John Hall: Green is the new black

Photo by Dwayne Hills.
African Americans have traditionally been part of communities that have borne the brunt of environmental discord, with landfills and pollution sources located in areas where people of color predominantly live.

Yet, people who are white especially and increasingly Latino have, until now, largely undertaken environmental activism. This is changing. An environmental awakening is underway within Austin’s African American community.

One leader in this awakening is Austinite John Hall, who works for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). He’s the director of EDF’s Clean Energy program in Texas. EDF applies science, economics, and law to harmonize man-made systems with natural ones. Hall’s role at EDF is to urge Texas to produce electricity for homes and businesses using methods that don’t pollute, use little water, and create jobs. These methods include wind turbines, solar panels, and energy efficiency.

Urging Texas to go big on clean energy

Hall’s team at EDF recently published a report that shows Texas has abundant wind and solar power potential, helping make it possible for the state to reach federal pollution goals using clean energy resources already installed or on track to be installed. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established pollution limits through the Clean Power Plan in 2015, during President Obama’s time in office.)

Clean energy advocacy has special significance for Austin because its poor residents have some of the highest electricity burdens in the U.S., reports The Atlantic’s CityLab: At least 10 percent of poor residents pay $200 or more for their electricity bills each month, even though the median monthly bill in the U.S. (even for people with high incomes) was $114 in 2013.

Fifty percent of all families that spend 10 percent of income on power bills are black.

Around the U.S., “50 percent of all families that spend 10 percent of income on power bills are black,” reports CityLab. Energy efficiency measures — like energy-efficient lighting, appliances, and heating/ventilation/air conditioning (HVAC) — cost money upfront to install, but the result is lower monthly bills. So, energy efficiency has the potential to improve quality of life for black Americans.

“Already, Texas leads the country in producing natural gas, oil, and wind power. But Texas has the amazing opportunity to also be a national leader in producing solar power and energy efficiency,” Hall says. “We have the ability to use our abundant resources to grow our economy not just short term, but long term as well.”

Traditionally, Texas power plants have burned fossil fuels, like coal and natural gas, to boil water to create steam that turns the turbines that generate electricity. This system uses a lot of water. (Solar panels and wind turbines, on the other hand, use little to no water to make electricity.)

Moreover, most of the coal has to be imported from other states, and burning it releases carbon, which contributes to climate change. It also emits pollution that combines with heat and sunlight in the air to create smog. Smog can trigger asthma attacks, interfere with normal lung development, and increase the incidence of respiratory infections.

Natural gas can be produced in Texas and burns cleaner, but if it is allowed to leak, it releases methane into the air, where it heats and contributes to climate change.

How quickly we feel the benefit of clean energy depends upon how quickly the system embraces it. There are challenges.

“There are two key challenges we face in transitioning Texas to a clean energy economy,” says Hall. “The first challenge is that Texas’ political leadership has not embraced the state’s abundant clean energy assets and the benefits they can provide. The state’s leadership seems committed to using their power and influence to impose billions of dollars of costs on consumers to keep uneconomic coal afloat.

The state’s leadership seems committed to using their power and influence to impose billions of dollars of costs on consumers to keep uneconomic coal afloat.

“The second obstacle is that the people who operate coal-fired power plants are powerful politically, and they have very intelligent and capable people working for them to maintain the status quo.”

You can take the boy off the farm…

Political roadblocks don’t dismay Hall, who was born and raised an hour and a half east of Austin, in the agricultural community of Washington on the Brazos. His family still maintains a more than 130-acre ranch near Brenham, the town famous for its Blue Bell ice cream, made with milk from local cows.

“Over time, consistent with my faith, I have embraced the view that the fundamental role that I have in life is to be a good steward. And that is the principle that I try to apply to every area of my life,” Hall says. “The first place I saw that principle being applied was on our family farm, because it provided our resources for life.

“We sold what we produced, but we also ate every day from the garden that we maintained year round. We grew the food and raised the meat that we ate without the use of chemicals. The principle that was instilled in me was that if this is the source of our sustenance and economic livelihood, then it just makes sense to use it in a way that we are doing no harm or that we are improving it.”

The fundamental role that I have in life is to be a good steward…The first place I saw that principle being applied was on our family farm, because it provided our resources for life.

In other words, political roadblocks can’t dissuade Hall from advocating for sensible use of the environment and energy. Not any more than they could dissuade him from being his full 6-feet-5-inch height. It’s part of who he is.

Hall went on to earn a liberal arts degree at Sam Houston State University and a master’s degree in public affairs at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He then chaired the state agency that is now the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, early in his career. For 20 years, his small consulting firm, John Hall Public Affairs, helped local governments and businesses with environmental, energy, and water issues.

Clean energy is happening

Clean energy is happening around the U.S. The coal industry lost nearly 50,000 jobs between 2008 and 2012, and has lost more since then.

At the same time, 2.5 million Americans now work in clean energy jobs, including nearly 300,000 in solar, more than 75,000 in wind, and 1.9 million in energy efficiency (such as making, installing, and servicing energy-efficient lighting, appliances, and HVAC), according to a recent report by E2, a national group that includes business leaders and investors.

The American Jobs Project estimates that eastern states could gain more than 160,000 jobs annually by using state policies to promote energy technology. The same report predicts that wind and solar, along with energy efficiency, could create an additional 50,000 high-wage jobs yearly in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that wind turbine technician is the fastest-growing profession in the U.S. And, closer to home, Texas already generates the most wind power of any state.

“Texas has four times more solar potential than California, but California has 75,000 solar jobs compared to 7,000 in Texas,” says Hall. “But experts predict solar levels in Texas will grow almost 65 times the current level. This growth would allow Texas to surpass California in the solar industry.”

Texas has four times more solar potential than California, but California has 75,000 solar jobs compared to 7,000 in Texas.

Locally, Austin supplies more than 60 MW of solar energy to its electric grid and is taking steps to add 450 MW more.

And rather than benefiting from clean energy as an aside or an afterthought, African Americans are helping lead the shift. Last fall, Austin’s Huston-Tillotson University installed 736 solar panels, making it a model for the city (also, making it the first private historically black university to power one-fourth of its campus buildings from renewable energy).

An EDF Climate Corps fellow helped Huston-Tillotson develop its plan for solar. Climate Corps is a fellowship program that trains graduate students and helps them jump-start their careers in corporate sustainability.

“Green is the new black”

Huston-Tillotson’s environmental motto is also the name of its student environmental group: Green is the New Black. The motto extends beyond the university and clean energy to Austin’s environmental trailblazers from the black diaspora.

Austin-based Naya Jones and Dr. Kevin Thomas are the co-founders and managers of Food for Black Thought, an action-based research initiative and consultancy that promotes understanding of food systems across the U.S. through the lens of black experiences.

Through their company, Bee Sweet Lemonade, the Ulmer family of Austin donates to Heifer International, which gifts bees to families in need around the world. A gift of bees includes a package of bees, a hive and box, plus beekeeping training. These gifts can boost families’ income through sales of honey, wax, and pollen, while stimulating growth of the families’ crops through pollination.

The African American experience is unique; and so, these contributions add new dimensions to environmental activism. It’s noteworthy that, rather than beginning with a local focus, the efforts by environmental stewards who are black are leapfrogging toward national and global impacts from inception.

Building (and re-building)

For activists like Hall, harmonizing is not just a job; it is a way of life. When he’s not at work, you’ll find him taking his granddaughter out for lunch, barbecuing for colleagues, checking-in with his brother on the ranch in Brenham, or cooking with his daughters for the families of those who have passed from his church congregation.

“The principle of stewardship has applicability in all areas of our lives,” Hall says. “When we apply it, we will find ourselves building, rather than tearing things down.”

Six years ago, Hall and his wife, Mary, divorced. Most harmonious is their upcoming wedding in May 2016, in which they will remarry.

Kim Jarrett, J.D., is a communications associate for the Clean Energy program at Environmental Defense Fund.

This post is republished from an earlier date.


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