We Need to Disrupt the Energy System to Help Fight Poverty Now

Poverty in Maryland, and ways to remedy it, are closely associated with a top-down, undemocratic energy system that often perpetuates inequality. The CEO of a local alternative energy effort outlines the depth of the problem, and some solutions that increase the public's role in its own empowerment.

/By Gary Skulnik/ The opposite of poverty is not wealth, it’s  justice. These powerful words come from Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a man who has dedicated his life to fighting for the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. When I think about the current energy system, those words echo loudly in my head. It’s not a just system and it needs to be disrupted.

Jon Rosa, Executive Director of Fuel Fund Maryland, a group that is on the front line at the intersection of poverty and energy can teach a lot of us about the struggles and lack of options that poor people in Baltimore and the rest of Maryland face every day.  One stat he gave me is particularly galling. More than 100,000 Maryland families spend 36 percent of their gross household income on their energy bill each month. Think about what that means for the daily life of poor folks.

Jon says, “Today, there exists no single solution to address energy affordability for all Marylanders.” He adds, “However, we are optimistic that by leveraging the existing network of crisis assistance; comprehensive educational and behavioral change models; and a doorway to advanced technologies such as community solar projects, all Maryland families will have fair and equitable access to affordable energy.”

People face the nightmare choice of buying food, school supplies, or paying for energy. The existing support network of federal, state, and local agencies; nonprofit organizations; and a wide array of community action agencies struggle to meet the need for the more than 400,000 low-income Maryland households who qualify for assistance.  The average client requesting assistance from the Fuel Fund of Maryland has their power turned off or a turn-off notice, and a $1,150 arrearage. We must find solutions that address the core issue: the affordability of energy for all Marylanders.  That means we need to fundamentally change our energy system to have any hope of breaking these chains of injustice.

The energy system’s flaws are not only about money. Anybody with eyes or access to Google Maps can see that dirty, polluting power plants and refineries are almost always put next to poor or predominantly African American communities. I’ve seen it first-hand in Maryland as well as in “Cancer Alley”, the infamous strip of blighted communities between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Justice requires us to close these plants and replace them with clean energy, using local labor to help create jobs and economic activity.

Community solar can help, and we’re excited to do everything we can to bring this lower cost and cleaner energy to low income residents. It’s only a part of the solution. There are innovative ideas and policy proposals that can replace the band-aid of short term aid with a permanent solution of low cost clean energy. The trouble is the utilities are not exactly enthusiastic to adopt these changes and they hold a lot of sway in the halls of power. But the solutions are within our reach.

For example, we can put our resources into building new housing that’s healthy for its residents and the planet, while using very little energy. An example of these kinds of dynamic new properties is the Paseo Verde project in Philadelphia.  Another approach is community choice aggregation (CCA), which allows municipalities to procure power for their residents, bypassing the utility. CCA’s are up and running in many places, including New York and California. They bring energy choices down to the local level, where they should be, and allow municipalities to use the power of bulk purchasing to significantly bring down the price of energy, improve customer service, and increase the amount of green power. Stricter requirements for landlords to invest in energy efficiency upgrades to reduce energy bills for their tenants would also be a big help. There are still “slum lords” who own low income housing and won’t lift a finger to improve the properties unless forced to do so. That needs to change.

The energy disruption is coming, there’s no doubt. But for it to be a success, it needs to provide justice, not poverty to low income residents. Local jobs, local clean power, local control, and community empowerment – those are the hallmarks of a future energy system that we can all be proud of. Our cities and poor communities will benefit, but all of us will benefit because we’ll be living in a society that’s at least bending the arc of history a little bit more towards justice.


Gary Skulnik is CEO of Neighborhood Sun