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What is an equitable grid?

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Henry Craver's picture
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As a small business owner, I'm always trying to find ways to cut costs and boost the dependability of my services. To that end, I've become increasingly invested in learning about energy saving...

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Behind a couple words related to the COVID-19 Pandemic, “equity” probably saw one of the biggest spoken and written usage jumps in 2020. The word is now absolutely ubiquitous in the mainstream media, the halls of congress, and educated social circles left of center politically. Equity in the 2020’s doesn’t really mean what it used to: “the quality of being fair and impartial,” according to google. Equity now stands for equal outcomes across groups. Here’s how the word is explained on the George Washington University Health website:

“Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.”

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Vice President Kamala Harris offered a similar definition in a campaign video shortly before election day. 

Here’s an example of a situation that might spark an equity initiative: Two school districts have access to the same resources but one of the districts consistently posts better test scores. Concerned legislators might decide to allocate more resources to the underperforming scores to equalize outcomes in the name of equity … or something like that. 

According to President Biden’s camp, equity is a big issue when it comes to our nation’s grid. For example, last week, the Department of Energy announced plans to spur solar and storage development in low- and moderate-income areas as part of the agency’s justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) initiative. 

Here’s how the DOE described the move: "The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced a slate of new efforts, including $15.5 million in new funding, to support solar energy deployment in underserved communities and build a diverse, skilled workforce. These initiatives will help families and businesses that have been left behind in the clean energy transition to reap the benefits of cheaper power and access to highly-skilled jobs. Together, these efforts reflect the Biden Administration’s commitment to launching every American worker and community into a greener future."

One of the key barriers to solar deployment in poorer neighborhoods are the high upfront costs. People who don’t make a lot of money can’t afford solar. The government could possibly remedy this problem by subsidizing solar for households below a certain income level, or something of the sort. 

Why is this being called equity? As I explained at the top of the post, equity, in a political context, now refers to going beyond equality of opportunity and resources to ensure equal outcomes. Poor households don’t have access to the same resources that rich ones have that are needed to adopt solar—the resources I’m referring to is money. So, I wouldn’t call this an equity push. I imagine the people drafting this message are gravitating towards the word because of its incredible popularity at the moment. 

Does the language used to describe such initiatives have any consequences? I think so. First of all, despite its recent moment, the term equity is still far less understood than words like “fair” and “equal” that could be used in its place. Generally, if you’re trying to sell something, or just communicate effectively, you should use the most common language possible. What’s more, equity now carries the connotation of equalizing outcomes across ethnic groups and genders, as that’s generally how the term is used. I don’t want to argue here that that’s not a worthy goal, but political poll after political poll shows that racilizing a policy issue makes it more likely to fail. So why risk doing so when the initiative (getting solar to people with less money) is just an economic issue? 

To sum up my thoughts: the deployment of solar across the country is good. Equity is a buzzword that doesn’t capture the effort to do that. It actually puts the whole program at risk because it carries political baggage, and some people just don’t know what it means.


 

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