Privilege creates blind spots: the diversity and inclusion imperative in energy efficiency


“To hear is to let the sound wander all the way through the labyrinth of your ear; to listen is to travel the other way to meet it.” – Rebecca Solnit

“If you make $75,000 a year, you make more than over 90% of the people in this community.” It got pretty quiet at the Getting to Zero National Forum when keynote Kimberly Lewis, SVP at USGBC, reminded the net zero energy champions how our salaries compare to the people we try to serve.

A career in energy efficiency is deeply satisfying. We do meaningful work that drives economic opportunity and positive health outcomes. We work with smart colleagues and earn good salaries. Every trend points to the demand for our work growing, from the latest IPCC report to the flooding that shut down central Wisconsin in September to more extreme weather events threatening life everywhere.

Yet we are leaving so many people behind. A 2017 ACEEE report shows that the best performing utility efficiency program for income-qualified customers serves only 11% of eligible customers. This number is the best of the bunch. That’s abysmal. We need to do much better.

Budget constraints exist, but that’s not the whole story. Our industry, great as it is, is not currently constituted to be smart enough to solve this problem. We need the new brainpower and new perspectives that can only come from meaningful diversity and inclusion. Since 77% of our industry is male and 78% is white, our program designs are missing the genius of the people who need the benefits of energy savings the most. Without more women, more people of color and more people from economically challenged backgrounds at the table, our perspective is limited.

One of my inspirations, Dr. Antwi Akom, might say that our industry participates in what he calls “reverse innovation.” That is, developing and proving our solutions in middle-class communities and then trying to market and scale them in underserved communities. (Check out Antwi Akom's TEDx talk, “Innovation out of poverty” for some inspo for yourself.)

While we need more targeted research like Slipstream's study of manufactured homes, more than this we need a truly diverse workforce - and inclusive approaches that help us listen better and connect to the talent in under-served communities that proves every day how to do a lot with very little. Think about how powerful those perspectives could be when paired with the technical and marketing expertise already plentiful in our field.

Our industry is beginning to respond. MEEA has a new diversity and inclusion initiative ramping up. ACEEE will tackle energy equity in rural communities at a new conference this year. The Shades of Green forum held this fall in Portland, OR tackled issues like supplier diversity (a particularly spicy session featured minority and women suppliers sharing the things no one talks about related to procurement).

As the new voices and perspectives become more plentiful, we need to make room. Some of us need to let go of some of our most treasured roles, because our perspectives are over-represented. More of the same doesn’t move the clean energy ball forward, and our shared mission to mitigate climate change is what matters most. Sometimes we will need to leverage our privilege to support a person who might have had less opportunity but brings a unique perspective. Then our privilege becomes a useful resource and serves our mission, instead of a blind spot.