The Energy Justice Stakes Embedded in the Net Energy Metering Policy Debates

AuthorShalanda H. Baker
Chapter 4
The Energy Justice Stakes
Embedded in the Net Energy
Metering Policy Debates
Shalanda H. Baker
I. Introduction
On October 29, 2012, at 7:30 p.m., a peculiar storm that shared the features
of both a tropical storm and hurricane made land fall in Brigantine, New Jer-
se y.1 Superstorm Sandy wrought havoc in New Jersey and New York, leading
to catastrophic economic losses in the United States totaling approximately
$50 billion, which made the storm the “second costliest cyclone to hit the
United States since 1900,” and directly causing the deaths of 147 people, 72
of which occurred in the Mid-Atlantic and northeastern United States.2
Superstorm Sandy appeared indiscriminate in its impact; however, the
most severely aected people appeared to be those with the least ability to
bounce back from the storm.3 As a study conducted by New York City Oce
of the Mayor notes: “More than 400 New York City Housing Authority
(NYCHA) buildings containing approximately 35,000 housing units lost
power, heat, or hot water during Sandy.”4 is amount of aected NYCHA
units exceeds the number of total public housing units of any public housing
authority in the United States, with the exception of Puerto Rico.5 Accord ing
1. C  N Y, A S, M R N Y 12 (2013), available at https://www. [hereinafter C  N Y].
2. E S. B  ., N’ H C., T C R H S 1
(2013), available at
3. C  N Y, supra note 1, at 14.
4. Id.
5. F C.  R E  U P  ., S’ E  H  N Y
C 4 (2013), available atles/publications/SandysEectsOnHousingIn-
Author’s Note: e editors of this volume provided invaluable input on the content of this
chapter, as did Jennie C. Stephens and members of the Working Group in the New York
Public Service Commission Value of Distributed Energy Resources Proceeding. Anastasia
Doherty provided excellent research assistance.
58 Beyond Zero-Sum Environmentalism
to the Furman Center for Real Estate a nd Urban Policy at New York Univer-
sity, nearly 20% of NYCHA’s 178,000 total housing units were in buildings
that experienced some sort of damage with the storm, and “[m]any of the
nearly 80,000 residents of these [damaged] buildings were left without heat
or electricity” due to basement ooding.6 In addition, the storm impacted
approximately 24,500 of the city’s 178,000 privately owned aordable rental
housing units and more than 40,000 rent-stabilized u nits.7 e impacts to
privately owned aordable housing units jeopardized valuable sources of the
city’s aordable housing stock, since units requiring extensive repair in t he
wake of the storm may no longer serve as aordable housing.8
e electricity and heat systems a lso suered devastating damage. In New
York City, home to the “world’s rst centralized electric generation and dis-
tribution sy stem,”9 nearly two million people lost power during the storm,
and 84,000 natura l gas customers experienced losses in service.10 For several
weeks, thousands of residents of New York City, one of the world’s most
sophisticated nancial centers, lived without natural gas to heat homes;
electricity to ush toilets and pump water through high-rise buildings; and
energy to keep perishables, including vital medicines and foods that are d if-
cult for low- to moderate-income families to replace, cold.11
Superstorm Sandy provided a bleak portrait of our possible climate future12
and highlighted the ways i n which the existing energy system renders low- to
6. Id. at 5.
7. Id.
8. e Furman Center disaggregated data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Id. at 7. e data indicated that more than 150,000 New York City households, representing 4% of all
New York City households and one-half of the households in the area aected by the storm surge, had
registered with FEMA, and 55% of registered households were renters. Id. Of registered households,
the median household income for renters was $18,000, compared with $82,000 for homeowners.
Id. at 8. Both groups were disproportionately low-income: “Nearly one-third of owners (29.9%) and
two-thirds of renters (64.9%) have household incomes of less than $30,000 per year.” Id. e study
goes on to note that the “extremely low incomes of the renters” raises concerns regarding whether such
renters will be able to locate new aordable housing, given that only 22% of New York City rental
units would be aordable to households with an annual income of $30,000 or less. Id. Moreover, the
homeowners impacted by Sandy lived in areas with high foreclosure rates, making them particularly
vulnerable to the storm’s housing impacts. Id at 8-9.
9. C  N Y, supra note 1, at 108.
10. Id. at 15.
11. Id. (noting that some areas hit hard by Sandy, such as the Rockaways, were without heat and power
for weeks).
12. e 2017 hurricane season provided a window into a chaotic climate future. In August and Sep-
tember, a string of “catastrophic” hurricanes whipped through the Atlantic and Caribbean regions.
On August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall 30 miles northeast of Corpus Christi, Texas,
as a Category 4 storm. Major Hurricane Harvey, Aug. 25-29, 2017, N’ W S., www. (last visited Sept. 25, 2017). Over a three-day period, the hur-
ricane dropped a record 51.88 inches of rain in America’s fourth largest city, Houston, paralyzing the
city and, according to the National Weather Service, causing “catastrophic, historical, devastating,
Chapter 4: Energy Justice Stakes in the Net Energy Metering Policy Debates 59
moderate-income people vulnerable to climate change impacts. e storm
laid bare how inequality ca n exacerbate the impacts of major weather events
in poor and low-income communities, because such communities are alrea dy
vulnerable due to a unique combination of economics and geography. Sandy
exposed these gross inequalities13 while also highlig hting our inherent inter-
connectedness. Sandy’s most important impact, however, was to usher in a
moment of unprecedented transformation of the region’s energy system,14
making the Sa ndy narrative a part of a globa l energy phenomenon unfolding
at a rapid clip.
Around the world, an energy revolution that has the power to avoid many
of Sandy’s most devastating impacts is tak ing shape. e revolution, fueled
by increasingly aordable access to solar energy,15 has the potential to miti-
gate the impacts of climate change; render communities more resilient in
the face of climate change impacts; and remedy long-standing inequities,
by oering low- to moderate-income people substantial economic benets
and the ability to own and control their electricity. is revolution of the
energy system has the power to transform traditional ways of generating
electricity—in centralized fossil fuel-burning power plants that supply elec-
tricity to an electricity grid— and the potential to create pathways to more
decentralized and nimble approaches to generation and distribution. More
importantly, these changes have the profound potential to upend the power
dynamics embedded withi n the current energy system by creating wealth for
those who are most impacted by high electricity costs.
and life-threatening ooding over Southeast Texas.” Id. e storm caused billions of dollars worth of
damage. Umair Irfan, e Stunning Price Tags for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Explained, V.,
Sept. 18, 2017,
harvey-irma-insurance-climate. Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded
in the eastern part of the Atlantic Ocean, followed shortly on the heels of Hurricane Harvey. Gregor
Aisch et al., Hurricane Irma Is One of the Strongest Storms in History, N.Y. T, Sept. 9, 2017, www. After destroying the
Caribbean island of Barbuda, the storm, measuring 425 miles wide, made landfall. Bonnie Berkowitz
et al., How Big Is Hurricane Irma?, W. P, Sept. 11, 2017,
ics/2017/national/how-big-is-hurricane-irma/?utm_term=.f57aec716013. Hurricanes Jose and Maria,
respectively Category 4 and Category 5 storms, also impacted the Caribbean and Atlantic regions.
13. Imara Jones, What Hurricane Sandy Should Teach Us About Climate Justice, C, Nov. 15, 2012,; David
Rhode, e Hideous Inequality Exposed by Hurricane Sandy, A, Oct. 31, 2012, www.theatlantic.
14. S  N.Y. P. S. C’, CASE 14-M-0101, O A R P
F  I P 2 (2015) (noting that “[c]limate change ... compels reform”
and the challenges to the electricity system provide the opportunity to improve the 100-year-old
electricity regulatory system).
15. Robert Fares, e Price of Solar Is Declining to Unprecedented Lows, S A.: P I
(Aug. 27, 2016), https://blogs.scienti

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