Last weekend, the 2015 Memphis Environmental Justice Conference – Envisioning a Cleaner, Healthier Environment – brought people together, both local and national, to hear speakers talk on issues ranging from transportation issues, labor and the environment and gender and environmental security. A common theme of the conference was recognition that access to clean air, clean water and even clean energy should not be restricted based on attributes like one’s race, gender, religion or economic status.
This year’s keynote speaker was Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn) and Sierra Club President Aaron Mair closed out the day with a powerful presentation, entitled “The Shades of Justice.” This year’s Dick Mochow Environmental Justice Award was awarded to Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tenn), who represents the 9th Congressional District of Tennessee that includes almost three-fourths of Memphis, and has historically spoken in support of climate action both locally and in Congress.
It is rare for a conference to focus solely on environmental justice concerns and even rarer for such a conference to take place in a city that has played such a key role in our country’s own Civil Rights movement as Memphis. As we move into a cleaner energy future, it is up to advocates and community members to ensure that the most vulnerable receive the most from the ensuing economic, environmental and health benefits.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy was proud to be part of the conference and present with Jimmie Tucker of Self + Tucker Architects, founder of a Memphis architectural firm that incorporates energy efficiency and solar into projects that promote economic development and community redevelopment.
The presentation – “Hot Times: Solar in Our City” (Memphis Conference Solar in Our City Presentation, pdf 43 MB) – informed the audience on the basics of solar energy, including the current Federal economic incentives to promote solar development as well as the current solar programs offered by the Tennessee Valley Authority and state supported solar initiatives.
The panel highlighted the difficulty many people face when trying to learn more about solar or access solar resources. One woman in the audience expressed frustration with how difficult it was for her to find local manufacturers of solar panels, as she wanted to make sure she was investing in local business and jobs. Another person asked if the recent closure of the solar panel division of the Sharp Manufacturing facility in Memphis was evidence that the solar market is on the decline.
This is not the case. In fact, the solar market is growing rapidly. In 2014, the United State brought more solar online every three weeks as it did in all of 2008 – and our nation’s solar industry added jobs at 10 times the rate of any other industry. In fact, Tennessee’s solar market consists of 151 companies employing roughly 2,200 workers across the state.
Jimmie Tucker highlighted his own use of solar panels in both the renovation of Memphis’ historic Universal Life Insurance building and in the Knowledge Quest Green Leaf project, which will provide education opportunities and community redevelopment in an impoverished neighborhood. By using solar panels, Mr. Tucker will be able to offset 20% of the energy use for the Universal Life building and provide backup power to his building in the case of a power outage, given that his panels are not tied into the larger electrical grid.
A big thanks is due to Sierra Club organizer, Rita Harris, who has been organizing this annual conference each year for the past 14 years. She partnered with the University of Memphis, receiving a Green Fee grant to help fund the growing conference. Many, like Ms. Harris, have been working on environmental justice issues long before environmental justice became a focus for federal agencies and other advocacy groups. This conference instills hope in those still fighting for environmental justice that new initiatives, like the Clean Power Plan with its Clean Energy Incentive Program, will bring real benefits to those who have long suffered at the hands of dirty energy.
SACE looks forward to continuing to work in Memphis to help increase the use of clean energy resources in the Home of the Blues.