The 2022 Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) Peer Review included an overall review of the office’s justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) initiatives. This is the first time such a review was part of the office’s biennial peer review. The following reviewers participated in the JEDI portion of the 2022 Peer Review:
- Rose McKinney-James (Chair, author of the JEDI Overall Portfolio Review section)
- Garrison Davis
- Devin Hampton
- Rozina Kanchwala
- Jacqui Patterson
- Greg Smestad
JEDI Overall Portfolio Review
Goals and Strategy
According to the SETO Multi Year Program Plan, the mission of the agency is to accelerate the advancement and deployment of solar technology. The plan cites as a challenge the “delivery of environmental justice.” The effort to embed and center the principles of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) is specifically referenced in the vision and mission statements with a goal of curating projects that offer solutions to address these inequities moving forward. Further, a great deal of emphasis is placed on a just path to climate solutions and decarbonization, job creation, and the deployment of solar technologies. SETO has clearly established the principles of JEDI as a priority to be emphasized as a significant strategic objective. This effort is consistent with and supported by a larger federal initiative to ensure that investments in clean energy and climate solutions are grounded in JEDI principles. The need to create a deeper focus on this work was raised during the SETO 2020 Peer Review. This expanded strategic focus on equity and environmental justice appears to be in response to multiple factors, both internal and external.
I believe the goal as interpreted is to achieve alignment with these principles as a strategic goal to enhance the access and accountability for black and indigenous people of color (BIPOC), disadvantaged, and other underrepresented communities, and to support small business and workforce development programs within the scope of its jurisdiction. Importantly, I believe this goal includes creating programming that is durable and sustainable. Additionally, I believe this goal has been established to provide a baseline strategy for others to replicate.
JEDI reviewers have noted that these principles have been identified as a priority and that an emphasis on program design is centered around the Justice 40 Initiative. They also note the importance of data integrity and using metrics to measure progress, success, and deficiencies. There is strong agreement amongst the reviewers that the long-term success of this effort will depend on the ability of SETO leadership to effectively move it from a “stand alone” initiative to one that is eventually embedded within the “whole of government” concept articulated in the Justice 40 Executive Order. This will require that additional steps are taken to ensure greater transparency and consistency in the execution of initiative.
As with any inaugural effort there are important key lessons learned and opportunities for improvement and enhancement. Moreover, there are a number of open questions remaining around concept integration, accountability and metrics. It should also be noted that there are number structural challenges that may require modification.
While it is clear principally based on conversations with SETO leadership that there is an intention to include JEDI in the overall goals and strategy for the entire SETO portfolio, there is a lack of consistency and specificity in how that goal is reflected and applied in the current portfolio. The JEDI reviewers found several examples of JEDI principles reflected in the sampling of projects reviewed. However, they also note a lack of consistent application.
Serving Public Interest
To the extent that the overall effort is designed to increase the ability of a wider range of participants, I believe as designed, the majority of these projects do serve the interests of the American people as a whole. I support any effort to shrink the gap between those who benefit from solar energy resources and those who have been historically excluded from that opportunity. The expanded reach and the opportunities that are contemplated for a broader segment of the American population to participate more equitably in these benefits is a positive step. JEDI is however, only one of a number of considerations for current project scoping. This is a new, emerging, and untested approach to elevating equity and environmental justice into the SETO portfolio. Projects that have been selected for funding within the portfolio reflect that SETO seeks applications that include both diverse teams as well as JEDI project plans. Including JEDI as a key component to applications is very consistent with the stated SETO mission. However, much work remains to be done to reduce the gap and increase participation levels from targeted communities.
Areas of Improvement
I believe SETO has established the appropriate framing for JEDI. It is clear that significant efforts have been undertaken to fully embed these principles into the overall culture and working operations of the agency. That said, while ‘blind spots’ are somewhat difficult to identify, my review of the portfolio surfaced significant inconsistencies in the application of JEDI principles. As an example, I observed that the more technical the project, the fewer specific references to equity are noted. These inconsistencies are also referenced in the feedback from several JEDI reviewers as they point out several instances where the portfolio lacked clarity on how equity considerations have been addressed. This suggests an uneven application that may be a function of the challenges inherent in attempting to integrate a new approach into a well-established set of protocols that have not historically been considered. As a result, as noted by one JEDI reviewer, “the gap is immense.” The pool of resources that are currently devoted to supporting this effort needs to be revisited and significantly broadened. Identifying partners with deeper experience and direct connections to targeted communities and ties to stakeholders could enhance the ability of program managers to better meet JEDI goals and objectives. This can also be achieved by revising the nature of programs that SETO includes within the portfolio. Expanding the spectrum for which a SETO investment is deemed appropriate with an eye toward environmental justice would improve the quality of the portfolio. The current process relies heavily on a hierarchical structure where project investigators play an integral role. It is essential that these individuals be provided the tools necessary to ensure that projects are evaluated equitably. Ensuring that they are properly trained and exposed to examples of how applying JEDI principles can improve project outcomes could serve to eliminate blind spots and better inform the process.
Additionally, as noted below, stakeholder engagement and outreach should be amplified as a critical component to project management and oversight.
Meaningful, strategic, targeted stakeholder engagement and outreach represents the most critical opportunity for project success. The ability to expand the existing network and identify local community and business leadership to support and inform these efforts is an essential component to effective stakeholder engagement. There are notable gaps identified throughout the current portfolio. Several of the JEDI reviewers have amplified the weaknesses in the current approach. They also offer thoughtful recommendations designed to alleviate these concerns. One specific recommendation to call out is adding education as a complement to this engagement. We cannot assume that the average American has a working knowledge of solar technologies or the embedded opportunity. To help mitigate this disparity, SETO can assist by identifying projects that seek to increase educational options. Given the disproportionate impacts that energy decision making has on communities of color, additional emphasis must be placed on providing information, technical assistance, and support. Moving stakeholder engagement from an aspirational goal to a well-designed strategic mechanism to drive change requires thoughtful collaboration and coordination. I believe that SETO is well ahead of most in achieving this outcome.
I did not observe discernible differences with how the JEDI opportunity is presented across the portfolio; however, by their nature, each track represents a range of projects with different levels of receptivity and application of JEDI principles. There is an increased emphasis on JEDI in the Photovoltaics and Soft Cost tracks. As noted by a JEDI reviewer, there seems to be a natural nexus between community solar projects and JEDI principles. There may be an opportunity here to create a separate track for community solar that may allow for better penetration, data collection, metrics, and tracking. The ability to collect and analyze this data will be essential to determining how best to advance equity as a priority for all five tracks.
Equitable Solar Access
Access is the threshold to meaningful participation and a central aspect of the successful implementation of JEDI principles. Connecting the target audience to the opportunity requires additional planning and inquiry. More importantly, ensuring that there is an understanding of the unique economic and social challenges facing communities of color and other underrepresented communities is a prerequisite to providing authentic access. JEDI reviewers noted, and I agree, that a number of key JEDI populations appear to have been omitted from consideration within the current SETO JEDI protocols. The first step to addressing access is acknowledging and addressing the unique challenges and barriers facing BIPOC, disadvantaged, and underrepresented communities. This requires paying closer attention to how SETO approaches the development and execution of solutions designed to target access to a broader group of participants. This is a fundamental consideration that requires SETO to partner with a broader list of established organizations and institutions that can assist in bridging the gap and facilitating the dissemination of critical information on the availability of these opportunities.
Diversity in STEM
Diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) has been identified as a priority and key goal for JEDI implementation. However, it does not appear to be evenly reflected in the SETO project portfolio. This is an area that lacks clarity relative to alignment with JEDI principles. It is a rich area of opportunity and the established existing relationships with diverse colleges and universities is an important step. However, I did not see clear evidence of efforts to fully leverage these relationships or explore the potential to expand the pool of resources available to support diversity in STEM.
Solar projects that focus on workforce development and job creation are strongly represented within the portfolio. Unlike other aspects of the SETO portfolio, efforts in this area reflect a maturity of thought and planning. This appears to be an area where the project investigators have devoted a significant amount of interest. There is a concentration of effort focused on solar installations. JEDI reviewers believe there is an opportunity to expand the range of skills and nature of workforce opportunities that should be considered moving forward. Understanding the potential that a well-crafted workforce strategy could provide to help unlock economic opportunity in historically disadvantaged communities should continue to be a priority. This represents another opportunity to engage local grassroots organizations to assist with connecting communities to the opportunity.
SETO is to be congratulated on its efforts to embed the principles of JEDI into its culture as it seeks to fund a wide range of projects and initiatives within its scope of authority. It is clear through both direct conversations with leadership as well as the presentations included in the SETO Peer Review process that an emphasis on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion has been identified as a priority for the work moving forward. Overall, these efforts are progressing along a positive trajectory; however, there are a number of opportunities available to the SETO team to insure better alignment with internal goals and objectives and JEDI principles. In particular, these principles should continue to be included in the application and all aspects of the review process. JEDI reviewers identified several areas for improvements in process and better clarity in communications and outreach. They applaud the commitment of the SETO to embed JEDI and offer specific feedback and suggestions for addressing these concerns.
As the inaugural JEDI Chair, I appreciate the sensitivity attached to the development of the approach to the Peer Review but note an apparent reluctance to be overly prescriptive. While this provided the JEDI reviewers with significant latitude to determine how best to approach the work, I believe future efforts would benefit from some additional work at the beginning of the process to better inform and set expectations.
I’m extremely grateful for the contributions and insights shared by the outstanding members of the JEDI reviewer cohort. Collectively, they represent an incredibly thoughtful, diverse, and experienced set of leaders in the environmental justice and equity space. I appreciate their candor and willingness to offer specific suggestions aimed at improving the current framework for embedding JEDI principles in to the continuing work of SETO. They have shared perspectives that I believe will be very helpful to SETO and EERE as they move to refine and evaluate their efforts to address equity and DEI initiatives going forward.
See more review summaries from SETO’s 2022 Peer Review.