Justice Warrior on the Affordable Energy Front

Dawone Robinson is righting the inequities that low-income communities of color face in accessing the benefits of energy efficiency—like more comfortable homes and lower energy bills, for starters.
Dawone Robinson speaking at the 30th Annual Environment Virginia Symposium

Virginia Military Institute Center for Leadership and Ethics

Dawone Robinson was feeling uncomfortable, and he told his audience as much. Robinson, NRDC’s regional director of energy affordability, had been asked to be the plenary speaker at the 30th Environment Virginia Symposium at the Virginia Military Institute in March 2019. But although he had come to talk about how to promote energy efficiency and affordability, something else was on his mind.

Weeks earlier, a newspaper had printed a photo of a man in blackface standing beside another in a Ku Klux Klan robe, taken from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s page of the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. Northam had issued an apology but resisted calls to resign. And just the day before Robinson was to give his talk at the symposium, Northam had stood on the same stage to deliver the conference’s keynote speech.

The best way to follow Northam in the symposium’s lineup of speakers, thought Robinson, was to address the situation head-on. So he launched into a passionate speech about race, political power, and environmental injustice. Instead of expounding on solar panels and wind turbines, he told his own story, beginning with the widowed, education-prioritizing grandmother who had raised him and his cousins on $18,000 a year in racially divided Waterloo, Iowa. He recalled how the $3,000-a-year private academy he attended had opened his eyes to the stark differences—environmental and economic—between living on the black side versus the white side of town.

Promising that his speech would eventually get around to energy efficiency, Robinson, who is based in Washington, D.C., went on to explain how years of discriminatory lending known as redlining had denied mortgages, credit, and insurance to generations of people of color based on the location of their homes in neighborhoods that lenders deemed “undesirable.” Without funding, those homes—in sections of town like the one where Robinson’s grandmother lived—inevitably fell into disrepair.

The problem facing too many black people is not a lack of rooftop solar panels, he told the audience. “The problem is that they do not own their roofs. That their roofs are too old to install a solar system. That their homes are so drafty it doesn’t make sense to install a solar system. And even if their homes are efficient, too many black people lack the resources to afford a solar system or the credit necessary to finance it.”

Robinson sees this kind of frank dialogue as part of his job. “I had thought about not giving [the speech],” he reflects. “Say what needs to be said, and you risk alienating people who you work with. [But] filter my thoughts, moderate my message—and I do a disservice to the underrepresented voices in communities I vowed to represent.”

After graduating from Drake University Law School in Des Moines, where he studied constitutional law, Robinson found his calling in 2012 when he landed a job working for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, based in Richmond, Virginia. He joined NRDC in 2016 and found a way to knit his academic background with his professional activism. “What I’ve tried to do is to take my passion for equity within that constitutional law type of perspective and translate it into the environment,” he says.

In speeches and in his work with a broad range of community organizations, labor groups, policymakers, and power utilities, he makes a direct link between the forces that shaped poverty-stricken neighborhoods and environmental woes that plague those areas today. A National Community Reinvestment Coalition study of 115 cities nationwide found that two-thirds of the neighborhoods redlined 50 to 80 years ago are predominantly communities of color today, and 74 percent of them are home to families of low to moderate income. These neighborhoods had substandard housing, underfunded schools, and undervalued local land—and they still do.

Because the land is cheap, communities like the one Robinson grew up in are enticing targets for governments and industries seeking to build new power plants, hazardous waste sites, and other facilities that contaminate the air and water. Polluters think siting projects in these neighborhoods is taking the path of least resistance. “You are not going to see a utility propose a mega gas plant in the middle of a suburb of half-million-dollar residences,” Robinson says. “Why? Because those people are rich, they’re powerful, and they’re going to push back and say no.”

“But you will see a compressor station [get approved] in an historically black community in Union Hill, Virginia, where there is a slave burial site and where many people around the community are black,” he goes on to say. “And that is unbelievably unjust.” According to a 2016 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study, more than 70 percent of African Americans now live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards.

Understanding how environmental injustice compounds social, political, and economic inequities underlies Robinson’s work promoting energy efficiency reform and boosting investments in energy efficiency for apartment buildings and multifamily homes. He directs Energy Efficiency For All (EEFA) coalitions in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York and works with power companies, utility commissions, policymakers, and the press to raise awareness and help deliver reforms.

While everybody agrees that energy efficiency upgrades can save millions of dollars and cut current demands on the utility grid, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to meaningfully reduce customers’ energy use. Making true progress often requires insulation upgrades, weatherstripping on doors and windows, HVAC and appliance upgrades, and deep retrofits. As a result, low-income families often get passed over for these upgrades, Robinson says, by both utility companies and by landlords of multifamily housing units. “The gut reaction is to prioritize investments that are easier to achieve.”

In individually metered apartment buildings, for instance, each household pays its own electricity bill. “So what is the incentive for a property owner to invest in the individual units to upgrade those units if they’re not paying the energy bill and the residents are?” he asks. Often, if a building owner does perform upgrades, he or she passes the cost along to tenants by raising rents, which can push long-time residents out.

Robinson says the way to get real results is to create policies that offer benefits to property owners—monetary incentives like a rebate or a tax credit—to appeal to their self-interest. “Lawmakers like to know that they are advancing policies that are good for their constituents,” he says. He often invites those lawmakers to do site visits and see firsthand where dollars are being spent, putting a human face on the issue.

Anyone who has witnessed Robinson’s passion for his cause knows he has found his niche. Says Albert Pollard, an energy consultant and former member of the Virginia House of Delegates who worked alongside Robinson in energy efficiency advocacy, “If you are a renter who wonders, whenever you pay your electric bill, ‘I just can’t afford this; I keep the heat low, but I am drowning and someone needs to help me,’ then you should take comfort that Dawone Robinson wakes up every day to fight on your behalf.”

That’s no small task. Robinson cites a study of 48 U.S. metropolitan areas by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy that found that on average, the proportion of income that low-income households pay for energy is more than three times the proportion paid by average households (7.2 percent versus 2.3 percent). “Their energy burdens are greater because their homes are less efficient,” he says. They are essentially subsidizing wealthier, more efficient homes.

Another complicating factor that Robinson must confront is the fact that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution or model to increase efficiency for every community. “The politics are different, the utility structures are different, the coalition dynamics are different, the needs of people are different,” Robinson says. There are more multifamily residences in dense New York City, for example, and more single-family structures in western Pennsylvania.

Nevertheless, conversations around efficiency are gaining traction across the nation. “I am encouraged that more people are talking about connectivity of underrepresented communities to environmental health and housing,” he says. While he remains frustrated with foot-dragging politicians at all levels, some momentum on the ground offers hope. Take San Diego, where the local utility offers rebates for installing efficient appliances in apartment buildings, or Minnesota, where power suppliers now collaborate with the federal Weatherization Assistance Program to encourage owners of eligible residential buildings to make upgrades. Meanwhile, in his own neck of the woods, Virginia recently adopted a new mandatory spending minimum requirement for utilities to invest in energy efficiency.

Robinson is resolute that solutions like these require building a broad coalition of allies for the environmental community. Occasionally, that may even mean sharing a stage with someone who has not been a great ally for climate or racial equity. “We’re not going to change things alone. We need the clean business community, we need health advocates, we need housing advocates,” he says. “There are very few movements that have won based upon their own isolated interest.”

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