Blog by Emily Arasim, WECAN International Communications Coordinator
In early May 2016, allies from across the US and the world united for ‘Women for 100% Renewable Energy: From Installation to Advocacy’, an open online training presented by the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network U.S. Women’s Climate Justice Initiative.
Osprey Orielle Lake, Executive Director of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, opened the training with an overview of topics including women’s leadership in movements to end fossil fuel extraction and grow renewable energy, renewable energy within a climate justice framework, and the vital the concept of ‘just transition’.
According to Osprey, climate justice in the context of renewable energy means clean energy solutions that are safe and accessible to all people; that respect natures needs and diversity; that do not involve the pursuit of false solutions such as fracking and large scale hydro-dams; that do not involve the displacement of Indigenous people or local communities; and which give attention and resources first and foremost to frontline communities and those who have been historically sacrificed to dirty energy industries.
She explained that the ‘Just Transition’ to renewables must at its heart incorporate care for workers, families and communities currently involved in fossil fuel production, and be based upon models of decentralization and genuine democracy, with renewable systems planned, owned and benefiting local residents. For WECAN International, a Just Transition also means those with women at the forefront at all stages of planning and implementation.
Focusing in on the U.S., Osprey explained that women direct over 80% of all purchases – one of many potential sources of power to move the country, and the world as a whole, towards clean energy and democratic local economies.
“Power to the people is a very literal phrase,” Osprey explained, “we, and the incredible women you will hear from today, are challenging the status quo, taking back power in our communities, and providing for ourselves the clean power that will allow us to sustain present and future generations, and Earth herself.”
She also reminded all on the call that as less than 5% of the world population, the U.S. is responsible for over 27% of global climate change causing emissions. As women with immense power to effect change, Osprey explained, it is thus the collective and individual responsibility of U.S. women to take action for a just transition to renewable energy, and also pursue systemic change and deep solutions which address overconsumption and deeply unequal distribution – working together to “live better not more”. We must simultaneously transition to clean energy while seriously decreasing over-consumption and unsustainable lifestyles.
Diane Moss took the floor as the first guest speaker.
Diane is a co-founder of the Renewables 100 Policy Institute and founder of Dima-Media, which specializes in sustainability-related projects, companies and campaigns. Diane is also an independent energy strategies consultant, and has worked with several non-profit organizations, including Friends of the Earth and Heinrich Boell Foundation, as well as various clean tech companies. She has served as US policy advisor to World Future Council, as environmental deputy to United States Congress-member Jane Harman, and as an intern to the Costa Rican Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. Diane studied at Harvard and New York University, and completed a thesis program in political science in Paris.
Diane began with a bold statement, whose truth is becoming more apparent everyday: It is not a question of if we transition to renewable energy, but of when, how, and with whom leading the way and profiting?
She highlighted 2014/2015 as a “watershed” year for action and ambition for renewable energy, bringing the topic “from pipe-dream to main stream”, with groups as varied as large corporations, neighborhood groups, state governments, and international institutions such as the G7, UNESCO and United Nations beginning to discuss encourage and move towards implementation of 100% renewable energy targets.
According to recent reports, resources and maps by the Renewables 100 Policy Institute and allies, more than 8 countries, 55 cities, 61 regions, 9 utilities, and 10 nonprofits/educational/public representing over 54.9 million people have committed to going 100% renewable in at least one sector in coming years and decades.
Diane discussed Vermont and Hawaii as two powerful examples of citizens ability to effect change and push for a just transitions in the U.S., and highlighted the vital fact that it is rarely political representatives that introduce renewable energy, but rather it is by the will and drive of strong local leaders that renewable energy gets on the table and is actualized.
Diane shared six basic tools available to advance renewable energy, including:
- 100% renewable energy targets with implementation plans, procurement requirements, milestones (to be set within schools, neighborhoods, cities, place of worship and at other scales, big and small)
- Renewable portfolio standards (state policies that set targets for how much renewable energy the local or regional utilities must have in their procurement – ex. Hawaii with the goal of a 100% renewable portfolio standard by 2045)
- Community local choice programs
- Net zero energy building targets and codes
- Net metering (get credits for the renewable power you generate; major driver for rooftop solar but under attack by utility companies in some states)
- Federal tax credits (great tool, but with problems in current form, which gives greatest benefit to those with high incomes)
She ended by stressing the importance of an integrated and holistic view as we seek to change policies, making clear that energy cannot be separated from other critical issues including food, water, consumption and daily decisions to pollute or protect the planet.
Wahleah Johns, Solar Project Manager with the Black Mesa Water Coalition (BMWC), spoke next. Wahleah comes from the Dine (Navajo) Nation and the community of Forest Lake, one of many atop Black Mesa in what is now north-east Arizona, USA, Turtle Island. She is a founding member of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, and it’s longest standing staff member. In her several years at BMWC she has taken on various roles, helping lead groundbreaking legislative victories for groundwater protection, green jobs, and environmental justice across the Dine Nation, Arizona and the U.S. Southwest. Wahleah is also a member of the Navajo Green Economy Coalition, working to educate the local community and lobby at the federal, state and tribal levels on behalf of maintaining balance with nature and building self-sustaining Indigenous communities.
In her current role as BMWC’s Black Mesa Solar Project Coordinator, Wahleah is working out of the Bay Area, California to gain organizational expertise and support for transitioning Black Mesa’s reclaimed mining lands into solar farms.
There are more than 300,000 people living across the Dine Nation, which stretches some 27,000 square miles across what are now the U.S. states of New Mexico and Arizona. Wahleahs community of Forest Lake sits next to one of the largest coal mine strips in the country, touted for providing “affordable power” for the region. However, as Wahleah’s powerful presentation highlighted, the devastation wrought on the Earth and Dine communities like Forest Lake make clear that this power is not “affordable”, nor excusable.
Most of the energy created through exploitation of Dine lands is sent to power nearby cities in Arizona and California – while over 32% of Dine homes lack access to electricity and 38% go without running water. The Navajo Generating Station (not owned by the Dine people, despite the name) processes toxic coal to power the Central Arizona Project (CAP) water canals, which carry water across the dry state to booming cities, luxury residences and unsustainable agricultural areas.
Mining companies are adding insult to injury by sucking up billions of gallons of water from the pristine ice age Navajo Aquifer, the lifeline of the parched desert region. Wahleah reported that over 3.3 million gallons of water are used everyday by Peabody coal for operations on Dine lands, drying up sacred water springs, wells and rivers vital to cultural, spiritual, economic and physical survival.
The environmental racism and disregard for Indigenous rights and wellbeing is brutally apparent.
In 2006, Black Mesa Water Coalition and regional allies pressured tribal leaders to demand the end of the use of Peabody Coal’s slurry lines, citing dire threats and impacts on fresh water sources. Since initial struggles and victories, Wahleah and her colleagues have been spearheading growing discussions and action groups to figure out what it really means to shut down coal and uranium mines, generating stations and pipelines in communities that have been polluted and made dependent on extraction for decades.
BMWC, under the leadership of Wahleah and the outstanding climate woman, Jihan Gearon, is resisting new mining and infrastructure, and researching ways to repurpose brown and leach fields, with the goal of reclaiming a sizable portion of the 14 thousand acres of mined land for use in new solar projects. Arizona has 300+ days of sunshine a year, with seemingly endless renewable potential.
Among many goals, the Black Mesa Solar Project aims to replace the dirty Navajo Generating Station coal used to power the CAP with solar energy, owned by and benefiting Dine communities.
Wahleah and colleagues are learning how to deal with old infrastructure, roads and toxic dumping, and moving forward with an off grid solar install (like the amazing Lubicon Solar project in the middle of the Canadian Tar Sands), thus forging a path for the Dine people to have access to and lead the just next system that climate activists around the world are calling forth.
Groups and individuals across the Navajo nation are beginning to collaborate, collect recommendations and build action plans of how to move forward collectively and as a tribal nation, shedding a toxic legacy and seeking out a new path based on sustainable living and Indigenous sovereignty.
In starting solar power projects on reclaimed lands, held in community hands – Wahleah and other Dine leaders and community members are building hope and directly challenging the unsustainable status quo that has exploited their people for generations
As they build the transition on Dine lands, Wahleah and colleagues are drawing upon their rich culture and the knowledge and vision of their ancestors, building solar and passive energy homes in the style of traditional Dine hogans, and translating renewable energy resources and technical information into the Dine language.
Wahleah discussed renewable energy and the Just Transition as a way to enliven spiritual and cultural connection, touching on work to reach out to children, youth, adults and elders by connecting renewable energy information with traditional knowledge and storytelling about the sun and Dine thought on relationship to light and the sacred directions. According to Wahleah, Dine stories recount that the sun has always helped their people overcome challenges.
Wahleah ended by explaining that a Just Transition remands reciprocity and justice for those, such as the Dine (Navajo) Nation, who have had their lives, water, health and cultural and spiritual connection to their homelands denigrated by decades of fossil fuel extraction. She reminded participants that while much attention is given to exploitation and horror abroad, within the wealthy Northern Nation, Indigenous communities have also been and continue to be sacrificed to bring luxury, comfort, and energy those with institutionalized power and privilege.
Within this context, it is clear that the movement for renewables and just climate change solutions must be diverse and open, and shaped by Indigenous peoples, low-income communities and marginalized people of all forms.
“100% renewable energy really resonates with Indigenous communities – it means the ability to control our own destiny, to build self reliance and sovereignty – this is what clean energy can provide is it is done right,” Wahleah explained.
She emphasized that the team working on Black Mesa is still finding their way everyday, learning lessons for themselves and all communities on the frontlines struggling against extraction and the legacy of colonialism. She reflected on the many invaluable allies who have helped her and Black Mesa make model business plans, and grow their understanding of markets and potential for creating an effective renewable system.
“We do this work for future generations, for the health of our communities, and because of our deep understanding of our connection to everything, “ Wahleah reflected in her closing comments.
Her work, and that of Black Mesa Water Coalition as a whole, is part of a long line of Indigenous rights, environmental racism and anti-extraction work led by courageous Dine leaders over the decades.
Lynn Benander took the floor as the final presenter of the day.
Lynn Benander, CEO and President of Co-op Power, works tirelessly to build community ownership of renewable energy resources in New England and New York, USA. She has worked for many years to support the development of consumer, producer, worker-owned and other locally-controlled businesses that meet basic needs for energy, food, and shelter. Ms. Benander has raised more than $25 million in development grants, renewable energy grants, and financing for business development. She lives in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts and serves on numerous cooperative and community boards and on her town’s energy and finance committees.
Lynn shared the story of Co-op Power as a powerful example of what is possible when a “multi-race, multi-class movement” unites to build locally owned and operated renewable energy systems.
Co-op Power is a consumer-owned sustainable energy cooperative, which operated within a network of co-ops that together support 22 ‘Green Enterprises’, 200 ‘Good Green Jobs’ and a growing group of over 7,000 people across Massachusetts and Vermont.
Using the locally owned co-op model, every community involved with Co-op Power decides what approach and type of renewables they wish to use, and then works collectively to ensure that energy is created and distributed in a just and inclusive way. According to Lynn, women are playing a key role on every level of community renewable energy development, as project catalysts, investors, activists, policymakers, supporters, organizers, and builders.
Through their diverse network, Co-op Power members are learning how to reclaim their power and take back the commons through green job and installation training, environmentally sustainable renewable choices, just and open renewable financing options, and local planning, installation and benefit.
The transition to renewables is about the “power of the people to build local, living economies,” Lynn explained, stressing that truly effective systems must be firmly grounded and supportive of local resilience and sovereignty.
During her presentation, Lynn decried the current U.S. renewables tax incentive structure, which supports wealthy investors more than local communities, families and small scale projects, and stressed the need for new enabling legislation to make renewable energy accessible to all.
Despite the gap in policy support in much of the U.S., grassroots urban and rural solar projects are popping up in inspired communities across the country, from the rooftops of low-income housing units in New York City, to the tops of greenhouses in California and beyond.
In closing, Lynn drew attention to the Energy Democracy Movement and one of its key leaders, Denise Fairchild, and shared the Co-op Power ‘5 Years to Energy Freedom’ plan, which asks people to pledge to reduce energy consumption by 50%, and then work towards using renewables to supply the other half of their energy needs.
‘Women for 100% Renewable Energy: From Installation to Advocacy’ concluded with a Question and Answer session exploring topics including the sourcing of renewable, fairly traded materials for clean energy technology; the developing US solar market; energy efficiency; what reciprocity for frontline community looks like in action; and questions about the effectiveness of working inside the system versus outside the system (using tools such as non-violent civil disobedience) in pursuit of timely action to #KeepItInTheGround and transition to renewables.
Learn more about past and upcoming US Women’s Climate Justice Initiative Trainings here.
- Women for 100% Renewable Energy Speaker Biographies
- Renewables 100% Policy Institute
- Black Mesa Water Coalition
- Co-op Power
- Women In Solar Energy
- Women of Wind Energy
- Center for Social Inclusion – Energy Democracy
- S Renewable Energy Map
- Business Alliance for Local Living Economies
- VIDEO: New Economy Coalition – What Is Energy Democracy and Why Does It Matter?