- Community Solar as Energy Reparations:Abolishing Petro-Racial Capitalism in New Orleans
In a June 2019 interview on WHIV community radio in New Orleans, Logan Burke, executive director of the Louisiana Alliance for Affordable Energy, detailed the work underway at the New Orleans City Council to authorize community solar,1 which means "that rather than depending on the utility itself to procure renewables, a community can invest in and own solar resources and other renewable resources and reduce their bills, lock[ing] in the cost of that energy over time." Burke identified the developments in New Orleans as a historic opportunity to bring policy innovations that work toward energy equity to the US South, as the rule is "the first community solar opportunity that anybody has seen in our region."2
Community solar programs geared to low-income communities strive to address energy poverty or energy insecurity by working around the financial and infrastructural impediments for renters and other customers without adequate infrastructure or the upfront capital to finance a residential solar energy system.3 Customers can harness energy collected at a location other than their home by subscribing to a share of a community-owned solar array and receive credit on their bill for the power produced through their participation. Given the history of racial discrimination in home lending that is reflected in an unequal distribution of property ownership in New Orleans, and the US more widely,4 community solar is a concrete policy intervention with the potential to generate equity in access to renewable energy and reduce disparate energy poverty across racial groups in the transition to clean energy. Distributing access to renewable and affordable electricity through community solar challenges the fossil fuel infrastructures that contribute to energy poverty, housing insecurity, and climate vulnerability and confronts the power relations that sustain petro-racial capitalism in New Orleans. We focus on this policy as an alternative system of energy production and consumption that works to shift the extractive energy paradigm to a renewable and reparative energy system. Importantly, community solar is only a piece of climate justice mobilization [End Page 603] in the Gulf Coast, where Indigenous and Black communities are organizing for energy equity and self-determination in the transition to clean energy.5
Across the US South, Black political discussion related to reparations was established in "the land question" as a way to build the necessary assets to fulfill community needs and ensure self-determination after emancipation.6 As Manning Marable suggests, other resource questions related to land should also inform reparational politics. To this end he writes, "Energy—the technology to develop property efficiently and productively, access to cheap and renewable supplies of electricity, natural gas, petroleum, etc. becomes vital as more Black people leave the land and become dependent upon non-agricultural employment as salaried workers."7 Marable laments that "the question of energy" was not central to Black political mobilization of the 1960s given its relationship to "the land question" and the disproportionate energy burden that people of color bear across the US in the face of patriarchy, white supremacy, and colonialism while abundant profits continue to be made by energy producers.8 These vast profits result from regulatory capture, as public regulators permit a generous rate of return for utilities and energy companies carefully use state and federal tax codes to leverage subsidies and avoid corporate income taxes.9 We understand capital in terms of energy and examine "petro-racial capitalism" as an accumulation strategy reliant on the production, distribution, and consumption of petroleum that both requires and perpetuates colonial dis-possession and racialized accumulation enacted through processes of slavery, patriarchy, imperialism, and genocide.10 As Julie Sze argues, "Capitalism and carbon live out and through systematic dispossession, production, extraction, disposability—in short, death and violence."11
In Louisiana, seen as "America's very own petrostate,"12 racialized disparities in exposure to environmental toxins from energy infrastructure and the "fiscal geographies" of asset stripping, through tax evasion and subsidization, shape the spaces of energy extraction, production, and use.13 Clyde Woods identifies the central role of the energy sector in creating ecological and economic vulnerability through...