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The Clean Power Plan and Environmental Justice: Part Three

Climate Justice

On Thursday and Friday of last week, I blogged about environmental justice and the Clean Power Plan. My first post considered how stringent targets and the right incentives could lead to significant aggregate reductions that will indirectly lead to reductions in co-pollutants that have a disproportionate impact on of-color and low-income communities. Friday, I examined the plan’s distributional effects and its provisions requiring community engagement. Today, I’ll examine provisions intended to help overburdened communities benefit from a transition to genuinely clean energy, and then I’ll draw some conclusions based on the issues discussed in all three blog posts.

Co-pollutant impacts are not the only environmental justice issue. Rising energy costs are a serious concern for poor families who spend a disproportionate share of their income on energy necessary to stay warm in winter and, increasingly, to stay cool in summer. In addition, justice questions arise as we consider who will benefit from the lower costs and jobs created by clean energy and demand-side energy efficiency.

The Clean Power Plan addresses concerns about rising costs and about the distribution of energy-efficiency benefits. The Clean Energy Incentive Program, which will provide matching federal allowances for investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, targets the energy efficiency incentives exclusively to investments in low-income communities. By helping households reduce energy use through energy efficiency programs, poor households’ energy bills can stay the same or be reduced, notwithstanding potentially higher energy rates.

More generally, the Plan “encourages” states to consider how to help low-income communities share in the benefits from investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Although it does not require such measures, EPA, in combination with other federal agencies, will facilitate state programs by providing information and resources. EPA has committed to relaying information on a wide variety of programs providing financial and technical assistance, including programs run by other federal agencies, states, and local governments. A number of these resources are already included on EPA’s Clean Power Plan Community Page.


Now, a few words to pull together the environmental justice issues I’ve discussed over the last several days. Overall, the Clean Power Plan’s systemwide approach will lead to greater stringency, and greater co-pollutant reductions, than could be achieved with a narrow focus on the mechanics of affected utilities. While the loss of the energy efficiency building block will likely mean that less is accomplished, the retention of the systemwide approach provides a degree of stringency that will continue to achieve significant co-pollutant benefits by incentivizing a transition away from high-polluting coal-fired power. Moreover, the Plan’s inclusion of incentives for renewable energy and demand-side energy efficiency will (hopefully) help steer investments to the cleanest energy alternatives and provide the greatest long-term benefits.

Focusing directly on the distributional question that is so important to vulnerable communities, the Plan duly acknowledges potential distributional impacts on vulnerable communities and encourages states to take them into account. EPA appears to hope that its more forceful participatory requirements – its requirement that states show how they are engaging vulnerable communities in state implementation planning – will generate sufficient state attention to the impacts on and needs of vulnerable communities. The participatory elements are important; it remains to be seen if they are sufficient.

In terms of ensuring that overburdened communities are part of a clean energy transition, EPA’s direct incentives for energy-efficiency investments in low-income communities provides a direct benefit to the most vulnerable communities, and helps both avoid the costs and spread the benefits of the program. EPA’s explicit encouragement to states to consider how vulnerable communities are reaping the benefits of a clean energy transition provides an important signal, and highlights the crucial role of the states in implementing the Plan.

Ultimately, the Plan continues to leave crucial energy system decisions to the states, and the states’ implementation choices will be critical to environmental justice outcomes. As I emphasized in my essay anticipating the Clean Power Plan (part of CPR’s The Clean Power Plan: Issues to Watch), states have the opportunity to engage in critical planning that could achieve multiple benefits, including carbon reductions, co-pollutant reductions, and community-building investments. In implementing the Clean Power Plan, states, through their energy commissions and environmental agencies, have the potential to retire the most polluting facilities, to redirect generation to less-polluting facilities in less vulnerable areas, and to determine how and where to make new investments. The Clean Power Plan has laid the groundwork; now it’s up to the states, and to active environmental justice constituencies within them.

Climate Justice

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