Beyond Solar Panels: A Feminist Approach to Energy Justice

This photo shows three women with microphones and a posterboard speaking to an audience.
From left, Science on Tap speakers Christine Labuski, Shannon Bell, and Cara Daggett address an audience at Rising Silo. Photo courtesy of Brandon Cleary.

When you consider energy justice, what comes to mind? What would a just energy system look like? Three Virginia Tech faculty members, Drs. Christine Labuski, Cara Daggett, and Shannon Bell, hope to provide a clearer picture of what equity and justice could look like in the context of our energy systems.

Energy Justice: Why Solar Panels Aren’t Enough guided an audience of community members through these questions at the monthly New River Valley Science on Tap September 22 at Rising Silo Brewery.

The discussion began with ideas about what a just energy system might look like. The researchers described environmental fair treatment and meaningful involvement with respect to development and implementation. They explained the importance of social and economic equity in energy systems for those historically underserved.

The speakers, who call their research collaboration the Mayapple Energy Transition Collective, guided the audience through four categories of creating just energy systems: political, economic, socioecological, and technological. Audience members were given poster boards and markers and instructed to record some ideas of the characteristics that comprise just and unjust systems. Working in groups at the Rising Silo tables, audience members created long lists of features. Some highlights from each category appear below:

A politically just system

  • Would represent all groups with direct input from the community and specific stakeholders
  • Would not disproportionately impact anyone and would seek to repair past inequities through intra-generational justice
  • Would make energy a free market with fewer local restrictions

An economically just system

  • Refuses growth imperatives and redistributes surplus for community well-being and diversity
  • Is attuned to the violence of energy production (hazardous materials in solar panels)
  • Meets a variety of needs with a community energy system and promotes decentralization and sustainability

A socio-ecologically just system

  • Is communal, optimistic, and mindful of the future
  • Prioritizes resources to support biodiversity and equitable distribution
  • Improves efficiency and demonopolizes energy
  • Sees non-human members of the global community as equally valuable/deserving of respect

A technologically just system

  • Seeks low-cost or free solutions for clean energy technology that is accessible to all
  • Prioritizes subsistence technologies and people over profit and expands public transportation
  • Improves efficiency of manufacturing processes to optimize local/regional supply chains
  • Uses technologies that do not tax the environment
This photo shows a posterboard with handwritten notes on it.
Members of the audience at the September Science on Tap event worked together to imagine a just energy system.

The researchers also discussed feminist perspectives on energy systems, highlighting some of their work and explaining the rationale behind their motivations.

Feminist energy systems, they said, do not expand the fossil fuel economy; respect a degrowth mentality; and encourage communities to think about options that do not exploit the human world.

During a lively question-and-answer period, the audience discussed the need to change our ideals collectively and refocus on finding community solutions. The shared theme of the evening by many members of the community centered on energy systems that are out of touch with the local population. An agreed step forward was depoliticizing conversations about climate change, allowing community discourse to thrive and energy systems to become more focused on consumers.

The speakers’ publication “Toward Feminist Energy Systems: Why Adding Women and Solar Panels is Not Enough” appeared last October in the journal Energy Research & Social Science.

Science on Tap events bring researchers to public audiences and are sponsored by the Center for Communicating Science and the Virginia Tech chapter of Sigma Xi.

By Brandon Cleary, Center for Communicating Science student intern

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