Energy Equity in Atlanta: A place at the table, not on the menu

Barbara Hale and MaKara RumleyIn organizing circles it’s often said that if you’re not at the decision-making table, watch out — you may be on the menu. At June 10th’s Equity Matters Forum on Energy Equity, the many tables were full of folks from all over the city, who brought their diverse perspectives on economic, racial, gender, and other aspects of equity to form a vision for equitable inclusion in energy decisions.

In organizing circles it’s often said that if you’re not at the decision-making table, watch out — you may be on the menu. At June 10th’s Equity Matters Forum on Energy Equity, the many tables were full of folks from all over the city, who brought their diverse perspectives on economic, racial, gender, and other aspects of equity to form a vision for equitable inclusion in energy decisions.

“Energy Equity” was defined by the convening partnership as the fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of the ways we produce and consume energy. The partners include SACE, Partnership for Southern Equity, GreenLaw, Georgia Watch, the Center for Sustainable Communities, the Fulton Atlanta Community Action Authority, and the Concerned Black Clergy of Metro Atlanta.

Too many people don’t know how energy decisions are made until it’s too late — they’re already paying for an expensive nuclear plant on their utility bills, they can’t find financing help with solar panels or home efficiency upgrades, and the 50-year-old coal fired plant next door continues to spew air and water pollution. Some communities, particularly low income, elderly, and communities of color, are more likely to bear the brunt of these burdens — and they’re also more vulnerable to the extreme weather events predicted to increase due to climate change. For too long, these communities haven’t been at the table often enough when it comes to energy decisions.

The Forum served as an introduction to both the ways energy effects us, through our bills, air and water pollution, and local economic development, as well as the ways the public can engage in the decision-making process. In Georgia, decisions affecting Georgia Power, the largest utility in the state, are made at the Public Service Commission, an elected body most people at the Forum acknowledged they weren’t familiar with.

Utility expert Barbara Hale traveled across the country to kick the Forum off by sharing a positive vision for energy equity. She works for San Francisco’s city utility and spoke about how committed citizen coalitions successfully shut down the city’s two fossil-fueled power plants, developed a clean energy alternative utility, and instituted a community benefits program at the utility.

Four panelists, including myself, responded to Barbara’s keynote, and brought in our own perspective. I was honored to sit alongside (from left to right in photo on right):

• Ron Shipman, Georgia Power’s VP of Environmental Affairs • Dr. Joyce Dorsey, CEO of the Fulton Atlanta Community Action Authority • Dr. Marilyn Brown, Professor of Public Policy at Georgia Tech and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

After the panel, the real work began: tables of participants addressed the three discussion questions below. Their responses were reported back at the event and collected to inform future conversations and action. To review the feedback and add your input, please visit the SACE blog here.