This month’s contributor is Dr. Lori Banks. Dr. Banks is an Assistant Professor of Biology whose work focuses on novel antimicrobial development, representation in STEM education, and sustainable laboratory practices. She holds a B.S. in Biology from Prairie View A&M University and a Ph.D. in Molecular Virology and Microbiology from Baylor College of Medicine. She also participates in a number of local community service organizations around Northern New England including Girl Scouts of Maine, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., and Indigo Arts Alliance.

Why Isn’t Clean Energy King? It Should Be.

Dr. Lori Banks

Being a relatively new Maine transplant from Texas, it has been painful to watch the last few weeks following the winter storm that came through the southern states. More than 80 people in Texas succumbed to hypothermia, some of whom were in their homes at the time. Numerous others suffered significant damage to their homes and businesses, by what was clearly a human failure and not an act of God.

These events further underscore the reach of energy policy decisions, and more importantly, the need for an overhauling of our nation’s energy policy in general. In this moment, we are in desperate need of grid infrastructure safeguards, and clean energy solutions that provide jobs for our economy without harming our already fragile environment. As Jonathan Scott says in his 2020 documentary “Power Trip,” we need to ask ourselves why we don’t have these things.

I believe that there is a disconnect between the utility companies that manage how power is sold and purchased, and the vast majority of us who are energy customers, happy to not live in the pre-electricity 1800’s. The fundamental differences between these people, and the narrative defining each, may be at the heart of this issue.

In the days before I had my own bills, I watched my parents navigate the world of corporate America as the first representatives of our family in that environment. They worked long hours, and survived long commutes for my dad to earn $0.75, and my mom to earn $0.63, to every dollar of their white male counterparts. Though never formally tied to their political views, I’d argue that our household energy policy was the epitome of fiscal responsibility; “Turn out that light!”, I was told when leaving any room. Subsequently, our relationship to the environmental movement growing in Washington State, was more along the lines of “use less energy to decrease the need to use fossil fuels,” rather than trying to help develop or support new technologies for clean energy like solar power. Like many other families, my parents just didn’t have time or the background information to consider anything but the traditional utility-offered options.

People wait in line to fill propane tanks, Houston, Texas, February 2021. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Then as now, there is also so much that goes on at the city or county level that determines what energy options are available that is not communicated, or not communicated well, to the lay public. That must change. Utility customers and environmentalists have to be at these decision-making tables. Additionally, the imagery surrounding renewable energy technologies makes them appear expensive and beyond the reach of families like my parents. To the general public it seems like a nice idea, but out of reach for families without the perceived financial means necessary to turn a roof into a science project.

So, where is the hope in all of this? As consumers, we must use our voices to advocate for clean energy solutions and hold those currently in decision-making spaces accountable. Better yet, we need to find our way to fill those positions too. On the flip side, we need to pick back up on Obama-era efforts to drive down the cost of easy-to-use solar equipment. If we can include low-cost photovoltaic panels in calculators, can we affordably harness solar energy for other portable electronics? Lastly, as with all areas of science, the story around the people and the products of clean energy needs a new spin. These products can be for the every-man/woman, so the product marketing and advocacy need to show that. We can absolutely make these happen.

While we consider solutions to these higher level, human issues, the reality is that our planet continues to deteriorate at our hands. We need to think and work quickly, else our progress will continue to hurt those we claim to be helping.