Legislation to ensure that overburdened communities in New Jersey have access to clean energy passed the state’s Senate Environment and Energy Committee this week.
The New Jersey Clean Energy Equity Act, Senate Bill 2484, would create the Office of Clean Energy Equity within New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities (BPU) and would give those living in low and mid-income communities the same access to clean energy as the rest of the state. Ten percent of the state’s clean energy budget would be used for the cause.
The bill would allow $50 million a year for renewable energy projects, including solar energy, energy efficiency, and other technologies — totaling more than 400 megawatts (MW) of energy storage in low-income communities within 10 years.
The legislation also requires new construction in low-income communities to be built ready for solar. The law recommends that the establishment of solar programs “benefit 250,000 low-income households or 35 percent of the low-income households in the State” by 2030. The new department would also be responsible for integrating workforce development training into the clean energy and energy storage programs. The Senate Environment and Energy Committee advanced the bill in a 4-0 vote on July 20.
“Clean energy is an issue that positively impacts our environment and our economy,” said Senator Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), the sponsor of the bill. “All New Jerseyans – regardless of income – should have access to clean energy and its many benefits, which include utility savings and career opportunities. The Office of Clean Energy Equity will make sure that clean energy programs are equitable, accessible and affordable for low-income families.”
Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club, noted how renewable energy has become incredibly popular in New Jersey, but “unfortunately there are communities and households that have been left behind.”
“What is important about this legislation is that in many of those areas we are not seeing solar and targeted work on energy efficiency,” he said. “As we try to reduce pollution in those communities we need to make sure that everyone receives the benefit of renewable energy and targeted energy efficiency programs. We think that the $50 million from the clean energy fund targeted is a good start, we’d actually like to see more. But we think that it is critical. We also believe if you are going to be benefiting from solar and energy efficiency, job training is a good piece because it’s part of the whole economic package: there should be jobs as well as reductions in pollution and benefits from renewables.”
The bill also has the support of a number of nonprofits and those serving underserved communities, including the Essex County Urban League, New Jersey Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Latino Action Network, Salvation and Social Justice Group, and the New Jersey African American Chamber of Commerce, among others. Many more spoke at a hearing held by the committee.
“While clean energy and energy efficiency have identified low-income communities as areas of great need and opportunities for growth, we have not seen targeted programming which ensures that these communities receive the economic benefits of these investments including jobs and contracting opportunities,” said Paula Glover, president and CEO of the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE). “This legislation targets clean energy and energy efficiency initiatives in low-income communities and would also connect workforce development. The bill seeks to ensure that these communities who have been unable to adopt energy efficiency practices will now have access, hopefully including ensuring that their homes are placed in a condition to accept energy efficiency retrofits.”
Glover added that it is not enough that technological advancements are making clean energy and energy efficiency available, “it must also be accessible to all, including low-income families. We must take deliberate steps to ensure that all communities, particularly low-income communities get the benefits of these technologies.”
Seven out of 10 New Jersey residents support pieces of the bill, according to a poll conducted by Yale University, George Mason University, and Climate Nexus.
More than 75 percent of poll respondents with a household income of below $50,000 said they were interested in solar energy programs to help stabilize their electric bills.
“It’s high time to end the myth that clean, renewable energy expansion will lead to higher costs for consumers,” said Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Hamilton). “We now know that not only would access to affordable clean energy benefit public health and fight climate change, it would also deliver vital energy cost savings to low-income families which is needed more than ever before in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Office of Clean Energy Equity would oversee the program, including the technology and infrastructure build-out and maintenance. According to Sen. Singleton, the office would also be charged with establishing community solar and energy efficiency programs, “which would benefit 250,000 low-income households by 2030 in order to lower the overall percentage of income families spend on energy.”
Glover said the climate change issue will never be solved nationally or globally without ensuring access to low-income families of both clean energy and energy efficiency.
“When looking at poverty alone, absent the full spectrum of low-income, that number equals approximately 882,000, or 10 percent of the state’s population, with an additional 2 million near poverty [as of 2018],” she said. “When identifying the working poor, those who make too much to qualify for federal assistance, but barely making ends meet, the number is much higher, with 41 percent of the state being identified as working poor. Moreover, 11 of the state’s 21 counties identified at 41.5 percent or higher in terms of working poor, including Essex at 52 Percent; Passaic at 53.5 percent; and Cumberland, at 61 percent.”
Glover wants to make sure these New Jersey residents are included in the energy transition if the state is going to achieve its clean energy goals.
Glover believes S-2484 has momentum, and “because the bill also has a workforce development component, specifically connecting job growth in the new energy economy to workforce opportunity for low-income residents, the legislation is a good first step to achieving energy equity.”