A Portland State University professor received more than half a million dollars from the federal government to study the impacts of the clean energy transition, both good and bad.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded PSU associate professor of geography Alida Cantor $650,000 to study the positive and negative impacts the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy has on communities, wildlife, water and land.
Cantor, who will team up with researchers along the West Coast, will conduct interviews and hold focus groups with communities most impacted by environmental issues to understand how renewable energy transitions — and the shift to technology such as electric vehicles, hydropower and lithium-ion batteries — affect them. The team will also work to find solutions to strengthen these communities, which are usually underserved, Indigenous, rural, low-income and communities of color who are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis.
“There has to be a way that it can be done without just continually burdening marginalized people, whether that’s get more creative and take some solutions more seriously that haven’t been taken as seriously,” she said.
Cantor said the shift from burning fossil fuels, which is driving human-caused climate change, to 100% renewable energy like wind and solar is “absolutely imperative.” But she said we need to recognize these shifts have consequences for historically marginalized communities. For example, she said, Indigenous communities have been continually dispossessed through land possession, dam construction and now, the clean energy transition.
Most of the technologies currently available — like solar panels and wind turbines — require lots of land, usually farmland or wide-open spaces, to generate large amounts of electricity to power tens of thousands of homes. Other technologies, such as lithium-ion batteries, an essential component for electric vehicles, require mining and drilling which could lead to water and air pollution and disrupt wildlife habitats.
“It’s important to pay attention to the ways that energy sourcing and storage and transitions impact people who have already been impacted,” she said. “It’s also often the case that these communities are the least responsible for climate change.”
As the push for clean energy moves forward, many of the new technologies and minerals needed to help the nation significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions negatively impact the most vulnerable communities to climate change, as well as habitat for endangered species. What may seem necessary for one group or community, negatively impacts others — a reoccurring battle for land and its resources that has been fought for hundreds of years. As the climate crisis worsens, the need for these investments and technologies is clear, researchers like Cantor say, but the clean energy transition must include careful thought and inclusivity to avoid mistakes from the past.
In Oregon, Cantor will be following what happens with the McDermitt Caldera near the Oregon and Nevada border. The area has one of the highest concentrations of lithium in the United States. Lithium is a critical mineral used for batteries in consumer electronics like cellphones and in electric cars, but the world could face a shortage by 2025. The McDermitt Caldera could change that, as companies are lining up to begin drilling in the area, but it’s also one of the last, best remaining places for sage grouse habitat in Oregon. Indigenous tribes and environmentalists have opposed the mining and say it’s extremely destructive to land, water and wildlife as well as communities who live nearby.
Cantor’s team will also be keeping track of a hydropower project in Goldendale, Washington. The project, which would generate enough energy to power the city of Seattle for 12 hours, has received strong pushback from Indigenous tribes, who say the site is sacred to tribal members.
“There’s been a lot of resistance from not only tribal entities but also every mainstream environmental group in the state of Washington has come out against it because of the impacts on the Yakama Nation,” she said.
Joel Iboa is the executive director of Oregon Just Transition Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for communities facing environmental racism and climate change. He said communities most impacted by environmental issues, especially Indigenous communities, have been left out of decisions about how their land and resources are used.
This research is an opportunity to remedy long-standing problems by ensuring the most vulnerable communities are heard as the transition to clean energy continues, he said.
“Impacted communities should have a say in whether or not resources such as lithium should be extracted, at what pace, and they should directly benefit from its wealth and job creation,” he said. “To ensure a just transition, frontline communities should have sovereignty over the place they call home.”
Cantor said her team of researchers will be interviewing impacted community members, policymakers, project proponents and opponents to inform her research. Her team will also be attending public meetings held for each area of interest. Once the interviews are complete, Cantor said, she will hold focus groups and workshops with community members to come up with best practices for implementation. She said results will be published as they come to help inform decision makers on best practices for the clean energy transition.
“I hope that we can find productive recommendations and suggestions coming out of the research and not just have it be like ‘no green energy don’t do this’ because we can’t collectively as a society afford that answer,” she said. “There needs to be ways to do it better and really hoping that alternatives and recommendations on how to make it better can be a part of the research.”
The funding is part of the EPA’s Drivers and Environmental Impacts of Energy Transitions in Underserved Communities and will be dispersed over the next four years.