Zero-Emission Vehicles, Building Electrification Should Be for Everyone

The clean energy revolution is here. Communities of color, who very often breathe the dirtiest air and face the most severe impacts from climate change, need clean affordable energy more than anyone. For years Greenlining, in partnership with communities of color across California, has worked to make sure our communities, particularly those with low incomes and limited resources, have access to the benefits of clean energy. 

Recently, some have suggested that we can’t make these clean energy advances available to our communities and have called for slamming the brakes on this effort. We reject the false choice between clean energy and affordability. We know we can and must build both in California.

Californians are largely onboard with this, but two issues that represent special challenges and opportunities for low-income communities of color have recently become especially controversial: Building electrification and our transition to zero-emission vehicles, including the governor’s recently-announced goal of eliminating the sale of new gasoline and diesel passenger vehicle sales by 2035. Importantly, the governor’s order on clean cars does not ban existing gas-powered vehicles or their sale on the used car market -- a distinction that’s been misrepresented some public commentary and media coverage.

“We reject the false choice between clean energy and affordability. We can and must build both in California.”

Debra Gore-Mann, President & CEO

We see both building electrification and transition to zero-emission vehicles as important, necessary goals that can greatly benefit communities of color.  But we must do them right. It’s not enough for California to move toward building electrification and zero-emission vehicles and just assume trickle-down community benefits for underserved communities. Failure to include equity at every step of California’s clean energy revolution could indeed leave low-income communities of color and others behind, and we cannot allow that to happen. At this point, doing nothing as some are advocating will achieve the same results -- long term damage to communities of color.

At Greenlining, we know something about this. We’ve been studying these issues for years and literally wrote the book on how to do them right: our Electric Vehicles for All toolkit, Mobility Equity Framework, and our Equitable Building Electrification framework. Many other groups have done excellent work on these issues, too, part of a large and growing movement toward a truly just and clean energy revolution led by those most impacted. We continue studying and advocating for practical, equity-centered ways to bring clean vehicles and clean buildings to all, regardless of race, income or ZIP code. We center community leadership in our approach because communities can speak for themselves. Low-income communities of color are already leading on affordable, equitable clean energy policies.

Equitable Building Electrification

In California, 25 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from the buildings we live and work in. Building electrification means getting rid of fossil fuels for functions like heating and cooking and replacing gas appliances with clean, electric alternatives. We’ve laid out five steps to ensure that building electrification can produce healthy homes, create high quality, local jobs that can’t be outsourced, and establish stronger connections between everyday Californians and our climate change policies– while keeping costs affordable for those with limited means.

Our five step approach starts with assessing community needs – deeply understanding residents’ needs, wishes and concerns – and directly involving communities in making the decisions that will affect the lives and homes of their residents.  We also emphasize tracking metrics: clean energy benefits like greenhouse gas reductions as well as community benefits like local hiring and residents’ ability to pay their energy bills. If we can’t make these clean technologies practical and affordable for all, we’ll never get very far.

Healthy Neighbors run on electric

We also delve into the nerdy details of how clean energy programs work – and sometimes fail. Current low-income energy programs often fail to deliver needed benefits to all qualifying households for a variety of bureaucratic reasons, like short and unpredictable funding cycles and poor program design that fails to reach eligible customers. We know the devil is in the proverbial details -- and we also know it’s possible to make these programs work.

The final step to equitable building electrification focuses on continual improvement: using the tracking and metrics plans we lay out  to create a continuous feedback loop to improve current and future programs’ reach and impact. If building electrification efforts are designed from the ground up to benefit low-income communities of color, and if we closely monitor their impact and keep improving them as we move forward, we can bring clean indoor air to every Californian, whatever their race or income.

Clean Vehicles Done Right

We take a similar, practical approach to clean vehicles. Transportation plays such a huge role in greenhouse gas emissions and in determining a low-income person’s ability to escape poverty that the clean energy revolution simply must revolutionize mobility. Greenlining was among the first to point out the dangers of electric vehicles being unaffordable and impractical for any but the wealthy, and we’ve kept advocating for concrete policies to make them accessible and affordable.

Doing that requires a broad array of policies. Our toolkit, which we published four years ago, lays out concrete steps to ensure that clean vehicles – both new and used – are affordable, practical and accessible. This includes strategies like rebates and other purchase incentives, and we have continued to push to maximize the benefits of these programs for low-income communities and the regions with the dirtiest air – which are very often the same.  

We also continue to press for affordable, accessible charging infrastructure. While charging may not be a problem for a homeowner with a garage charger in Beverly Hills or Pacific Heights, it can pose an insurmountable obstacle to a low-income renter in East Oakland or Pacoima. While the early strategy to roll out zero-emission vehicles focused on early adopters, we must now turn our attention to those with the biggest barriers to adopting this technology if we are going to succeed in reaching our climate and equity goals. 

"Communities of color are already leading on affordable, equitable clean energy policies, and we don’t plan to stop.”

We also continue to work on accessible mobility alternatives like zero-emission transit,  carsharing, and micro-mobility to enable those who don’t want or need to own a car to get around without fouling their community’s air. If mobility and electrification programs are designed to work for historically underserved communities, they will work better for all communities and will maximize the environmental and economic benefits of electrification. To its credit, California has pioneered a variety of clean mobility programs. 

We know that all of this is achievable, but it will take work and conscious effort. Sadly, some have recently claimed that California can’t possibly make these clean energy strategies accessible to our communities, so we must slow down or stop trying to move them forward.

We disagree. Not only can we make the clean energy revolution accessible to low-income people of color, getting it done is Greenlining's mandate and it should be the state's as well. No one should be condemned to a lowered life expectancy from having to breathe exhaust from dirty cars and fumes from dirty stoves just because of their race, income, or ZIP code. 

As a recent open letter signed by the California Environmental Justice Alliance, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club noted, “Climate Justice demands immediate and transformative action.” 

We agree, and Greenlining will continue to work with allies and partners to ensure that the clean energy revolution we so desperately need truly reaches all.

Carmelita Kelly Miller is Greenlining’s Energy Equity Director. Alvaro Sanchez is Greenlining’s Environmental Equity Director.