The Hidden Victims of ‘Green’ Virtue Signalling: Renewable Energy Costs Crushing Working Poor

Subsidised wind and solar is a playground for the vain, rich and cynical, and its victims are always on the wrong side of the tracks; unseen and unheard.

Energy poverty is now an entrenched feature of first-world economies wherever wind and solar play any prominence in power systems.

And it’s not simply the fact that rocketing power prices (and the explicit and implicit cost of subsidies to intermittent wind and solar) make electricity unaffordable for those on welfare or low fixed incomes, the unemployed, the infirm and otherwise vulnerable.

It is what rising prices have done to destroy the jobs of those who once worked in energy-hungry industries like manufacturing and mineral processing. These are the jobs that have been exported to places like India and China, where, thanks an abundance of coal-fired power, energy is cheap and always on tap.

Not so in places like California, where climate and energy policy is driven by a band of wealthy, rent-seeking, elites, who have engineered a stranglehold of punitive environmental regulations and coupled them with suicidal energy policies that are punishing its working poor, beyond imagination and beyond all compassion.

Jennifer Hernandez – as someone born into that world and who, as a graduate of Harvard and then Stanford Law – is eminently qualified to speak about the victims of virtue signalling renewable energy carpetbaggers.

Green Jim Crow – How California’s Climate Policies Undermine Civil Rights and Racial Equity (Extract)
Breakthrough Institute
Jennifer Hernandez
16 August 2021

At the age of 17, I won our nation’s closest equivalent to a national lottery, with full scholarships to Harvard, and then Stanford Law. The daughter and granddaughter of steelworkers, I grew up in Pittsburg, California, a gritty industrial town on the outskirts of the San Francisco Bay Area, with a significant Latino and Black workforce.

My dad’s dad and three uncles were recruited by US Steel from the fields near Fresno, where they worked alongside other Mexican immigrants picking produce. All the dads I knew worked at one of the town’s factories, mostly in union jobs for the biggest manufacturers: US Steel, Johns Manville, and Union Carbide. We were an AFL-CIO family.

My dad’s job at US Steel allowed us to live in the “middle” class: he had a secure job with medical and pension benefits and paid vacations. My siblings and I attended parochial school (tuition for all three of us was $21.00 per month). I learned to sail in a city recreation class, cutting through the rainbow surface sheen created by wastewater from the industrial plants that lined the Sacramento River.

Winters brought an annual day trip to the Sierras, where we slid down snowy hills on inner tubes and big plastic saucers. Summers brought beach trips to Santa Cruz, where the salt air provided welcome relief from the coughing and itching that assaulted us as soon as we popped back over the hill to the acute summer smog in the Bay Area.

That California no longer exists.

Soon after I started work in 1984 as a newly minted environmental lawyer in San Francisco, my dad and the vast majority of his fellow workers were permanently laid off from US Steel. He was 56.

While I spent my days puzzling through how to apply the exponentially expanding federal and state environmental laws, regulations, and judicial opinions to California’s factories, my parents catapulted into economic insecurity just as my sister started college and my brother completed his welding apprenticeship.

Fortunately, my parents owned their home. But my father’s pension and retirement benefits had been pared to pennies by the company’s bankruptcy. He would spend the rest of his working career earning near-minimum wages as a hardware store clerk. My parents’ home, like homes owned by both sets of grandparents, created the wealth that sustained my parents and long-widowed grandmothers through illness, job losses, and aging. Owning a home isn’t just a place to live: it’s the American Dream, our nation’s most successful pathway for elevating working families to the middle class.

My dad’s US Steel factory, like so many others in California’s rust belt, fell to global competition. But that isn’t the entire story. During this period, California’s environmental regulators were also piling on demands that made California’s factories even less able to compete. A General Motors plant in Los Angeles, for example, made Firebirds — GM’s signature muscle car. Red paint, as it turned out, required more solvents to achieve the essential shiny finish. In the 1980s, air regulators effectively gave GM the choice of staying in business without red Firebirds or shutting down. GM shut down, and thousands of workers lost good jobs.

That was only the beginning. As California’s industries shuttered, I lawyered the cleanup and redevelopment of these lands — turning factories into upscale mixed residential-retail projects, landfills into parks, tilt-up warehouses into expensive apartments for tech workers, and decayed single-occupancy hotels into gleaming high-rise towers.

I watched my big law firm peers, like the rest of California’s economic and political elites, retreat ever deeper into tiny White enclaves like Marin County, where they charge their electric vehicles with rooftop solar panels, send their kids off to elite schools with overpriced burlap lunch sacks, and clutch their stainless steel, reusable water bottles — all marketed as “green” products but mostly made in China by workers earning poverty wages, in state factories spewing pollution and powered by coal-dependent electric grids, and then shipped across the ocean in tankers powered by bunker fuel.

As the White environmentally minded progressives with whom I lived and worked allied with the state’s growing non-White population, California turned reliably blue, giving the Democratic Party an unbeatable electoral majority that was ostensibly a testament to the power of the state’s new majority of minorities. But the state’s White environmental donor class continued to wield outsized power within the progressive coalition.

In my 23 years as a token minority on the board of the California League of Conservation Voters, with White environmental donors and activists who cycled in and out of agencies like the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and Cal/EPA, a smattering of shorter-time tokens and I were lonely voices calling attention to how California’s supposedly world-leading environmental and climate regime was destroying the possibility of homeownership and manufacturing sector jobs for hardworking members of Latino, Black, and other minority communities.

During those years, I witnessed the creation and repeated emasculation of “environmental justice” groups. Often incubated, and always bullied and underfunded by White environmental advocacy groups and philanthropists, environmental justice advocates too often went along with fundamentally anti-growth policies that blocked housing that was still affordable to median-income households, shuttered unionized industries meeting the most stringent environmental, workplace safety, and labor protection standards in the nation, and prevented the expansion of the transportation, water, and public service infrastructure needed by California’s growing population.

Almost four decades after my dad lost his job, California’s air and water are cleaner. The state leads the world in renewable energy and electric vehicle ownership. But its industrial and manufacturing sectors have been decimated, and it boasts the highest housing, transportation, and electricity costs in the country. Its climate accomplishments are illusory, a product of deindustrialization, high energy costs, and, more recently and improbably, depopulation. Inequality has hit record levels, and housing segregation has returned to a degree not seen since the early 1960s.

California’s White progressive leadership boasts of creating a “just transition” to an equitable low-carbon future. But what I have witnessed over my now 37 years as an environmental and land-use lawyer has been something much darker: the creation of a new Green Jim Crow era in California.

4.
Adding insult to injury, California’s energy policies disproportionately hit low- and median-income communities of color coming and going, raising household energy costs while limiting opportunities for employment in the well-paying, often-unionized, energy-intensive sectors of the state’s economy.

Black and Latino households are already forced to pay from 20 to 43 percent more of their household incomes on energy than White households.[36] A household energy cost of more than 6 percent of total income is considered the measure of energy poverty. In 2020, over 4 million households in California (30 percent of the total) experienced energy poverty.[37] Over 2 million households were forced to pay 10 to 27 percent of their total income for home energy. Between 2011 and 2020, the state’s home energy affordability gap rose by 66 percent, while falling by 10 percent in the rest of the nation.

California has the highest electricity and highest gasoline costs in the nation, with electricity prices 50 percent higher than the national average[38] and gasoline costs exceeding even import-reliant Hawaii in the center of the Pacific Ocean. [39]  “These higher costs,” assembly member Cooper wrote in a 2020 letter to environmental groups, “impact disadvantaged communities, especially those who live in areas like the Central Valley, and force them to pay more for energy costs than coastal community households do.”[40]

The state’s generous net metering policies for rooftop solar panels are already making these inequities worse, as the costs of these programs are ultimately paid for predominantly by the state’s less-wealthy homeowners and renters. In 2021, legislation introduced by assembly member Lorena Gonzalez to end these racist solar subsidies was defeated,[41] following pressure from the state’s environmental and climate advocacy groups.

But unaffordable utility bills are only half the story. California climate policies also require the elimination of hundreds of thousands of conventional energy jobs, and will adversely affect millions of other jobs in energy-dependent and related industries. These sectors provide stable, higher-paying employment for less educated residents, the majority of whom are workers of color and recent immigrants. In 2019, 29 percent of all new immigrants had not graduated from high school.[42] A further 20 percent finished high school but did not attend college. As better-paying blue collar work has evaporated, most have ended up in the state’s lowest-paying jobs — that massive cohort of nearly 40 percent of Californians who cannot afford to pay routine monthly expenses.

An analysis of 2017 data by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC) found that “across all levels of education, earnings are higher in oil and gas industries compared to the all industry average.”[43] The energy sector provides over 152,100 direct and 213,860 indirect and induced jobs in California that pay higher wages and benefits for individuals with lower levels of education. This workforce is ethnically and racially diverse, and about 63 percent of all employees have less than a bachelor’s degree.

LAEDC also showed that another 3.9 million California jobs (16.5 percent of total state employment) rely on purchases from or use products sold by state energy producers, including chemical, machinery, and metal products manufacturing, wholesale trade, utilities, and transportation, as well as professional, scientific, and technical services.[44] Most of these sectors also provide higher-paying jobs for workers of color, often in more affordable areas of the state. These jobs are also at risk from the forced elimination of the in-state energy sector.

California climate advocates have utterly failed to provide a convincing explanation for how workers of color employed in existing energy and energy-dependent sectors will support their families once these industries are gone. Many, like the fantastically wealthy, famously haughty John Kerry, now the nation’s “climate envoy,” airily suggest that green employment will replace job losses in the fossil fuel sector. Even the staunchly progressive Washington Post conceded that this was unlikely, noting that rapid growth in the wind and solar industries over the next decade could plausibly replace at most 20 percent of the workforce of the coal industry alone.[45]

Trade unions and their Democratic political allies aren’t buying what California’s climate cognoscenti are selling either. “Career opportunities for renewables are nowhere near what they are in gas and oil, and domestic energy workers highly value the safety, reliable duration and compensation of oil and gas construction jobs,” North America’s Building Trades Unions said in July 2020 after conducting two studies of the industry.[46] “We can hate on oil, but the truth is our refinery jobs are really good middle class jobs,” echoed California state senator and labor leader Lorena Gonzalez. “Jobs can’t be an afterthought to any climate change legislation. We must have specific plans that accompany industry changes.”[47]

There are no such plans. California’s oil consumption continues, slowing only with the pandemic, while progressive climate elites see no irony in forcing California’s minority communities out of jobs while importing more oil from Saudi Arabia and other countries not known for adherence to progressive labor, gender, environmental, or civil rights values.

Instead, many climate advocates have retreated to vague notions of supplying a forcibly unemployed workforce with a universal basic income[48] or universal basic services.[49] Even then, some would limit such subsidies to what they determine will meet only basic costs of living and “sharply reduce consumption of material goods created in environmentally harmful ways.”[50] The Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transit Commission recently proposed a $205 billion statewide universal basic income program, comprising a $500 monthly payment to all households.[51] Even where the state, or even the wealthy Bay Area, willing to enact such a program, it would offer pitifully little income support for low-income households. For comparison’s sake, federal unemployment insurance during the pandemic offered $400–600 per week to individuals.

One thing, though, seems much more certain. State climate leaders appear determined to continue to impose regressive and racist deindustrialization schemes on aspiring communities of color.

5.
All of these racist housing, transportation, and energy outcomes will occur even if everything goes as planned by state climate authorities. It almost certainly won’t.

In 2008, California voters approved an initiative for a high-speed rail line linking Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Francisco at a cost of $33 billion.[52] Thirteen years later, costs rose to more than $100 billion. By 2021, the state was struggling to complete just a 171-mile line from Merced to Bakersfield with a track right of way of about 1,000 acres.

California already imports more than 25 percent of current state electrical demand.[53] To electrify buildings and light-duty vehicles by 2050, it must successfully build, connect, and deliver electricity from new solar and wind installations about 100 to 300 times the size of the still-uncompleted Merced to Bakersfield high-speed rail line each year for the next 30 years. The state has not identified or secured rights to use more than a minute fraction of the land this sprawling, multidecade energy development project will require.

Environmental challenges alone will almost certainly preclude anything like the mammoth scale of new energy construction imagined by California climate advocates. In 2019, the state’s own electrification consultants prepared a study for The Nature Conservancy showing that new solar and wind facilities consistent with the state’s clean energy targets threatened sensitive habitats and resources throughout the western United States.[54] The study concluded that more environmentally protective development scenarios were significantly more costly without a large-scale expansion of interstate transmission capabilities.

Meanwhile, local governments (and voters) are increasingly resistant to utility-scale renewable development. San Bernardino County, the largest county in California, comprising much of the state’s prime wind and solar sites, has banned the construction of new industrial-scale wind and solar facilities on over a million acres of land. [55]

Then there’s the need to locate, mine, and refine unparalleled amounts of raw materials to manufacture millions of solar panels, wind generators, grid-scale batteries, grid distribution and transmission upgrades, and millions of new electrical home heating, cooling, cooking, and water-heating appliances and EVs.[56] No one knows whether the world’s mining and manufacturing capacity can feasibly meet California’s demand, let alone global demand. Some key materials, including graphite, lithium, and polysilicon used in renewable generation, are produced using child or forced labor in unsafe conditions.

California also has not yet comprehensively planned for renewable energy waste management, including the need to replace and dispose of a massive amount of worn-out panels, turbines, and batteries each year. Nor has the cost of actually electrifying and retrofitting existing buildings and installing enough chargers and other infrastructure for a statewide fleet of EVs been fully assessed. In the UK, cost estimates for decarbonizing just residential buildings by 2050 are now said to have been underestimated by up to $90 billion. [57] A former principal policy advisor for the California Energy Commission estimates that the bill for state electrification is $2.8 trillion,[58]which would be $71,400 per capita.

Even if solar, wind, and battery prices continue to fall as state bureaucrats hope, wind and solar power require backup supplies to maintain grid frequency and reliability.[59] Climate regulators use terms like “net zero carbon” to mask reliance on natural gas generation, excuse the shutdown of the state’s sole nuclear plant, resist increasing pumped generation even from existing hydroelectric reservoirs, and block biomass generation — notwithstanding the state’s urgent need to reduce catastrophic wildfire risks by removing dead and dying vegetation caused by a century of forest mismanagement and periodic droughts.

Numerous studies from leading researchers have now demonstrated that running California’s entire electrical grid on wind, solar, and batteries alone, as much of the state’s environmental leadership insists, is both infeasible and almost unimaginably costly.[60] For all of these reasons, it is highly unlikely that California will successfully electrify as planned by 2050.

Meanwhile, California’s affluent White homeowners have already seen the future of the California electricity grid — and it’s ugly. With planned blackouts to reduce wildfire risks, many of California’s most affluent communities experienced multiple days without electricity: no EV car charging, no smartphones or laptops, no refrigerated food, no electric cooktops or microwaves. Their response, predictably, was to rush to restore reliable on-demand electric supplies affordable only to homeowners with extra cash on hand, who bought either home-based generators (propane or gasoline) or their own solar battery storage array.

California’s future electricity system is on track for the wealthy to continue to have on-demand reliable electricity, either self-generated and stored or at ever-escalating costs. Everyone else will need to make do with unreliable and costly electricity.

Finally, the state needs to comply with existing legal mandates to provide affordable, reliable energy to Californians and stop pretending that existing solar, wind, and battery technologies can supply all or most of California’s energy needs, while the state closes its last nuclear plant and continues to grant license extensions to its dirtiest gas plants.

All of this is simply summarized as following the Clean Air Act’s successful regulatory pathway for reducing automobile smog by 99 percent: being methodical, transparent, and technology-neutral — and respectful of other moral and legal mandates, including civil rights.

My golden lottery ticket gave me a career at the intersection of environmental, land use, and civil rights laws. For the last 25 years, I have tried to pay my own good fortune forward, by advocating to close the racial wealth gap exacerbated by the anti-growth advocacy of environmental elites, and restoring attainable homeownership and upward mobility for tens of millions of people of color who have yet to realize the California Dream or even the possibility of a stable, working-class income with homeownership, like that achieved by my grandparents, my parents, and my own (Boomer) generation.

We are long overdue to reconsider California’s racist, inequitable, and ineffectual climate agenda. There is no reason the state could not continue to lead the world in reducing GHG emissions with feasible, cost-effective technologies and racially equitable strategies that can and would be widely replicated globally. Justice, equity, and the climate all demand nothing less.

Endnotes

36. “Report: Low-Income Households, Communities of Color Face High ‘Energy Burden’ Entering Recession,” Press Release, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, September 10, 2020, https://www.aceee.org/press-release/2020/09/report-low-income-households-communities-color-face-high-energy-burden.

37. “The Home Energy Affordability Gap 2020: California” (2nd Series), April 2021, Fisher, Sheehan & Colton, http://homeenergyaffordabilitygap.com/03a_affordabilityData.html.

38. James Bushnell, “Breaking News! California Electricity Prices Are High,” Energy Institute Blog, February 21, 2017, https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2017/02/21/breaking-news-california-electricity-prices-are-high/.

39. “State Gas Price Averages,” AAA, accessed July 12, 2021, https://gasprices.aaa.com/state-gas-price-averages/.

40. Antonio Ray Harvey, “Asm. Cooper Calls Out Environmental Orgs’ Racism,” Los Angeles Sentinel, August 20, 2020, https://lasentinel.net/asm-cooper-calls-out-environmental-orgs-racism.html.

41. Bob Dean, “CA’s Existing Solar Power System Favors the Wealthy,” Capitol Weekly
(Sacramento, CA), June 2, 2021, https://capitolweekly.net/cas-…; and David Wagman, “‘Anti-Solar’ Bill Fails in California State Assembly Vote, Putting It to Rest . . . for This Year,” PV Magazine, June 4, 2021, https://pv-magazine-usa.com/2021/06/04/anti-solar-bill-fails-in-california-state-assembly-vote-putting-it-to-rest-for-this-year/.

42. Hans Johnson, Cesar Alesi Perez, and Marisol Cuellar Mejia, “Immigrants and Education in California,” March 2021, Public Policy Institute of California, https://www.ppic.org/publication/immigrants-and-education-in-california/.

43. Shannon M. Sedgwick et al., Oil & Gas in California: The Industry, Its Economic Contribution, and User Industries at Risk in 2017 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, July 2019), i–ii, https://laedc.org/2019/08/27/oil-and-gas-industry-in-california-2019-report/.

44. Sedgwick et al., Oil & Gas in California, iii.

45. Glenn Kessler, “Kerry’s Misleading Framing of Potential Solar and Wind Jobs,” Washington Post, January 29, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/01/29/kerrys-misleading-framing-potential-solar-wind-jobs/.

46. “NABTU Issues Two New Studies Showing the Great Opportunities in and Job Quality Importance of Energy Construction,” North America’s Building Trades Unions, July 17, 2020, https://nabtu.org/press_releases/two-new-energy-construction-studies/.

47. Lorena Gonzalez, Comment, Twitter, September 24, 2020, https://twitter.com/lorenasgonzalez/status/1309169563280576512?lang=en.

48. Vishal Rana, “Climate Change and the Case for Universal Basic Income,” AIB Blog, August 20, 2020, Australian Institute of Business, https://www.aib.edu.au/blog/aib-review/climate-change-and-the-case-for-universal-basic-income/.

49. Ian Gough, “Move the Debate from Universal Basic Income to Universal Basic Services,” UNESCO Inclusive Policy Lab, January 19, 2021, https://en.unesco.org/inclusivepolicylab/analytics/move-debate-universal-basic-income-universal-basic-services.

50. Robert Ayres and Jeroen van den Bergh, “Why Universal Basic Income Should Be President Biden’s Top Priority,” INSEAD Economics & Finance Blog, January 19, 2021, https://knowledge.insead.edu/blog/insead-blog/why-universal-basic-income-should-be-president-bidens-top-priority-15926.

51. Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments, “Plan Bay Area 2050: A Blueprint for the Bay Area’s Future,” December 2020, https://www.planbayarea.org/sites/default/files/FinalBlueprintRelease_December2020_Strategies.pdf.

52. Skip Descant, “High-Speed Rail Is at a Crossroads, Industry Experts Say,” Government Technology, July 9, 2021, https://www.govtech.com/fs/high-speed-rail-is-at-a-crossroads-industry-experts-say. For the initial plan, see California High Speed Rail Authority and USDOT Federal Railroad Administration, Final Program Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS) for the Proposed California High-Speed Train System, Volume 1: Report (Sacramento: California High Speed Rail Authority, 2005), https://hsr.ca.gov/docs/programs/eir-eis/State_Wide_EIR_EIS_Volume_1_Part_1_of_3.pdf.

53. “California Was the Largest Net Electricity Importer of Any State in 2019,” Today in Energy, December 20, 2020, U.S. Energy Information Administration, https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=46156.

54. Grace C. Wu et al., Power of Place: Land Conservation and Clean Energy Pathways for California (San Francisco: The Nature Conservancy, June 2019), https://www.scienceforconservation.org/assets/downloads/Technical_Report_Power_of_Place.pdf.

55. Sammy Roth, “California’s San Bernardino County Slams the Brakes on Big Solar Projects,” Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-san-bernardino-solar-renewable-energy-20190228-story.html?fbclid=IwAR2qHGq3bahHme6SFErLsnyFi9UPIfBHIhvnOh3dU3OM7kUTMcEqYfN3pQA.

56. Mark P. Mills, Mines, Minerals, and “Green” Energy: A Reality Check (New York: Manhattan Institute, July 2020), https://www.manhattan-institute.org/mines-minerals-and-green-energy-reality-check.

57. “Net Zero Impossible Unless Urgent Action Taken on Energy Efficiency This Decade,” UK Parliament, Committees, March 22, 2021, https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/62/environmental-audit-committee/news/152918/net-zero-impossible-unless-urgent-action-taken-on-energy-efficiency-this-decade/.

58. Thomas Tanton, Cost of Electrification: A State-by-State Analysis and Results
(Helotes, TX: T2 & Associates, October 2020), https://eelegal.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/LCOE2-for-posting-9.17.2020.pdf.

59. Chukwuka G. Monyei et al., “Justice, Poverty, and Electricity Decarbonization,” The Electricity Journal 32, no. 1 (January–February 2019): 47–51, https://spp.gatech.edu/publications/pubFile/5716.

60. See, for example, Bushnell, “Breaking News!”
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