‘I don’t have to live through darkness’: How energy poverty inspired a clean energy career

Good Monday afternoon, readers. Whether we realize it or not, things that occur in our lives when we’re young shape how we live and work as adults. Recently I spoke with Theodora Okiro, a senior policy associate at community solar developer Nexamp, who is one of this year’s Energy News Network’s 40 Under 40 honorees.

She shared how some energy-related challenges she experienced in her youth — specifically, energy poverty — influence her work toward greater reliable energy access and equity for others, a push for more renewable energy, and technology use. Read about that and her thoughts on energy storage in a Q&A interview, after today’s headlines.

Today’s headlines:

🔌 ENERGY EFFICIENCY: SimpleMachines, a startup in Madison, Wisconsin, is developing a new computer chip that is faster, more powerful, and more energy efficient than current chips, reports the Wisconsin State Journal. Sales will begin early next year for the chip that is said to have the potential to speed artificial intelligence and machine learning technology development.

🌱 AGRICULTURE: Hamilton, Ohio-based vertical farm startup 80 Acres Farms raised an undisclosed amount of money during a Series A funding round, reports Cincy Inno.

🚚 TRANSPORTATION: St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch is among the 25 most sustainable fleets due to its move to decarbonize its 1,600-vehicle fleet, including through electric and hydrogen fuel cell technologies, reports GreenBiz.

💰 FUNDING: The U.S. Department of Energy announced a funding opportunity worth up to $4 million for its Energy Program for Innovation Clusters to stimulate energy hardware development and related supportive ecosystems. An informational webinar will take place on November 19.

Now, back to my interview with Theodora Okiro, who in her role at Nexamp advocates for policies to expand access and remove barriers to clean energy, especially solar, in the Midwest. Her work includes expanding new markets while serving existing ones, with an eye toward equity.

She notes that Nexamp doesn’t participate in practices that perpetuate redlining. For example, they don’t require program participants to submit credit scores or pay up-front costs or enrollment fees. “We’re helping communities understand what community solar is and how it benefits us collectively, especially our low-income and people of color communities,” she said.

Here is the rest of our interview, edited for length and clarity:

Q: You mentioned that some individuals have barriers to solar access. Could you talk about those barriers and how you’re working to get past them?

A: I recognize barriers [such as] that low income communities and communities of color face very high energy burdens compared to other communities. Those residents typically have to pay a higher proportion of their income on their utility bills. … In a lot of those communities there is a knowledge gap on what energy efficiency is and how clean energy could benefit them. It’s kind of a multi-pronged barrier: There’s the access barrier and there’s the knowledge barrier.

There’s a perception that you have to be a homeowner to have solar in your home. … We’re educating folks that community solar really is a viable option if you are a renter or if you move a lot. There are economic resilience and environmental benefits of being part of the clean energy transition.

We’ve endeavored to have different language speakers on our marketing team so we can accurately explain clean energy and how it would benefit community members. And there is a trust factor. There’s a long, endemic mistrust not just of authority, but also utilities, in many communities. It’s really important to go to trusted community leaders and develop a relationship with them… to address a lot of the negative externalities that have impacted primarily low-income communities for decades.

We understand that a lot of community members are unbanked. They don’t trust financial institutions. We don’t make it hard for them if they want to participate in the program. It’s about how we meet them halfway. A lot of this has to do with how we’re messaging and communicating this to communities who are rightfully very mistrustful.

Q: Does part of the education involve information about clean energy jobs?

A: One great thing about the industry is that so many new technologies are coming up at the same time. It’s important that we’re not leaving communities behind in understanding how to utilize these technologies. … The clean energy transition isn’t just about the proliferation of clean energy technology, it’s also economic. We recognize that there is a clean jobs component and we contribute to the promotion of that.

There is a requirement for participation in the Illinois Solar for All program: As a vendor, you do have to contract with local community members and participate in a workforce development program… It is wonderful because of the ethos. We hire locally from the community and contribute to the local economy with our solar farms.

Q: Nexamp is interested in battery storage, and that’s a very hot — but still emerging — technology. Do you find it challenging to educate communities about that and what it means?

A: Yes, definitely. As you said, it’s emerging. We are participating in some incentive programs in the Northeast. … We’re participating in a lot of discussions on what battery storage is and how it can benefit communities. We want to continue to expand our battery storage infrastructure, but there really isn’t much appetite right now.

But I think what happened in California this past summer with rolling blackouts, seeing the demand exceeding supply, and how they really didn’t have a robust battery infrastructure and people were left in the dark for hours on end — I think policy makers are realizing we really do have to invest in battery storage because sometimes the grid is unreliable and we have to overcome that.

Right now it is an aspect of the industry where folks are trying to understand whether it is beneficial to their state. Yes, it is! It’s emerging, but I would say in the next year or two I’m sure we’ll have more robust literature supporting how we’re educating communities on that. There really isn’t much right now in the Midwest.

[Illinois] Governor Pritzker, as part of clean energy priorities, has pointed to energy storage as one major area we need to invest in as a state. We’re hoping that materializes.

Q: You told me that your personal background influenced your interest in the clean energy industry and its technologies. Could you explain how?

A: I am first-generation Nigerian American. I was born in New York and spent a lot of time as a youth in Lagos, Nigeria. Living in Lagos, my family and I experienced energy poverty. The U.N. refers to energy poverty as those who don’t have access to reliable and affordable energy services. A large amount of Sub-Saharan Africa continues to experience energy poverty.

Seeing how that impacted me and my family and community as a whole — and how that led to reliance on dirty fuels such as kerosene lamps, for instance — and how that impacted our educational and social outcomes, it really lit a fire under me as a kid. This doesn’t have to happen. I don’t have to live through darkness, where there is no reliable 24/7 electricity.

Then, I moved back to the states and I began my policy career, and I talked to families about how cost burdened they were. They would have to choose between paying their rent and the power bill. Living in Chicago compounded it. I have friends who live in Little Village and Humboldt Park and the South Side of Chicago, and those communities are historically environmental justice communities. They live right next to coal plants, and that really contributed to their health outcomes, for instance.

I think connecting those thoughts and seeing how the struggle is personal and collective really encouraged me to seek solutions to this ongoing issue about energy access and energy equity.

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