t think you can overstate that, Ira. I mean, I was in a lot of meetings last week. And at the top of every meeting, people were sort of like, can you believe what happened? I mean, it’s just extraordinary. I think, in particular, coming on the heels of a four year period where there was an all out constant assault on the environment and on communities of color, vis a vis some of the rollbacks that the former president enacted. And so we are at a new moment, and there really isn’t any time to waste.

I mean, the first Earth Day in 1970, I mean I was four. Not to show your age here, Ira, but that was a long time ago,

IRA FLATOW: It was. We had rivers that caught fire. That’s how long. That’s how long ago that was.

SHALANDA BAKER: That’s right. So we’ve come a long way, and we have so far to go. But we don’t have a lot of time to do that. There is an urgency. And what I love– I mean, as a professor, I had the privilege and honor to interact with students who were just like, why are we still talking about this? We need to move quickly.

And so I know that the generations that are coming behind us are anxious to see us make progress now, because we’re. Working on their behalf.

IRA FLATOW: I imagine that one of the reasons that you were chosen for this position is because energy justice is a very personal philosophy for you. Because you were exposed to these inequities at a young age. Tell us a little bit about that, if you will.

SHALANDA BAKER: Oh, sure. Yes, and thank you for referencing that, and lifting up my own history, and my family’s story. So my first encounter with energy justice really was when I was about eight or 10. I mean, I come from a family where my parents were divorced. And so I had the opportunity to go down to a place called Port Arthur, Texas, to visit my dad and his family. And Port Arthur, Texas is both the birthplace of the modern fossil fuel industry and the epicenter and spite of it, I think.

What I didn’t know at that time, at eight or nine years old, was that it is also an environmental justice community. So the people there are mainly low income, Black and Latinx folks. And they very much rely on the fossil fuel industry that has shaped their lives, and the petrochemical industry that has shaped their lives in so many different ways. My own father worked for the electric utility as a worker way out offshore. My grandfather worked for that Texaco refinery. And my father and his brothers grew up in the Carver Terrace housing projects, which were a fenceline community right up against the fence of the Texaco refinery.

And so my family’s lives were shaped in profound ways by the oil and gas industry. But I didn’t see that at that age. It wasn’t until I became a scholar, and I got curious about my own family, history that I realized that I, too, have been shaped by energy policy, and by the choices that we’ve made around energy and the design of our energy system. And so I grew up with my mom in Austin. And she was a low income single mom who was a government worker.

And so she was right at the border between actually qualifying for meaningful public assistance and having to sort of scrape together her money on a monthly basis to meet our bills. And so she was always sort of juggling paying one bill or not paying the other. And I remember using the oven to heat our home on some nights, and using boiling water to heat our baths, and all of these memories sort of came flooding back as I started to write this book, both thinking about my father and his community.

And I also should say that he passed away, very much, I think, as a result of growing up in a community where the air quality is so bad that even today, there are calls for folks to shelter in place. And so he grew up in a place that was so toxic that I think ended his life too soon. His brother also died in his 30s. His mother died in her 50s. So this is a part of my history.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Shalanda Baker, Deputy Director for Energy Justice for the US Department of Energy and author of the book, Revolutionary Power– An Activist’s Guide to Energy Transition. You talk in your book about the big greens, well funded environmental organizations that historically have not thought about energy justice. Are you going to have to help them understand what that is about?

SHALANDA BAKER: Well, so, I mean, there is no secret among those who are advocates for climate justice, energy justice, and environmental justice that they have had an uncomfortable and difficult relationship with the big greens. And so we should define that.

The greens are those organizations that did come out of the 70s in the environmental movement– the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council. These are enormous organizations, with sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars, in terms of their budget. And they have done so much, I should say, to advance environmental good in the world. So I do want to say that.

But they have also done so at the expense of equity and jettisoning equity, in some ways, and often sort of forcing the most under-resourced organizations and communities to say, look, equity issues are important. And we should actually be centering them in our approach to law and policy. And so I critique the big greens because I think we are in this moment where we finally have policymakers who are listening to the environmental movement. And we know that we cannot engage in this transition in a way that simply replicates a reifies inequality. And so we have to create alliances between the sort of well-funded, well financed big greens and the scrappy, grassroots organizations that see the impact of climate change in their day-to-day lives, and see the impacts of the dirty fossil fuel system in their day to day lives.

And so I think a lot of that work is already happening. So I’m not going to take that on myself. But I wanted to call it out in the book. Because it is such a part of the dynamic within the environmental justice movement, and the environmental movement at large.

IRA FLATOW: Will there be a signal for you in your job when the administration is serious about environmental justice? How will you know, I guess, that you’re making an impact?

SHALANDA BAKER: Well, so the signal for me was January 27 and the climate order that the White House issued. I mean, that, to me, was a signal that the administration is serious. So I think we’re really on a transformative path. I mean, I wouldn’t have joined in this effort if I thought they were not serious. And I think it says volumes to just create a position like the Deputy Director for Energy Justice in this new administration.

So I’m excited. I’m not naive about the pace of government. And again, I anxiously await the final arrival of the governor Jennifer Granholm into the secretary’s role in the Department of Energy, so that we can really get to work on advancing issues of justice and issues of climate justice, as we move forward.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we wish you great success.

SHALANDA BAKER: Thank you so much. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Shalanda Baker, Deputy Director for Energy Justice at the US Department of Energy, author of the new book, Revolutionary Power– An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition.

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