Energy Justice Considerations in Transportation with Erin Nobler and Patricia Romero-Lankao

August 9, 2021

Equity and environmental justice are critical factors to consider when doing any type of community planning, and the transportation sector is no exception. Erin Nobler and Patricia Romero-Lankao from the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) recently published a paper titled Energy Justice: Key Concepts and Metrics Relevant to EERE Transportation Projects, where the importance of equity in the transportation space and how it can be realized is presented based on years of research. The paper outlines an approach for incorporating equity and environmental justice into DOE projects and how to measure success for such a qualitative concept. DCC had the opportunity to speak with Erin and Patricia about the paper and get insight into the motivation and intention behind the publication. Keep reading and learn about the hard work that was put into the report as well as what the authors feel is the most important takeaway for readers. 


You recently published a report about energy justice considerations for EERE transportation projects. What was the impetus for the report and how long did it take you to compile? 

Erin Nobler: Paty and I have been talking about equity and environmental justice in transportation projects for a long time. Now that there’s more interest in equity from the Biden administration, and subsequently the DOE, we wanted to present some of the research we’ve done in our careers and educations and share what we know to help people within the DOE, NREL, and Clean Cities inform their projects moving forward. We understand that this is an area that is new to a lot of people and that many are concerned about doing it right, so we wanted to provide as much information as we could as quickly as possible so they can start using it to frame how they think about transportation projects. 

Patricia Romero-Lankao: NREL is very good at creating the technologies and devices that we need to move the needle towards clean air and transportation systems, but only some of us have the experience and knowledge to understand how equity fits into the equation. The purpose of incorporating equity into the conversation is to relieve any burdens this technology has on specific groups and ensure pitfalls of the past are not repeated. We are not here to bring options to the communities to decide between; we are here to listen. We need to adapt our designs and technologies based on what needs and priorities different stakeholders communicate to us.  

It took us 2-3 weeks to write up and publish the report, but what you see on paper is a result of years of work, reflection, gathering data, reading, experimenting failing, and doing it all over again. It may seem like it took us hardly any time at all, but there is a lot of background information behind the report that is a result of years and years of work.  

EN: Equity issues are prominent right now for coordinators, NREL, and others involved in transportation projects, and we hoped that, armed with proper information, people would take these issues into their own hands. Without a background or understanding of environmental justice, equity, and injustices, there’s a real risk of repeating injustices in transportation planning that have occurred in the past, and so the report was written out of a desire to help others take a step back and think comprehensively so that decisions aren’t rushed, and historical mistakes aren’t made again.  

Did anything surprise you while you were putting the report together? 

PL: I think what surprised me was the amount of editing we had to do before publishing the report. The goal was to help others get the most out of the information without needing to be experts in equity and justice, and that requires very specific language to be done correctly. 

EN: What surprised me was how nicely it came together once Paty and I started riffing off each other. This is not a new area, but it’s new for some audiences and trying to write something like this for what I consider a new audience seemed like a daunting task. However, once we started pulling together research, working together, and brainstorming, I was amazed at how many resources we already had available to us – the only new information came from applying this knowledge to a new use case and analyzing it for a new audience. It’s nice to know that this isn’t just coming from our heads either, it’s coming from some incredibly intelligent people who have been looking at equity considerations for years. Paty and I were able to synthesize what we know and what others know and put it together in a way that is useful and readable by an inexperienced audience.  

What do you feel is the most important takeaway from this report? 

EN: I think the most important takeaway is the big picture that not everybody has to be an expert in this area, Clean Cities included. There is a way to approach equity issues that allows you to think wholistically, equitably, and empathetically about how projects impact people in different ways without needing to be a scholar. The other biggest takeaway is to always start with people. When starting a project, identify who is impacted, where they are impacted, and how they are impacted. Don’t bring a technology to a group and try to solve a problem by forcing a technology through, take a step back and think about what the problems and barriers are and what opportunities exist within these communities and how transportation can support an equitable move forward from a wellbeing perspective. Transportation hopefully is a solution to some of the challenges communities face, but starting by listening to people, understanding the challenges, and then developing potential solutions is imperative to finding equitable solutions. 

PL: I would like to add that in my experience, everyone – decision makers, officials, stakeholders, communities, researchers – has a theory of change, of how the world works, of what the issues are and how to solve them. With many perspectives, it is important to slow down and learn from others that have expertise in certain areas within the community. Listening to these people is key because they have knowledge and experience to contribute that can pave the way towards a better solution. A key message I intended with this report is that a person’s solution to the transportation equity problem will depend on their priorities, so be aware of what those are because they will define how situations are handled. There are many different issues of equity, of justice, and there are many metrics and factors that affect people’s perspectives. The most important thing is to be open to different mindsets and look to see how they overlap and connect with one another. 

In your own words, how can this report help the future of transportation projects? 

EN: Thinking about Clean Cities in particular, I am hoping this helps support equity in funding opportunities by explaining how to incorporate equity into a project or proposal. I want to allow coordinators to tap into an expertise they may not have time to fully research and use this information to push their ideas forward. Clean Cities is on the ground working with people, and they know their communities and the problems they face. Take that community expertise and combine it with this “folding in” of equity and you have an amazing opportunity to understand how to embed equity in projects you already know need to happen in the community. I hope this report provides resources to Clean Cities coordinators that allow them to continue to do the great work they’re doing while thinking about their efforts through a new lens and utilizing resources that can help them enhance their projects even further.  

What can DCC and other organizations do to support energy justice in transportation? 

PL: The DCC team is a key connector with the public and people that need what we do the most. What you do is fundamental, and I want to stay in touch with DCC and continue to build this relationship and network. No matter how hard we try, sometimes we are incredibly academic, and you provide a connection for us to give information to the people who are most affected but may need to have ideas explained in a different way. Networks are a very powerful thing in life, and you are a key piece in helping us reach communities and groups that we would not be able to access otherwise.

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