Topics Environment
Date July 16, 2021
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Brown environmental expert testifies on equity in renewable energy before U.S. House committee

Myles Lennon, an assistant professor of environment and society and anthropology, urged members of Congress to support renewable energy research and innovation that could aid and protect marginalized communities in the U.S.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In a virtual U.S. Congress hearing, a Brown University expert on renewable energy urged federal leaders to support research and innovation that could reduce the American carbon footprint while also protecting and supporting marginalized communities.

Myles Lennon, an assistant professor of environment and society and anthropology at Brown, drew from his research and nearly a decade of professional experience in renewable energy in his testimony.

“Clean energy technologies can dramatically reduce the negative public health and environmental impacts of fossil fuel energy on low-income communities and communities of color,” he said. “But more can be done to improve these technologies to truly realize an equitable sustainable energy transition.”

Lennon and three other panelists offered testimony as part of a Friday, July 16, hearing titled “Fostering Equity in Energy Innovation.” They spoke at the invitation of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy, part of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Lennon’s scholarship focuses on the social dynamics of solar energy transitions in low-income communities and communities of color, and on the partnerships and political relationships between grassroots environmental justice organizations and renewable energy corporations. Before earning his Ph.D., he advocated for, designed and implemented energy efficiency programs in low- and moderate-income communities in New York.

In his testimony, Lennon spoke about the ways in which renewable energy has the potential to both help and harm marginalized communities. He noted that the country’s current energy production system disproportionately harms poor and working-class communities and communities of color — but at the same time, renewable energy sources have the potential to generate new environmental, economic and public health problems for those populations depending on how, where and with what materials they are made.

For example, he said, some companies within the renewable energy supply chain lack basic health and safety provisions for their workers and dump toxic chemicals near low-income neighborhoods, exacerbating environmental problems for the most vulnerable populations even as they solve environmental problems for wealthier communities. And while battery storage systems are essential for harnessing the power of solar and wind energy, many batteries are made using lithium and cobalt. Lennon said extracting those materials can often be dangerous and low-paying work, and methods of extraction can harm surrounding communities by causing droughts — both of which disproportionately affect low-income people and people of color across the globe.

“ Clean energy technologies can dramatically reduce the negative public health and environmental impacts of fossil fuel energy on low-income communities and communities of color. But more can be done to improve these technologies to truly realize an equitable sustainable energy transition. ”

Myles Lennon Assistant professor of environment and society and anthropology

He urged the subcommittee to support rigorous research that helps determine how the U.S. can enforce and incentivize good labor and health standards, reduce environmental degradation, help all Americans switch to renewable energy at home, and support safe, effective recycling of renewable energy technology.

“A multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research agenda that works toward these ends is essential to informing policies and regulations, community-based initiatives, and private sector partnerships that center equity in our broader energy transition efforts,” Lennon wrote in written testimony submitted to the committee, which expanded on his spoken remarks. “Crucially, such research must be designed and conducted with the input of marginalized workers and communities, who can help identify problems, needs and solutions in ways that ensure that clean energy innovations and legislation directly support the people who have historically been burdened by energy production.”

Also testifying were Dan Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley; Shobita Parthasarathy, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan; and Bruno Grunau, the regional director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Alaska.

Video from the briefing is available on the Committee on Science, Space and Technology website.