Massachusetts’ Clean Energy Programs Must Lead with Equity

By Elena Weissmann, Vote Solar Regional Director, Northeast

The evidence is mounting – Massachusetts is in desperate need of an equitable clean energy transition. While our state has taken significant steps to transition to clean energy, those programs are leaving behind key groups that most need access to the benefits. No clean energy program can be effective if they leave behind the groups that most need access to the benefits.

That’s why Vote Solar always prioritizes equitable clean energy programs. Equitable programs emphasize fairness for underserved communities and attempt to repair the history of environmental, economic and health disparities they’ve faced.

Historically, decisions made about how our energy is generated and consumed have excluded the people most impacted. The result? Underserved communities, especially Indigenous communities and communities of color, face disproportionately higher utility bills and exposure to pollution from fossil fuels, causing significant harm to their health and wellbeing. 

Here’s how this is playing out here in Massachusetts:

  • High Energy Bills: Lower-wealth households are forced to spend a larger percentage of their income on energy costs. This percentage is referred to as “energy burden.” The average energy burden in Massachusetts is 3%. However, that average jumps to 10% for low-wealth households and is as high as 30% for some households across the state. High energy burdens force households to choose between paying for rent, buying food, or keeping the power on.
  • Disparities in Benefits: The energy burden residents are facing is compounded by the fact that Massachusetts’ solar programs have no carveout or meaningful incentive level to serve financially-disadvantaged households with solar power, either residential or community solar. All ratepayers support the SMART program but only a small number of residents can access the benefits. Additionally, ownership opportunities are extremely limited in financially-disadvantaged neighborhoods or neighborhoods largely populated by Black Indigenous, and people of color.
  • Inaccessible Job Opportunities: Black, Indigenous, and communities of color, as well as financially-disadvantaged Bay Staters, are dramatically underrepresented in our clean energy workforce. The lack of workforce development and training opportunities in environmental justice communities makes these jobs inaccessible to community members.
  • Severe Health Implications: Frontline communities face higher risks of long-term health implications, such as conditions like asthma and diabetes, which are concentrated in their neighborhoods due to years of disinvestment and pollution. A state report on Environmental Health found that Massachusttes has one of the highest rates of asthma in the U.S., with people of color being hospitalized due to asthma at a significantly higher rate than white Bay Staters. Massachusetts’ battery storage program does not have any income-based support or environmental justice carveout. This means that during extreme weather events and power outages, communities that rely most on power for healthcare needs (like refrigerating insulin or using breathing machines for conditions like asthma and diabetes) are the least served by the resiliency of battery storage, putting their lives at risk.

I recently met with our partners in a Massachusetts Clean Energy Equity working group to discuss these issues. This group is focused on a future powered by clean energy that directly benefits environmental justice communities. To get the clean, equitable energy transition that Bay Staters deserve, we know the key is to center the voices of people who have been most impacted by high utility bills and exposure to pollution as a result of our current energy systems, ensuring they are first in line to access the benefits of our clean energy programs. 

This is about fairness. Bay Staters all pay into the clean energy programs on our utility bill and should be benefitting from the programs. It’s also about repair. We must ensure that our clean energy transition is driving benefits to communities who have been most harmed, not just at a fair and proportional level, but also as a means of repair for past harms. 

At Vote Solar, we believe that solar energy is a cornerstone to solving the climate crisis and realizing a more just society. Solar has the unique ability to shift power, literally and figuratively, by lowering costs of living, creating local jobs, reducing health-harming pollution, and building a brighter, more resilient future for generations to come. Solar is most powerful when deployed together with other clean energy investments like battery storage and energy efficiency. We are tirelessly at work ensuring these connected benefits are enjoyed by all Massachusetts residents, especially those in frontline and historically underinvested-in communities. 

We will be working closely with our partners to ensure that Massachusetts prioritizes equity in its clean energy transition. We stand with the EJ Legislative Table in advocating to pass an environmental justice siting reform bill, which is about “stopping the bad” at the same time as we advocate to “bring the good” to the communities who have been excluded from clean energy’s benefits, despite serving as the dumping ground for polluting infrastructure for generations. The only way forward for Massachusetts’ clean energy programs is to put equity first. 

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