Scoring Justice in Clean Energy Standards — Episode 185 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 7 Jun 2023 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In 2023, Minnesota became the latest state to adopt a 100 percent clean energy standard — but does the standard do enough for energy justice?

For this episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell is joined by Haley Havens, Senior Research and Operations Associate at the Initiative for Energy Justice (IEJ). IEJ has created a scorecard that evaluates equity in state renewable energy standards. Havens and Farrell discuss the ways that states can advance equity through their clean energy standards and how Minnesota’s 2023 standard stacks up.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Haley Havens: So defining environmental justice communities is a strategy that 100% laws use, but can also be used outside of 100% laws to hone in on which group of people have been most marginalized by the energy system and tie that to protections at minimum to mitigate the disproportionately negative impacts. But ideally these definitions would be tied to also increasing benefits for these groups.
John Farrell: Over a dozen states have adopted policies requiring that 100% of electricity generation come from carbon free or renewable resources in recent years. But a key element of this transition is the question who benefits. The legacy of fossil fuel power generation, often owned by large monopoly corporations, was to harm the environment and health of many Americans, particularly those of low income or in communities of color. Will the clean energy transition address these historic harms? Joining me in June, 2023 to talk about Minnesota’s newly adopted clean energy standard and the issues of energy justice and clean energy policy is Haley Havens, senior research and operations associate at the Initiative for Energy Justice, which has developed a justice and 100 framework for evaluating the energy justice potential of state clean energy policies. I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and this is Local Energy Rules, a podcast about monopoly power, energy democracy, and how communities can take charge to transform the energy system. Haley, welcome to Local Energy Rules.
Haley Havens: Hi John. Thank you so much for having me today.
John Farrell: I am delighted to talk to you about this because I had some of my own reservations about some of the components in Minnesota’s clean energy law and it’s great to have somebody who’s really steeped in this to talk about many of the different components of energy justice in these clean energy legislation. But I wanted to start by just asking a little bit about your own background, which is how did you end up landing at the Initiative for Energy Justice and what was your interest? What drew you to working in Climate Justice?
Haley Havens: Yeah, thank you for that. So I pursued a degree in conservation science and that led me to field work, which I was passionate about, but I started to feel this disconnect from a lot of research. You know, we’re not necessarily pursuing questions that are tied to communities and the solutions that they’re interested in seeing. And through my time at university, I came in contact with Shalanda Baker, who was a recent staff member at Northeastern University and she came to speak in one of my classes in my, my last year there. And the stuff that she was speaking really expanded my vision around the roles and work that we need to be doing in order to be ensuring that there’s justice for the environment and for people. I went on after Northeastern continued on that conservation science route initially and one of the jobs I was in, I was working with a group of teachers and we were supposed to be making recommendations for renewable energy curriculum that they could use for K through eight in the state.

I reached back out to Shalanda and was like, hey, I’m having a really difficult time finding curriculum that’s really seeing renewable energy through this justice lens that is talking with youth about why we need this and not just using it to fulfill criteria for, you know, how photons work. As I got deeper down this realm, I really started to shed some of that work that I had been focusing on and really realizing that there’s a lot of work to be done here. And yeah, I found my way back to the Initiative for Energy Justice and I’ve been really enjoying my time here because here we focus on research in concert with communities and designing solutions that can be used to promote energy justice.

John Farrell: That’s so great and I just have so much admiration for Shalanda and for the work of the Initiative for Energy Justice. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about the Justice in 100 project. So clearly as in the same way that you saw a need around curriculum for K eight and the fact that we want to talk about energy justice and about justice and restoration as part of how we teach people about the energy system. Y’all at the Initiative for Energy Justice looked at the way that states were approaching clean energy policy with these a hundred percent bills that started, I dunno, five years ago with Hawaii and now have spread over a dozen states. Can you talk more about the motivation behind the justice and 100 project and then also there’s like a set of indicators then that you use to evaluate policies and, and how well they do at addressing some of those historic harms that we’ve seen from the monopoly ownership of the utility sector, from the harms that have been done to historically marginalized communities
Haley Havens: At the Initiative for Energy Justice, we are recognizing that 100% laws are becoming an a more contemporary form of benchmark energy policy. And if we frame equity and energy justice as an ancillary issue, sort of a side dish to this overarching goal of advancing renewable energy, we are going to replicate existing inequities in this emerging renewable energy future. So I’m gonna walk it back a little bit to the 1970s because that’s where a lot of our federal level legislation came through. Really important things like the National Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act. These are laws that are still governing the practices that we’re doing today and they came out of this social uprising around the environmental movement in the 1960s.

However, in large part, they don’t adequately consider the justice implications. And so what started to happen in the decades following is primarily black indigenous people of color, low wealth, low income communities were starting to realize that some of these protections codified in these laws, there were loopholes that were allowing them to still be living in polluted communities. To this day, these communities are disproportionately living in neighborhoods that host hazardous waste facilities that are exposed to heavy pollution that is produced through our energy system and as a result, they’re disproportionately carrying the burdens of the system that we all benefit from.

So our goal with producing this scorecard is articulating energy justice specifically in the context of these 100% laws. And so how we define energy justice is a goal of achieving equity in both the social and economic participation of the energy system, while also remediating the social, economic, and health burdens on those who’ve been historically harmed. So you’ll probably hear a bunch of different words for that – this group of people, you’ll hear frontline community, fence line community, the federal government uses disadvantaged community, Minnesota uses environmental justice community. These are all similar terms. And so an important way to move this forward is by centering the concerns of these communities. With our scorecard, we are recognizing that renewable energy and energy justice form a Venn diagram and we’re interested in finding that middle part where renewable energy can be promoted in ways that advance energy justice. And so we created this framework that can be used by policy makers and advocates to both create laws that comprehensively approach multiple dimensions of justice. And so we produced a matrix of policy criteria and they’re organized into five main categories.

They’re organized into process, restoration, decision making, benefits, and access. And so through this process of analyzing this law, you ask yourself, have marginalized communities participated meaningfully in the policymaking process with sufficient support? That’s one aspect. Another aspect is restoration. Does the policy aim to remedy prior and present harms faced by communities that are negatively impacted by this system? The third criteria we’re looking for is decision making. Does the policy center the decision making of marginalized communities in implementation of the law? The fourth is benefits. Does the policy center economic, social, and health benefits for marginalized communities? And access, does the policy make energy more accessible and affordable throughout this process, particularly for marginalized communities? So that’s our framework.

John Farrell: I think this is great and I can, I can already imagine a little bit like how you could apply this. We’re actually in the middle of doing a historical look back project on some of our organization’s work in Minnesota. And one of the things that’s come up for us and that we’re interested in thinking about is the Prairie Island Indian community here in Minnesota, lives in the central part of the state. They’re right next door to a nuclear power plant that was built by Xcel Energy, so owned by this investor-owned utility. So of course they are at, when you talk about frontline or fence line, right, like the, this is literally like in their backyard. There’s this giant nuclear power plant. So all of the risk of leakage or meltdown or any of the like catastrophic things could, that could happen or even the less catastrophic but still concerning like leaking radioactive water, which actually just happened recently from one of the two nuclear power plants in the state, can happen to them.

And I can think along all these frameworks that you just mentioned, right, process, right where, were the folks in this Indian community consulted in the development of this clean energy law. Restoration: Are there things that were done to their community in the building of this power plant for example, that we might have addressed. Decision making: Were they involved in the decision making. Benefits: Are they gonna, is the Prairie Island Indian Community going to benefit from our clean energy law and specifically will they have access to more affordable energy or clean energy resources or whatnot? So I think it’s helpful to me at least in thinking about these five frameworks about some specific communities that I know of in Minnesota that have kind of fallen into that category of frontline or environmental justice to imagine that that’s one of the ways that we can evaluate then how Minnesota’s law was adopted, which I realize I’m getting ahead of myself here.

So Minnesota did just adopt a hundred percent carbon free standard. It joined this cadre of states that have 100% policies. Could you maybe give us an overview of like where, where have we seen a hundred percent laws passed, how many states already have them and how does Minnesota fit into that mix in terms of like how recent it was or maybe just at a high level kind of how comprehensive was Minnesota’s legislation?

Haley Havens: Yeah, of course. I think a terrain like overview of the 100% laws that have been passed will be really helpful for really getting into the nuance and understanding the pros and cons of the Minnesota law. So to date, 16 states plus DC and Puerto Rico have passed a 100% law, but I cannot emphasize enough how much these laws really vary, right? We, we hold them as this category, like a check mark of this is how many states now have these standards. But if you look at the actual laws beyond them setting a target and defining what energy is renewable, they vary a lot. So if you look at Hawai`i’s law in 2015, it’s pretty technocratic, just classic energy legislation, very brief. And it’s essentially just setting a standard of a hundred percent renewable energy and defining what’s renewable and including a couple requirements for how that can be enforced and monitored.

Fast forward to a couple of the other laws, right? Hawai`i set this precedent and we have laws building on this now. So now we see places like New York, Illinois, Oregon, Washington that are really taking this a bit further are having allocated funding in various programs, are addressing multiple tiers of equity that we talk about on our scorecard, and are really thinking about the larger implications of the transition beyond just flipping a switch on renewable energy. Minnesota is the newest of these laws and overall I’d say it’s pretty middle of the road law, which is a little bit of something to note considering that it’s not surpassing the bar that has been set by laws in the previous couple of years. And that’s a big deal because we see these laws building on each other, learning things and applying those and there are a lot of best practices that other laws have used that Minnesota just kind of didn’t incorporate into their law.

John Farrell: Yeah, I guess I would love for you then if you could to just dive in a little bit on Minnesota, let’s talk about sort of some of the policies that you’ve seen in some of those states you mentioned that are demonstrating best practices that Minnesota missed out on. But then I’d love if you could walk through on those five indicators that are part of the justice and 100 scorecard – process, restoration, et cetera, and just talk about what did you see in terms of the legislation when you looked at it. I know I shared a little bit of information about the process as far as we were involved in, which I understand is not everybody’s perspective of it, but yeah, I would love if you could talk a little bit about how does Minnesota compare to some of these best practices that you’ve seen and then when you look at it on the basis of IEJ’s justice and 100 scorecard, how do, how does it measure up?
Haley Havens: So I’ll start with the focus areas that Minnesota hasn’t put as much energy into and then we’ll end on some of the talking a little bit more in depth on the policies that Minnesota has put forward in looking at the nuance of that. So overall of the five indicators, Minnesota has not particularly or meaningfully done anything to ensure that there will be equity in process, decision making, or access as it relates to our scorecard. So in terms of process, what this looks like, this one is a little bit tricky to discern because you can’t understand the process through just reading a lot online. What I heard secondhand is that many community leaders in environmental justice communities report feeling left out, that this law was rushed in the process, that their input wasn’t meaningfully considered.

A second part that we’re looking at is you can discern from the law is are there structures that ensure that the rulemaking is going to be improving that access? Minnesota’s law doesn’t really go into detail on this rulemaking structure as much other laws such as New York’s law and Maine’s law establish clear working groups that are gonna cover certain topics. So they might identify something in the law like here’s our definition of marginalized communities and here’s the working group that is gonna take this initial consideration and they’re going to further develop targets and standards and a whole methodology to make sure that this is going to be followed through on. They also might include criteria for who needs to be in those working groups, how they might be compensated, where they’re located in the state, how many sessions, how much time between each to ensure that there’s adequate feedback periods and requirements that the feedback that is being shared is going to be publicly accessible online. So Minnesota doesn’t do any of this.

Secondarily, going on to decision making, overall this category was the lowest performing across all of the first 10 laws that we considered in our justice in 100 analysis. This really kind of gets at challenging the existing structures for how our energy system works, right? It considers how this law will advance equity and respect tribal sovereignty, how it’s going to increase community governments and energy ownership over community power resources. Minnesota’s law doesn’t meaningfully consider any of this, which is significant considering that there’s seven Anishinaabe reservations and four Dakota communities in Minnesota and that there’s not the existing energy legislation that will ensure that these communities have free prior and informed consent and are going to be involved in this because as we’re building these massive energy resources, as you said, they’re going to be highly impacted and so it’s very important to have protections in here.

John Farrell: It’s also probably kind of noteworthy that we in some ways are a little more culpable perhaps for not having included conversations about sovereignty given that we had an enormous fight just a few years ago about line three, a new oil pipeline going through native reservations in the state. And so this has been very top of mind about energy infrastructure and tribal sovereignty in recent years. So perhaps a little bit more notable that it’s missing from our hundred percent law than it might have even been in another state where perhaps there hasn’t been as much conversation recently.
Haley Havens: Yeah, thank you so much for adding that. John, please at any point, I love these like sprinkles of Minnesota information. So would love for you to jump in whenever you feel called to.

So the law, I will add, does have a solar standard of 1.5% and I believe a 10th of that is making way for distributed energy, but there’s no indication that any of that will be community owned or governed and is 1.5% really meaningful? I heard you in another podcast mention something around like if I told my kids they could watch, you know, 1.5% of a movie, are they gonna feel satisfied? So the answer is no. This meaningfully is not increasing community power or access in ownership over these resources.

John Farrell: And to be fair, the utilities have already met that standard, actually that one predated this law. And so you’re exactly right though there was no community ownership standard. What happened though, interestingly enough and is a total sidelight and we’ll be doing a podcast soon on this as well, is that Minnesota did, at the same time it passed that (2013) standard, pass a community solar law, which was notable at the time for having no cap on the size of the program as well as notable for having no particular provisions for low income or marginalized community participation, which has changed – hence the upcoming podcast. So there was a lot more solar that got developed even than that 1.5%, but it wasn’t because of the standard it was cuz this community solar law opened the door to a different kind of development. And there have been some really cool projects that we’ve talked about in previous podcasts like the Cooperative Energy Futures Shiloh Temple Project that are remarkable but a very small fraction of the total number. You’re very much right that the solar standard did not have a lot of equity provisions whatsoever and is at this point really moot in terms of its impact.
Haley Havens: The last energy justice indicator that Minnesota could use a little more work on is access. So it doesn’t really make any effort to ensure that through this transition energy won’t be made per more expensive and that it’ll actually become more affordable to all Minnesotans, particularly those in environmental justice communities. I believe there is a clause in the act that states somewhere, which we’ll go back into later in this podcast when we talk about benefits, but there’s like a stated goal of ensuring quality coverage and affordability for all Minnesotans, but it’s not backed up by any targets or methodology tracking reporting to ensure that that’s going to happen. Other laws such as Washington’s law really took this opportunity to really expand their bill assistance program.
John Farrell: What’s interesting that I’m realizing here is that Minnesota had a lot of energy policy that passed this session and some of the things that are about access or decision making and some of these other measures are not in the hundred percent bill. And it’s interesting because there was a lot of focus on passing that bill early in the session without any amendments or like significant conversation about changing it. And so there was a, I’ll speak for myself, I was very concerned that that was all gonna be the end of the story, that we were gonna get this bill with these limited ways that it addressed justice.

But some of the things that you just talked about like with the Washington or the bill assistance, Minnesota did expand its utility bill assistance program this session in separate legislation after it had already passed a hundred percent bill (EDITORS NOTE: a bill was introduced to expand utility bill assistance, but did not pass). So I do wanna give credit to lawmakers for coming back after the fact and improving on some of these things. Similarly with the amendments to the community solar program, which I could talk about it, what what we, I’ll bring up later if it feels relevant, but at any rate I do, I did wanna at least give some credit where credit is due that this bill was not the only energy policy that passed. But I think it’s noteworthy because of the process and one of the reasons I wanted you to come talk about it was because it was passed as a standalone and there was no guarantee when it was passed that these other things might happen. Although they ultimately did.

Haley Havens: Yeah, John, you bring up a really important point there in that our analysis does only apply to the 100% law and that you know, a jurisdiction’s energy legislation is dense and the statute is long. And so what we’re doing by composing this so comprehensively is not to suggest that an omnibus legislation is the only approach but to really help policy makers get thinking about the holistic impacts of this legislation and the other areas in the statute that it can be tied to or amended to update so that you’re creating the sort of cohesive system.
John Farrell: So Haley, you talked about the three areas where Minnesota didn’t measure up terribly well on process and decision making and access, but let’s talk about benefits and restoration where there were some elements within that hundred percent bill and then as I mentioned before in some other portions of the laws that were passed this session to address those components.
Haley Havens: Yeah, of course. We’ll start with benefits. So the high level question, our scorecard here is we want to know if the policy is centering economic, social, and health benefits, particularly for marginalized communities. So criteria that we’re looking for within this category is the importance of clearly defining benefits, because not all benefits advance energy justice, right? There might be actions that are taken to produce renewable energy that contribute to meeting the standard but it’s not meaningfully contributing to the communities nearby. As an example, the nuclear power center you are talking about could be used to fulfill the carbon-free standard, but as we discussed, is not producing benefits for those who are impacted nearby.

Another best practice for talking about identifying benefits is involving communities who are impacted in the identification of those benefits so that you’re really getting to the core of designing solutions that are producing things that are actually wanted and can remediate those past harms. Sort of a lens that I’m bringing here when I’m gonna look at Minnesota’s subdivision on benefits is thinking about like the chrome finish versus the nuts and bolts, right? The chrome finish might say here we want, these are the benefits that Minnesota’s hoping to achieve with this renewable standard, but I wanna know like do you have the structures to actually make this work? Because if you’re gonna give me a car, there better be a steering wheel inside.

And so if we jump to this subdivision on local benefits, first of all, it’s unclear whether this is gonna apply to municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives or only actions by investor-owned utilities because it’s stated as saying the commission, which only oversees the investor-owned utilities, all reasonable actions within its statutory authority in a manner that maximizes net benefits to all Minnesotans end quote. Then it introduces what these benefits are. So a plus one for Minnesota that the benefits are specific, it wants to improve the quality of jobs and wages, workers’ rights to organize and unionize, resources to help workers transition, the reduction of emissions, particularly in environmental justice communities, providing affordable electric service, and prioritizing local ownership of renewable energy resources. So if we apply our scorecard lens to this, we see that they’ve talked about multiple economic goals, only one health benefit and there aren’t any environmental benefits. So while the benefits are specific, they are a bit narrow in their scope.

And then secondarily jumping into the nuts and bolts, the commission is supposed to take reasonable actions, but it doesn’t actually establish specific targets for help for what benefits need to be created or any sort of tracking or reporting that ensures that these benefits are actually gonna be produced. Let’s jump into jobs as an example, because jobs actually does the best at producing some of these nuts and bolts. So for jobs, the legislation includes definitions for local worker and local job impacts and it requires that utilities report on local job impacts in the resource plans that they’re filing every two years. As well as that they should be giving preference in project bids and citing in order to be optimizing jobs for local workers.

So those are examples of some of the nuts and bolts that can be done to ensure that that benefit is being created. However, if you step back a little bit, there is no funding at all or dedicated programs whereas other laws might be taking funding, maybe it comes from penalties the utilities have to pay for not meeting requirements, and they put those into funds that can be creating programs for like training workers, which is important because if you have a coal facility shut down and you don’t actually have any retraining programs to help the folks in that community get the skills that are maybe needed to transition into this renewable energy area, it becomes really easy for a utility to say hey, we really want to improve job opportunities for local workers, but we don’t have any workers who have these skills so we can’t do that.

And then a step beyond that, there’s not really any focus on broader social net for displaced workers, right? It recognizes that jobs are important because that’s where you get your income, that’s where you get your healthcare. But if workers are gonna be affected in this transition, there isn’t any protections for those workers while they’re transitioning. So stepping back to look at all of the benefits, one thing that the law could do to really improve is make a better effort at integrating these elements of design into all the parts of the law between A to Z. So you have those of requirements that need to be considered when utilities are looking at proposed projects and when you’re thinking about citing and when you’re thinking about where funding can go to create these programs.

John Farrell: That’s great to understand in a little bit more detail cuz obviously there’s so many pieces to how the utilities are gonna go ahead and do implementation and thinking about how this gets done. You know, I wonder if in part one of the reasons that Minnesota was less specific was our public utilities commission has been for the past several years fairly progressive on climate and also I think more receptive than it has been at any time in history. Certainly any time I’ve been working around issues of energy justice. So I think, I wonder if there was a bit of deference here in saying, hey, we don’t wanna be too specific or prescriptive cause we want to give you some flexibility, but it’s interesting and it will be interesting to see, you know, the proof will be in the pudding as it were to see if that actually pans out.

I did actually wanna say one thing though that I think is funny that you caught in your analysis here when you asked about like whether this will apply to municipal municipally owned utilities or to rural electric cooperatives, which is this funny habit we have in Minnesota of calling private monopoly companies in state statute “public utilities.” And it is a very confusing thing for people who are coming and working on energy policy in Minnesota to be like, oh, a public utility and they immediately think that means that it’s government owned or it’s city owned or whatever and it’s like, no, no, no in our backwards law, public utility means the privately owned ones and then the municipal and the co-op utilities are called something else entirely.

Haley Havens: Yeah, no I, the only reason I probably caught that is because it happened in a couple other laws as well. And so I was reading this and I had a wait a minute moment and I had to rely on that other technical knowledge I was bringing and go look it up to see what Minnesota was defining as a public utility. So yeah, it’s pretty nefarious <laugh>.
John Farrell: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we discuss Minnesota’s definition of environmental justice communities, how it compares to the Federal Justice 40 initiative, and why defining clean energy in the absence of clear goals related to energy justice can actually increase harm to historically marginalized communities. You’re listening to a Local Energy Rules podcast with Haley Havens, senior research and operations associate with the Initiative for Energy Justice.

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John Farrell: I wanted to ask you a little bit then about another piece of the law, and this is where Minnesota’s law really does have a fair amount of text addressing this idea of like an environmental justice community. So this, this issue of foundationally in order to talk about restoration, you know, one of these key components of the Justice 100 framework, in order to address historical harms, we have to define who are the people that we’re trying to help, who are, where are the communities that we’re trying to help so that we can actually effectively measure. And whether it’s directing funds or measuring progress or whatnot. In recent years it was very notable that the Biden administration came in and created this Justice 40 framework where the idea was at 40% of the benefits of policies across the entire administration would be targeting historically marginalized communities. And I can’t remember the exact words, so I’m gonna lean on you for this, but how does Minnesota stack up, compare to other states and how they address that? What does Minnesota say about environmental justice communities and does it feel like it will be useful the way that they’re defined in Minnesota in terms of us being able to be successful at implementing our clean energy standard in a way that is of maximum benefit to those communities?
Haley Havens: Yeah, so I think a helpful way to sort of break this, cuz this is a really big question and to break it down is to first think about how is environmental justice community being defined and then after you look at that you can dive into, okay is it tied to any goals and how is this definition being used?

So defining environmental justice communities is a strategy that 100% laws use but can also be used outside of 100% laws to hone in on which group of people have been most marginalized by the energy system and tie that to protections at minimum to mitigate the disproportionately negative impacts. But ideally these definitions would be tied to also increasing benefits for these groups. And so my coworker at the Initiative for Energy Justice, Marisa Sotolongo ran this analysis for us in our justice in 100 report, which will be coming out later this summer. I can share links to about that. And she identified that the first ten one hundred percent laws use three different approaches to defining environmental justice communities. The first is a business as usual, there’s no definition, no recognition. The second is an income or economic based approach. This is a little bit old school. We see this across a lot of government programs where you use a single indicator of income to determine whether someone is eligible for a bill assistance program and it’s usually applied in a relatedly narrow manner like for a single program to the third one. Now we’re looking at a cumulative impact or index approach and this is actually what Minnesota uses. So that’s like already a plus one for Minnesota. A cumulative impact approach considers multiple indicators that are often related to environmental burdens, climate change risk, population characteristics such as race, income, English language fluency, as well as health vulnerabilities and jurisdictions that have developed these cumulative indices generally do so after extensive community engagement sessions with advocacy organizations and environmental justice communities, this is generally a best practice for developing these definitions. And the same process can be bundled in order to prioritize program funding and identify which benefits these communities want to see as a result of these policies.

So in terms of Minnesota’s definition, I’m not sure what the process was for how this definition came together. Some of the other laws, what they do in their legislation will propose a definition and then assign a working group. I think it was New York that had the working group was gonna take that definition. And then there were gonna be six like public opportunities and hearings, particularly trying to reach folks who are identified in this analysis as a disadvantaged community to come speak on their methodology around that.

Minnesota’s definition, it does take the cumulative impacts approach and it does include race, which is important for addressing the legacy of racist government policies that have led to the disproportionate environmental impacts that we’re witnessing. However, it doesn’t include anything relating to health or environmental vulnerabilities. So there are potential gaps where if you’re not meeting some of the other criteria, but you’re sited near a polluting facility, it’s not necessarily fully comprehensive. I should have said this a little earlier, but the definition that Minnesota uses is, it defines environmental justice areas based on four criteria and in order to be qualified as an environmental justice area, you just have to meet at least one of those. That is 40% or more of the area’s total population is non-white, 35% or more of households in the area are below a certain income level, 40% or more of the area’s residents over the age of five have limited English proficiency, and the area is located in quote unquote Indian country. So that’s the conclusion of our first look at. So that’s for Minnesota’s law stance in terms of how it’s defining environmental justice communities.

Now let’s turn to look at how it’s tied to goals or objectives. So Minnesota does actually tie the definition to some goals and objectives, which is great because sometimes laws will just throw out a definition and then just leave it there and you’re like, but why is this useful? And Minnesota does attempt to reduce harms through this definition. In their investor owned utility reports to the commission every two years, they need to report on the impacts to environmental justice communities that are might occur from new facilities that they’re building. And the commission can use this information to delay implementation of the standard if they think it is important in order to reduce adverse impacts on these communities while they pivot and think about different solution options. The utility also has to report on efforts made to increase diversity of both the utility’s workforce and its vendors. So that’s our goal. Now let’s take a look at how meaningful that goal is.

Statements like impacts to and efforts made without accompanying targets or a methodology for defining terms that they’re using, such as impacts and diverse, as well as provisions for including community leaders in these decision making, makes the outcome a little bit questionable because there isn’t a specific target where the utility can look at and say hey, this hasn’t been met, there is this harm that is happening to these communities, let’s actually pivot. So it’s, it leaves it a little bit ambiguous and vague.

The second thing that the definition does is it attempts to increase benefit to these environmental justice communities. But this also is tied to that benefit section I talked about earlier where it’s, it’s all voluntary, there’s no follow through, there’s no targets and for instance it might say our goal to reduce emissions in environmental justice areas, but there’s no enforceable targets and there’s not even a discussion of what emissions are. Are they only talking about carbon dioxide emissions, which would then be satisfied by this law, or are we talking about other harmful pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter that are really causing the asthma, chronic lung issues and cancer risk that we’re seeing in these communities.

John Farrell: It’s super helpful to understand kind of the context around Minnesota’s law and the degree to which a lot of the definition and particularly like the targets are rather voluntary and ambiguous. Could you talk about how it compares to the federal justice 40 language? I guess I don’t know if better or worse is a right way to describe this, but how does it differ? How is it similar? Maybe are there strengths or weaknesses in Minnesota’s approach?
Haley Havens: Overall I would say it’s not as comprehensive as Justice 40. Justice 40 sets a goal or a floor rather that 40% of the benefits of federal government spending must flow to quote unquote disadvantaged communities. Whereas here in Minnesota, the definition isn’t actually tied to a specific policy or outcome. Justice 40 is now developing metrics for defining benefits and tracking where the money is going to create these benefits. Although Justice 40 isn’t perfect, there is a lot of buzz around the fact that they talked about benefits versus investments. And this can go both ways, right? Because some proponents say that it’s better to talk about making sure that the distribution of benefits is equitable because those are the outcomes. However, others contest that by focusing on benefits, which can be a bit vague, rather than investment, it makes it really difficult to track where the spending’s going and can make it difficult to sort of enforce this goal.

I’m not gonna issue a statement here on whether benefits or money is a better tracking to do, but the real takeaway is that Minnesota doesn’t do either and really just ties it to a couple of piecemeal goals throughout the law instead of really taking this opportunity to tie it to the law in a more comprehensive way.

John Farrell: So it feels like one of the things that we could be looking to do as advocates for equitable clean energy progress would in light of where Minnesota is in its law, one would be to look at the kind of suite of other energy policies that pass this session and say okay, what else was done that combined with this helps Minnesota’s law measure up better on the justice and 100 scorecard, like if we take it as a package rather than as it was passed as a standalone bill.

Cuz as I mentioned before, there are some interesting things around community solar. There was a separate cumulative impacts bill, although it notably only includes three metropolitan areas and not the entire state, which is rather interesting. But there were, like I said, a number of other things. But the second thing might be to look at this question of implementation. So as I alluded to earlier, maybe lawmakers were looking here and saying okay, we’re not going to get too much into the weeds here cuz that’s not our specialty. We’ll let the public Utilities commission figure out implementation. Does it feel like there’s an opening here for people to go to the Public Utilities Commission and say hey you know you’re gonna have these reports from the utilities, this is what we want you to ask for in those reports or even stronger maybe we want you to set some goals for what it means to provide benefits or to avoid harms or to reduce emissions.

Haley Havens: I think that question comes up a lot of like, oh maybe we didn’t get around to it in legislation but in implementation and rulemaking there’s other things that can go about to improve outcomes and that is definitely not my knowledge area so I can’t totally speak on that. But what I will say is that laws that have included, there’s already a lot of hurdles for Justice 40 for places like New York who has a similar mechanism as Justice 40 where the implementation is getting really complicated.

And so what I would lean on is this sort of idea of maybe we don’t include it now and it’ll come down the pipeline later is not an outcome that we often see and that it is important to have these structures or at least have, you know, you don’t necessarily have to have the whole plan but to say hey there’s this group over here and they’re gonna work on it and here’s the funding for it and here’s how we’re gonna follow up on that note. That’s how we run a project at my job. You know if we say, hey we wanna get a blog post out, we’re not just gonna say let’s get a blog post out and then just hope that someone writes one, right? We’re gonna like say, hey you team over here, why don’t you set up a meeting next week and talk about what next steps we need to do to get this blog post.

I do think that you bring up a good point of how this definition will be useful in these other laws that have come down later in the session laws that I haven’t myself looked at.

But I think there’s something here too that this law hasn’t really grappled with and it’s how this relates to the definition of renewable energy. Because at the end of the day, the core reason for this law existing is for defining renewable energy and setting targets for how that transitions. While it’s important to consider how this law in its totality promotes energy justice, it’s really important to look at that core reason for this law existing the definition and see if structurally it is sound to promote justice. When we looked at the first 10 laws for their definition of renewable energy, we found that none of the laws actually define renewable based on principles of what the goal is you’re trying to achieve.

So without some sort of standard of reducing health, compromising pollutants, thinking about impacts on water resources, impacts on the nearby communities, you’re not creating a standard that you can hold technologies to decide if they meet the cut or not. So the definition of renewable energy is basically just throwing out here’s all the technologies that are renewable, which leads us to look at what do these technologies have in common? And what we found for the first time laws is that 60% of the technologies defined as renewable in one jurisdiction are defined as non-renewable in another jurisdiction, which is pretty significant when you think about the fact that all of these technologies have really different impacts. And so you might be experiencing something based on where you live that someone else might be protected from.

So these laws in totality are not creating a clear vision that is moving all of us towards the same place. Minnesota is keeping with this trend in that overall it defines a goal of achieving 100% carbon-free energy by 2040. Carbon-free is defined as any technology that doesn’t produce carbon dioxide emissions. However, because the law didn’t explicitly phase out methane gas or coal, potentially these facilities could continue running as long as they have carbon and capture storage. This lays the law for nuclear to continue and at the end of the day, only 55% of that total 100% needs to be met by renewable energy. And if we even look at the definition of renewable energy, which includes solar, wind, hydroelectric, renewable hydrogen, and biomass, and let’s just say Minnesota’s definition of biomass is really broad and includes technologies that other laws consider as renewable natural gas and waste incineration. So it’s kind of even hiding behind this term of biomass and it’s including a lot of really harmful things that I’m not gonna go into all of these specific technologies, but I’d like to use one as a case study for some of the harms that we’re seeing. And so I’m gonna hone in on hydrogen because hydrogen is being promoted as this fuel that can replace methane gas could also be used in fuel cells to power vehicles.

But what we’re seeing is that first of all, hydrogen is very much in a research and development phase and New York initiated several pilot projects. The Brentwood pilot project found that as they increased the fraction of hydrogen when they were burning methane gas, the nitrogen oxide emissions, these are emissions that cause significant impacts to lung health, was increasing by 24% with every fraction of hydrogen that was blended in. And so what we’re finding is that this fuel that we’re considering as a replacement for methane gas actually increases some of the localized pollutants in an area and in order to reduce those pollutants, they’re using large amounts of water to dilute this. So it’s also a really water intensive energy resource. On top of that, generating hydrogen takes a lot of energy. So you sort of have this cyclical thing where in order to get energy, you need to use energy to get this fuel source. So at the end of the day, if you look at this specific energy resource, the communities that are living by it are gonna be continuing to experience a lot of the harmful local effects that they’re already experiencing by living near natural gas methane plants. And so you have these goals of reducing impacts to environmental justice communities, but then you’re selecting renewable technologies that are continuing the same harmful impacts that they’ve been living under.

And I think to broaden this up, it’s really important that we need to start by recognizing that no energy technology is impact free, right? Every single technology is gonna have some sort of a negative impact. But if we get real on that, then we’re able to broaden our scope to think about what real problems we’re facing and design solutions that actually can mitigate some of those problems. So I’m gonna use battery technologies as an example. Battery technologies are really important in this renewable energy transition, right? This is what’s gonna hold a lot of our solar power that comes in intermittently, but they themselves have a lot of issues.

So I’m gonna refer y’all to achieving zero emissions with more mobility and less mining, is this report that came out from Climate and Community project and they ran a couple examples and found that under the status quo, right, if we just take this whole system that we’re currently living in and just flip it to renewable energy, the U.S. alone is gonna require three times the current global production of lithium just to develop our battery resources. This is significant cuz this is just the U.S., we’re not talking about the rest of the world. And on top of this, 78% of these known deposits sit within 35 miles of an indigenous community and the majority of them are in the Global South. So this isn’t in the future, this is already happening. You’re already seeing indigenous communities in the Atacama Desert in South America resisting these projects coming in to extract lithium that is largely being exported to the global north for us to meet our renewable energy goals.

And so what I’m sharing is to say is not that we shouldn’t use battery technologies, but that this report ran a couple different scenarios, right? So they ran that business as usual scenario, but they ran a couple other scenarios where we are changing what we’re doing, we’re prioritizing public transportation. So we’re not just designing policies that encourage everyone to go out and buy an electric vehicle. They’re talking about changing the way that we’re thinking about recycling manufactured materials and they found that if we make some larger structural changes, we can limit the lithium that we are using by up to 92% in 2050 in comparison to the most lithium intensive scenarios. So I bring this forward today to say that like renewable energy is really important, but what this lot doesn’t get at is it’s not really thinking about the larger system changes, it’s just trying to flip a switch and change where our power’s coming from. And this will reduce carbon emissions potentially, but it is not going to be limiting all of the other problems that we’re gonna continue to have to face if we wanna live on this earth. Namely where our water is coming from and where our other minerals are coming from and just how to be in community with people.

John Farrell: Haley, this is super helpful and I just love the example that you gave about hydrogen and about batteries. I think they are such two such powerful examples. One of how the definition of renewable energy, taken alone as a technology, and rather than in the context of like wanting to reduce impacts on marginalized com communities,  can create even more harm in those communities by pursuing something that’s very narrowly defined and is renewable when maybe it shouldn’t be. But that also with the batteries that when you have a technology that’s clearly everybody agrees like this is renewable or this is an important assist to renewables, that if we’re doing it again in isolation from other ways of evaluating our policy change, that we’re gonna create a lot more harm as we go. And for communities that have already suffered a lot of harm.

So I just, I really think those examples are amazing in terms of the way that they help us frame whether or not a hundred percent policies are actually doing their job of addressing these harms. And I just love this idea that we should be writing them in such a way, not so narrowly focused on like a hundred percent renewable energy and here’s six things that are renewable, but about here are the things that we want to happen in this transition and this bill is intended to do that and to maximize those benefits on our way to a hundred percent renewable. That would give us a lot of context about, well what should we pick? Do we wanna do solar and wind or do we wanna do hydrogen or do we wanna do batteries? And what should we be doing? What choices should we be making there, in a much more comprehensive way? So thank you so much for joining me to talk about Minnesota’s a hundred percent law, but also giving a much broader context about how we think about the renewable energy transition.

Haley Havens: Thank you so much, John.
John Farrell: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules with Haley Havens, senior Research and Operations associate with the Initiative for Energy Justice. She gave a terrific overview of how to answer the question of who benefits from state clean energy policy and provided a clear evaluation of Minnesota’s new 100% clean energy standard. On the show page, look for links to the Initiative for Energy Justice website, including its justice and 100 Scorecard, as well as Minnesota’s Clean Energy Standard legislation and a list of related energy policies that also passed during the same legislative session. Local Energy Rules is produced by myself and Maria McCoy with editing provided by audio engineer Drew Birschbach. Tune back into Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear how we can take on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

Do State and Territory 100 Percent Renewable Energy Laws Advance Equity and Energy Justice?

States are setting a new benchmark for the clean energy transition: 100 percent renewable energy. There is no standard, however, for addressing how the transition will benefit or harm communities. Energy justice may be relegated to a “side dish” in these policies, says Havens.

Havens defines energy justice as “a goal of achieving equity in both the social and economic participation of the energy system, while also remediating the social, economic, and health burdens on those who’ve been historically harmed.” There are many different terms used in state and federal policy for communities that have been harmed, including frontline communities, environmental justice communities, and disadvantaged communities.

The Initiative for Energy Justice developed the Justice in 100 Scorecard to evaluate state 100 percent renewable energy laws and whether or not they address energy justice. The scorecard asks five questions about a state’s policy:

  1. Have marginalized communities participated meaningfully in the policymaking process with sufficient support?
  2. Does the policy aim to remedy prior and present harms faced by communities negatively impacted by the energy system?
  3. Does the policy center the decision-making of marginalized communities in implementation?
  4. Does the policy center economic, social, and health benefits for marginalized communities?
  5. Does the policy make energy more accessible and affordable to marginalized communities?

IEJ created a worksheet to help the reader answer each of the five questions — find it here.

With our scorecard, we are recognizing that renewable energy and energy justice form a Venn diagram and we’re interested in finding that middle part where renewable energy can be promoted in ways that advance energy justice.

Evaluating Minnesota’s Clean Energy Standard with the Justice in 100 Scorecard

16 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia have 100 percent renewable energy standards. Hawai`i started the trend in 2015 with its fairly simple standard. Since then, states have constructed more elaborate standards that consider more angles to the clean energy transition. Minnesota became the latest state to adopt a 100 percent clean energy standard earlier this year.

Using the scorecard, Havens explains several shortcomings in Minnesota’s clean energy standard. Lawmakers did not adequately address process, decision making, or access. Minnesota’s policy scores better on restoration and benefits.

We see these laws building on each other… There are a lot of best practices that other laws have used that Minnesota just didn’t incorporate into their law.

Defining environmental justice communities is not enough to perform well on the Justice in 100 Scorecard. Havens asks: how is that definition used? How does the policy include communities in its actionable goals and enforceable targets? Does the policy include protections for vulnerable communities, regardless of the “renewable” technology?

No energy technology is impact free… But if we get real on that, then we’re able to broaden our scope to think about what real problems we’re facing and design solutions that actually can mitigate some of those problems.

Episode Notes

See these resources for more behind the story:

In addition to the clean energy standard, the Minnesota legislature also passed these energy policies in the 2023 session (EDITORS NOTE: a bill was introduced to expand utility bill assistance, but did not pass):

  • Changes to Community Solar Gardens Program (HF2310, lines 337.2-346.1), including significant improvements in access for low-to-moderate income participants
  • Distributed Solar Energy Standard (HF2310, lines 347.14-348.24)
  • Changes to Solar Energy Production Incentive Program, Solar*Rewards (HF2310, lines 324.1-325.25), including a carve out for low-income households
  • Changes to Solar for Schools Program (HF2310, lines 291.3-291.16, 291.21-291.30, 307.28-308.5, 381.5-385.32, 424.24-424.31), including new funding
  • Solar Grant Program for Public Buildings (HF2310, lines 305.27-306.3, 386.1-389.21)
  • Homeowners Association Limits on Certain Residential Solar Energy Systems Prohibited (HF2310, lines 416.3-418.17)
  • Energy Storage Incentive Program (HF2310, lines 297.32-298.15, 306.22-306.30, 392.27-393.26)
  • Customer’s Access to Electricity Usage Data (HF2310, lines 336.24-337.1)
  • Distributed Energy Resources System Upgrade Program (HF2310, lines 306.31-307.20, 389.22-392.26)
  • Minnesota Climate Innovation Finance Authority (SF3035, lines 257.8-269.11, 272.6-272.9; HF2310, lines 300.2-300.15), with a focus on removing financing barriers in low-income communities
  • Changes to Compensation for Participants in PUC Proceedings (HF2310, lines 355.22-361.3), including new opportunities for receiving payment for participation in regulatory proceedings
  • Cumulative Impacts Analysis and Permit Decisions in Environmental Justice Areas (HF2310, lines 10.34-11.9, 270.6-276.4), requiring consideration of cumulative environmental justice impacts before permitting new polluting systems
  • Tribal Advocacy Council on Energy (HF2310, lines 425.13-426.11), providing technical assistance to and requiring advice from tribal governments to the state Department of Commerce
  • State Competitiveness Fund (HF1656) to match federal funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, with one goal including to “enhance the competitiveness of grant applications by disadvantaged communities”

For concrete examples of how towns and cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is the 185th episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system.

Local Energy Rules is Produced by ILSR’s John Farrell and Maria McCoy. Audio engineering by Drew Birschbach.

This article originally posted at For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update.

Featured Photo Credit: Office of Governor Tim Walz & Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan via Flickr (Public Domain 1.0)

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Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a Researcher with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.