Clean Tech in the Pandemic: Leveraging Shifting Tides To Accelerate Social Equity Through Clean Technology

Medium Tuesday, August 18th 2020

Furthering social equity and strengthening local communities are critical challenges in the United States and both have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Clean technology has the potential to be part of the solution; creating jobs, providing financial security, reducing the energy burden, and more.

In July, we sat down to discuss these challenges and opportunities at our latest Dynamo Virtual Hub Series event featuring moderator Adam Schrager and presenter John McIntyre from the (AmFam Institute), and speakers Steph Speirs, Co-Founder and CEO of  and Donnel Baird, Founder of .

Steph Spiers opened the discussion with an alarming statistic, that despite the numerous benefits, 4 out of 5 Americans cannot get access to rooftop solar. Most people rent and don’t own their homes, the majority cannot afford the upfront cost of installing rooftop solar, and many structures are unsuitable to solar projects, especially in the cities. Democratizing access to clean energy solutions is crucial not only to disadvantaged individuals and communities, but also to enabling a just energy transition.

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The benefits of rooftop solar are innumerable and include slashing monthly energy bills and contributing to building the clean economy, while providing resilience in a time of climate change uncertainty. Solstice is a cutting-edge enterprise that connects people without access to rooftop solar to a community-based solar solution. Their business model is to work closely with communities that they invest in, sharing their revenue with the local stakeholders that help them get projects off the ground.

Steph Speirs noted that maintaining this community-driven model has proven to be a challenge in COVID-19 as the world’s shift to a touchless economy accelerated overnight. Steph questioned, How do you build community and trust in the COVID-19 era?” — two key factors in clean technology expansion.

For Donnel Baird, CEO of BlocPower, a company that greens American cities through building energy efficiency, the pandemic has stalled a lot of their work, but also served as an opportunity to accelerate collaboration in the clean economy. He noted, “A lot of the innovation that’s happened in the clean energy industry in the last 11–12 years, a lot of it occurred as a result of grants and subsidies that were invested particularly in solar [since the 2008 financial collapse].” Energy efficiency upgrades embolden the communities in which they are sited, and as a result should be a focus of post-COVID recovery policy.

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COVID-19 also necessitates many upgrades.“People are spending the majority of their time indoors, and the ventilation and filtration systems of most buildings can actually circulate and perpetuate infected COVID-19 droplets. So upgrading buildings also makes sense because upgrading the building is also a way of reducing the spread of COVID-19,” said Donnell.

Policymakers are enthusiastically supporting this approach as they try to conceptualize resilience to similar problems in the future.

Still, both Donnell and Steph note that action on pro-climate policies has been slow, but they agree we are at a pivotal moment politically. Steph says “I’m incredibly optimistic that the work that we do in the next 100 days, will lead to a future in America that is more driven by renewables, climate change mitigation, and social equity, but it’s going to be dependent on what we do in the next three months.

For Donnell, one solution is to prepare for action on bipartisan climate mitigation policies. For example, the national security argument behind smart grids galvanizes bipartisan support. And there are many opportunities to make these kinds of arguments, regardless of what happens in November, like the number of jobs that have been and will continue to be created by the clean energy industry.

COVID-19 greatly exacerbated several social and economic problems within the United States, problems that clean energy companies and solutions can help solve. Adam Schrager of AmFam pointed out, “the pandemic has highlighted some of the systemic inequalities that we have in this country, as it disproportionately impacts lower income families, families of color.” He asked how we can use this moment to make a significant, lasting change in inequality.

Donnell believes BlocPower is well-positioned to engage with this challenge since its network is both public and private. “We can open up the conversation. We as entrepreneurs can talk to corporate leaders about what kind of serious plan we can work towards together.

For Steph, these social equity considerations are both a key motivation in their internal business strategy and their external practices. She says Solstice as a company is trying to reflect the world as it should be rather than the world that it is. They are decentralizing decision-making and focusing on addressing racial justice in their projects. Externally, she says, developers get to make so many decisions, and Solstice has to comply with where developers say projects get made. So, “we have to make the business case for equity; we have to be the cultural translators to say that equity is important because it’s the morally right thing to do… and also because it increases your customer pool and lowers your customer acquisition costs.” This argument will help to transform what communities get access to community solar.

To hear more about our panelists and their solutions to these multifaceted issues, watch the recording of our panel .

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