A panel of experts speaks about clean energy and affordability at the Clean Energy Summit hosted by the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia on Jan. 18. From left: Ernest Jolly, D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility; Willa Hightower, Pepco; Tony Reames, U.S. Department of Energy; and Damali Harding, Regulatory Assistance Project. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)
A panel of experts speaks about clean energy and affordability at the Clean Energy Summit hosted by the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia on Jan. 18. From left: Ernest Jolly, D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility; Willa Hightower, Pepco; Tony Reames, U.S. Department of Energy; and Damali Harding, Regulatory Assistance Project. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)

Money and jobs were top priority at the second Clean Energy Summit, hosted by the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia (DCPSC) on Jan. 18. Over the course of three panels, experts from across sectors discussed opportunities for the District to harness a clean energy transition for economic growth without exacerbating racial and income inequalities.

Willie Phillips, the acting chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and former chairman of the D.C. Public Service Commission, gave the keynote address at the summit. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)

“There’s an urgency to act on climate and the changing environment. And there’s an urgency to act on environmental justice and equity. But I submit to you that it’s not an either/or proposition — that we can, and we must, advance both,” said Willie Phillips, acting chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), in an address at the start of the summit. 

The event’s three panel discussions focused on separate but related topics: new federal funding opportunities for clean energy and energy efficiency; workforce and supply chain development; and energy affordability. The conversations centered on the economic opportunities and ways to offset the costs of new infrastructure. Discussions of the costs associated with climate change itself — such as damage to public health, environmental destruction and property loss — mostly took a backseat for the day.

“To make the transition requires an investment,” Pepco’s customer operations vice president, Willa Hightower, said during a panel on affordability. “The work that we’re doing … to enable this climate transformation is not free.”

In case watching four hours of clean energy panels isn’t your idea of fun, here are three key takeaways to know about.

Lower Energy Bills and Paid Job Training

Throughout the afternoon, panelists from the D.C. government touched on existing programs that aim to connect clean energy benefits to residents who might otherwise miss out. One such program is Solar for All, which helps low-income households access solar energy and lower their bills by up to 50%. The program provides some rooftop installations for homeowners, but most Solar for All participants are renters who sign up to receive energy from big community solar facilities across the city. 

“We engage in the Solar for All program because we do not believe, and the District does not believe, that the benefits of clean energy should be for the privileged few,” Ernest Jolly, the newly selected head of the DC Sustainable Energy Utility, said at the summit. 

The DC Infrastructure Academy also received attention at the summit. Located in Ward 8, the program partners with District utilities and other companies to provide paid training and on-the-job experience.

Arlen Herrell, deputy chief of innovation and partnerships at the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services, joined the panel on workforce development to talk about the Academy. He emphasized that trainees get paid $16.10 throughout the training process, and said that over 4,000 District residents had received training since the program’s 2018 launch. In an interview with NBC News4 in July, Herrell said the program has about an 80% employment rate and 90% of participants graduate. 

On last week’s panel, Herrell also stressed the Academy’s work connecting underserved communities with companies in new and growing energy industries. 

“You don’t know that there’s a job in solar panel installation if nobody in your neighborhood has solar panels,” he said. “There are pipelines that seem to be closed off to certain communities just because of a lack of exposure.”

Black Leadership Drives our Region’s Energy Sector

The early appearance of federal regulator Willie Phillips as the event’s keynote speaker was far from random. Before joining FERC as a commissioner in 2021, Phillips served locally as chairman for DCPSC. When President Joe Biden named him acting chairman of FERC, he became the first Black person to lead the agency. 

D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie and all three DCPSC commissioners spoke at the event, including Ted Trabue, who just joined the commission in December after more than a decade leading the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility. Other panelists and moderators hailed from federal and local government agencies, private companies and nonprofit organizations. All fifteen energy leaders who took the stage were Black. 

Nationally, Black people made up 13% of the workforce in 2020 and held 8% of jobs in clean energy, according to a 2021 report compiled by six clean energy organizations. In D.C., the workforce was 35% Black in 2020, but Black people made up just under 26% of workers in clean energy. 

Jolly said the diversity of his own team at D.C. Solar Energy Utility made it easier to form strong connections with community members. 

“When we engage the public, the public can see themselves in us,” he said. 

Gas Utility Remains the Elephant in the Room

Speakers at the summit addressed everything from e-bikes to hydrogen batteries, solar farms to home insulation. But the District’s current reliance on natural gas, or methane, went unmentioned. Half of D.C. households use gas to heat their homes and more than 60% have gas stoves, according to data from the Energy Information Administration. 

Burning natural gas produces far less carbon than other non-renewables, such as coal. But it’s still a fossil fuel. Washington Gas released its own Climate Business Plan in 2020. The company argues that its operations can support “a low-carbon energy future.” But D.C. has some of the most aggressive climate goals in the nation, aiming to reach net-zero by 2050. To reach that goal, environmental advocates say the District will need to phase out gas—and that’s a touchy subject for the DCSPC. 

The commission regulates Washington Gas, and has already approved the first two phases of a massive pipe replacement project that will cost upward of $250 million. The commission is scheduled to vote on the third phase sometime this month. D.C. chapters of the Sierra Club and Extinction Rebellion have both focused advocacy efforts toward opposing the project, which they say further entrenches gas infrastructure, making it more difficult to phase out the fossil fuel later on.

Kayla Benjamin

Covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine writing stories...

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