At the request of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), Xcel Energy recently proposed $3 billion in clean energy projects to help Minnesota’s economy rebound from the shock of COVID-19. Xcel estimates the investments will provide 5,000 jobs. While these projections are laudable, the plan does not address how the investments will benefit Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) in Minnesota, who make up 20 percent of the population and have been hit “first and worst” by the pandemic.
That’s why a broad coalition of community groups and climate justice organizations submitted a letter [PDF] last month to the PUC, calling on its commissioners, Xcel Energy and other utilities to develop equitable development plans in which measurable goals are committed to BIPOC communities.
Minnesota is among the worst states in the country when it comes to racial disparities. Our state has the second largest racial income disparity in the country, and the Black poverty rate in the Twin Cities metro is four times higher than the white poverty rate. Our state’s racial disparities in high school graduation rates are the worst in the nation.
Pandemic is compounding existing disparities
These inequities did not occur randomly but are due to systemic racism. There’s been too little attention focused on the discouraging reality that the pandemic is compounding these disparities. The four ZIP codes in the metro with the highest COVID-19 rates have populations that are at least 45 percent people of color. This is not surprising because in the Twin Cities, BIPOC households disproportionately live in pollution hot spots. A recent Harvard study demonstrated that increases in pollution correlate with high infection rates for COVID-19. BIPOC workers also tend to work in industries that bring them in close contact with the virus.
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the structural damage left by centuries of systemic racism. Any sincere attempt to rebuild first requires intentional and thoughtful work to mend the foundation. While BIPOC communities represent 20 percent of our population, the benefits of institutional “economic development” initiatives historically have flowed to a thin slice of the other 80 percent. To support the imperative of correcting systemic racism, our joint letter urged the PUC to require Xcel Energy to ensure at least 40 percent of the benefits of its accelerated clean energy projects are realized by BIPOC communities.
Any recovery effort must prioritize concrete and measurable investments in the communities most affected by the economic downturn. Given the lack of racial diversity in the construction and electric utility industries, and the historical tendency to prioritize expediency in crisis situations, any economic development ambitions of the PUC will not adequately benefit BIPOC Minnesotans without explicit and diligent intervention.
Thoughtful, ambitious and specific criteria are needed
The PUC asked Xcel and other utilities to provide lists of projects that would provide utility system benefits, reduce greenhouse gases and other air pollution, and grow jobs. The utilities will provide details on the first of these projects, those that can begin in 2021, by today, Sept. 15. If the PUC simply fast-tracks projects without adopting thoughtful, ambitious and specific criteria for where and how capital is dispensed, it will not support economic recovery for BIPOC communities but instead risks deepening existing racialized disparities.
Our coalition’s letter urged the PUC to ensure that BIPOC workers are trained and hired for jobs in the clean energy economy, that BIPOC businesses receive an equitable share of contracts, and that BIPOC communities enjoy the benefits of renewable energy, energy conservation, and cleaner air.
We must ensure that Minnesota’s most marginalized communities are not bypassed by an approach to economic development that ignores the history of BIPOC communities and our current needs in the economic downturn.
Roxxanne O’Brien is the co-founder of Community Members for Environmental Justice. Kristel Porter is the executive director of MN Renewable NOW. Sam Grant is the executive director of MN350. This is written on behalf of 18 other community and climate justice groups.
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