Biden’s Justice40 Initiative wants an equitable transition to clean energy. In Detroit, Black-led businesses are key.
This story is part of a series on just energy futures in Detroit, produced in partnership with Belt Magazine and supported by the Solutions Journalism Network. See all stories in the series here.
For the first eighteen years of her career, Carla Walker-Miller climbed the corporate ladder, leading technical engineering sales for ABB, a multi-billion-dollar, multinational energy company. But as she ascended the rungs, it got harder and harder to see a path forward in the corporate world. “I realized that I would never be viewed as an ideal candidate with that company for any position, in spite of any accomplishment or any of my best efforts,” she said. “…Too much of my energy was spent on trying to get people to see me for my actions, as opposed to as a Black woman, which encompassed whatever they thought of Black women at the time.”
So, in 2000, Walker-Miller took her knowledge, her engineering degree, and her contacts, and launched Walker-Miller Energy Services in Detroit. The company distributed medium- and high-voltage equipment to electric utilities and other large-scale customers. Her first client was her old employer, ABB, which needed to diversify its sourcing base to include more minority-owned firms. During the recession, in 2008, electrical equipment sales plummeted because no one was building. Walker-Miller Energy Services collapsed.
That same year, Public Act 295 of 2008 established a renewable energy standard for investor-owned utilities in Michigan and required them to implement and report continual annual energy savings. When she heard the news, Walker-Miller recalled thinking, “energy is going to become much, much more expensive. And what are we going to do about that for vulnerable families that already can’t afford energy?”
She saw an opportunity to shift her company’s business model and began holding sessions at churches across Detroit to help families understand how to save energy. “I would always tell people that energy is not a tax. You actually pay for what you use, whether you use it wisely, or whether you waste it. So, let’s not waste it, and here’s how.” Within a few years, the company began winning major energy efficiency contracts.
Today, Walker-Miller Energy Services has two arms. It continues to supply electrical equipment, but it also has a robust energy efficiency business, specializing in implementing energy efficiency programs for utilities, municipalities, and social services agencies, as well as individual consultations. In the past two and a half years, Walker-Miller has serviced seventy-five households in Detroit through the city’s Community Partnerships program, resulting in energy bill savings between $300 and $600 per year for each family.
“It is probably the most rewarding industry I could have ever become involved in,” she said.
Low-income communities of color across the Great Lakes region are disproportionately affected by climate change. In Detroit, they bear the brunt of health effects from fossil-fuel-generated energy. In Detroit, for example, communities of color bear the brunt of health impacts from coal-fired power plants and the Marathon oil refinery including decreased lung function, more asthma, more heart attacks, more ER visits and hospitalizations, and higher mortality. They also live in less energy-efficient homes and have less access to renewable energy and energy efficiency resources and bear a higher energy cost burden of utility bills relative to their income.
The Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative, announced in January, aims to address these inequities by funneling forty percent of federal investments in infrastructure, including climate change adaptation and clean energy investment, into disadvantaged communities identified through a new Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool based on EPA’s EJSCREEN. Activists hope the measure heralds a new era repairing the damage of federal policies and investments that ignored poor communities and communities of color, stripped them of access to wealth-building opportunities, and placed them in harm’s way. It’s the “right move at the right time in history,” environmental justice activist Mustafa Santiago Ali told the Guardian.
The effort is already hitting roadblocks. Beyond the political opposition, channeling that much federal funding into communities of color, which have long lacked resources and infrastructure due to ongoing disinvestment, is a challenge. The renewable energy industry is dominated by white people, and would-be Black business owners face a range of obstacles like a lack of access to capital and established business networks, and higher debt.
Black business owners like Walker-Miller say they have a unique understanding of the needs and opportunities in disadvantaged communities and are uniquely positioned to serve them. A national example is WeSolar, a year-old Baltimore-based startup launched by Kristal Hansley, a Black woman who grew up in Brooklyn. (She is the first Black woman in the U.S. to run a community solar business.) WeEnergy focuses on making solar power accessible to low-income residents not by placing panels on rooftops, but by building and investing in community solar farms and signing residents up for credits from investor-owned utilities
Before starting WeSolar, Hansley worked with a traditional solar installer, where she saw that those benefiting from solar incentives tended to be wealthy white people. “I was able to see that those communities who are taking advantage of the tax incentives from electric vehicles and have the credit scores to afford traditional solar did not look like my community,” she said. WeSolar customers can save as much as $250 on their utility bills by signing up for community solar.
It wasn’t easy convincing low-income Black residents to sign up for community solar at first, she said. Many had bad experiences with predatory utility schemes and thought the community solar credits were ‘too good to be true.’ So Hansley worked with church and community groups to earn trust. (Building access and trust in resources outside the community is a critical part of creating a strong ecosystem to support Black communities.)
The WeEnergy model can’t currently be replicated in Detroit, because Michigan would need to pass legislation allowing for community solar projects—just twenty states currently provide for shared renewable energy. But recently-introduced bipartisan legislation in Michigan may change that and, in the process, offset some of the damage done to Michigan’s solar industry with the demise of net metering at the end of 2019; solar panel owners now just get a fraction of what they once got under Michigan’s now-defunct net metering law for selling electricity back to the grid.
If the Michigan legislation passes, it will benefit Detroit-based Ryter Cooperative Industries, a Black-owned solar installer focused on solar programs in low-income communities. The company launched in 2015 with a solar installation at an urban farm, and then partnered with nonprofit organization Soulardarity to bring solar-powered street lights to an area within Highland Park, a separate municipality located within Detroit, which had gone dark after DTE Energy repossessed nearly a thousand of its streetlights. Ryter installed half a dozen solar-powered off-grid LED streetlights over the next several years in Highland Park, and has since installed similar projects elsewhere in the region.
In the last two years, Ryter has expanded to installing small residential and commercial projects in low-to-moderate income communities—a home here, a daycare there, a church, a small business. It was recently commissioned to install solar power on a community center in Southwest Detroit and a STEM learning center in Highland Park’s Avalon Village. Ryter’s founder, Ali Dirul, said the entire leadership is Black. “The people that we work with in the organization are all people that live in the community,” he said. “They’re either Detroiters or Highland Parkers—they are low- or moderate-income people trying to get by. But they have a lot of knowledge, a lot of expertise. So we try to provide the space to organize that and focus on actual projects, and we’ve been pretty good at that.”
Dirul isn’t waiting on a replacement for net metering or for legislators to enable community solar. The condition of Michigan’s energy grid—among the least reliable in the country—combined with more frequent and severe storms due to climate change, has Dirul advocating for off-grid solar projects with battery backup. “That comes at an additional capital cost because you’re paying for a battery, as opposed to being able to sell back, but it just makes a big difference having your own power,” he said. “We want to make sure that the community has a greater level of resilience and the access to affordable energy.”
Ryter is, so far, an entirely bootstrapped operation. They haven’t taken any grants or business loans or investment capital—in part, Dirul said, because of a lack of access.
Christopher Nuness started working for Walker-Miller Energy Services in 2019, after more than twenty years in food service, retail, and construction. He was hired as an energy specialist, visiting homes to perform home energy consultations. After a few months of working in single-family homes, Nuness transitioned to working in multi-family residences.A typical energy consultation includes giving residents suggestions for how to be more energy-efficient, and dropping off items like LED light bulbs and low-flow showerheads.
Walker-Miller maintains an active recruitment and training program focused on low-income returning citizens and youth between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four across metro Detroit. In 2019, forty-four students completed the Building Performance Institute (BPI). Of those sixteen percent were formerly incarcerated, thirty-nine percent were economically disadvantaged, forty-five percent were long-term unemployed and twenty-three percent were young people. Of those who completed the training, fifty-five percent achieved Building Analyst certification and thirty-four percent have been placed in jobs or in advanced training.
Once hired, Walker-Miller employees receive a $15 minimum wage, health and retirement benefits, as well as profit-sharing options. Nuness, who completed the BPI training before joining the Walker-Miller staff, also values the investment he feels the company has made in him. “They offer a lot of different training, so I want to try to take advantage and build on my knowledge base and learn as much as I can,” he said.
Moving into his third year with the company, Nuness feels like he’s finally found a career. He’s been able to not only cover his living expenses, but save money and start building generational wealth in his family. “I feel good that I can pay my bills, but at the same time, I feel better knowing that I might be able to actually leave something behind for my daughter,” he said. “Even more than the pay, I feel like the fact that I can actually go out and help people—at the end of the day, that’s what makes me feel good about what I do.”
Government investment has helped Black energy companies gain a foothold in the energy industry before. Petroleum companies ranked high on the list of Black-owned companies in the United States during the 1980s, due in part to federal bidding requirements, starting in the 1970s, that benefitting minority contractors. Energy leaders hope the Justice40 Initiative will drive a similar outcome, but one focused on building sustainable sources of energy while mitigating the disproportionate environmental impacts of the fossil fuel industry in communities of color.
Nuness sees a lot of need—and a lot of potential—in his Detroit neighborhood. “A lot of people don’t have the financial means to do major repairs to their homes or get solar panels. And a lot of people don’t know where to go to find the resources or to find the different programs,” he said. “When we leave a house, people are so grateful that we told them about different areas of their house where they’re losing money, because one of the biggest needs in the community is financial.”
Whether startups like Ryter and WeEnergy succeed in building a strong ecosystem for Black-owned and -led clean energy businesses will depend, in large part, on them gaining access to resources like those promised by Biden’s Justice40 initiative—and the success of that program will depend, in large part, on how well it engages with Black leaders and communities.
“We believe there’s a significant transition…taking place in the broader society,” Dirul told me. “So, from an equity standpoint, we want to be able to come to the table and have folks to bring those skill sets with them, so that they are viable options.”
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Reporting for this story was funded by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.