Inside efforts to cultivate El Paso’s green workforce, move to renewable energies

Local News

US President Joe Biden speaks about the American Rescue Plan and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small businesses in response to coronavirus, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC, February 22, 2021. – The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has been a key lifeline to businesses amid the Covid-19 crisis, but the smallest among them, those least likely to have relationships with banks, often missed out. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — El Pasoans have long felt left out when it comes to economic investments and opportunities, especially when it comes to environmental justice.

The White House says we aren’t wrong.

“President Biden agrees with them,” White House Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy tells KTSM 9 News.

“They have been left behind.” 

Community organizations like Familias Unidas and La Mujer Obrera have expressed their concerns over environmental justice issues that they say have fallen on deaf ears. 

The organizations sent a letter to Vice President Harris in March to request federal support for local populations that are struggling.

Now, under Biden’s “American Jobs Act” vulnerable communities — like the many in El Paso — are being invested in to create jobs that not only stimulate the economy, but also create a path toward a sustainable and climate-friendly future.

“What President Biden committed to and what this ‘American Jobs Plan’ does is to ensure that environmental justice communities are no longer ignored or disinvested in,” says McCarthy.

Last year, the U.S. endured more than 20 different billion-dollar weather and climate disasters that resulted in $95 billion in damages.

The American Rescue Plan promises to combat climate-related disasters and boost the economy by creating a more resilient infrastructure and investing in climate-related industries.

For example, the Biden Administration is working to create electrification jobs.

Currently, the U.S. market share of electric vehicles (EV) that plug-in is one-third the size of the Chinese EV market. Biden proposed a $174 billion investment to overtake the EV market. 

The plan also establishes grant and incentive programs for local and state governments, as well as private sector entities, to build a national network of 500,000 EV chargers by 2030 using strong labor, training, and installation methods. 

El Paso Electric (EPE) says it’s already at work.

“We do expect to see jobs in electrification,” says Kelly Tomblin, El Paso Electric CEO. “Building charging stations, working in EV, and as various places convert from combustion turbines to electrification, we can see new areas for opportunity there.”

Infrastructure jobs are needed to make progress happen.

“Making smart grid happen, having AMI meters installed, but more than that, having the technology system that really is something new for the industry,” says Tomblin.

Tomblin says EPE is actively addressing climate, while also making try to make energy affordable for El Pasoans.

Today, 38 percent of EPE customers are behind on payment because of the pandemic, says Tomblin.

Jessica Christianson, EPE’s Senior Director of Innovation and Sustainability, is working to create new ways for El Paso to use energy that meet the needs of the customers, while also expanding access to renewable energies. 

“In the context of the federal initiatives, what comes to mind is the construction and implementation of renewable resources,” she says, “but that requires that we operate the grid differently.”

Christianson says that the grid needs to be concurrently modernized, and that expanded transmission infrastructure and metering technologies at the local community level are also needed to use energy more efficiently.

“We continue to want to use energy well,” adds Tomblin. 

“A lot of renewables will require us to use transmission, which is a great job and a well-paying job,” she says. 

Tomblin says that although transmission may not seem like a climate-related job, we cannot have an effective renewables system without an effective transmission system. 

Sunrise El Paso is an organization that has been advocating for renewable energies to be used in El Paso for a multitude of reasons.

“There’s our health, there’s the environmental factor, and there’s money,” says Angel Ulloa, a coordinator at Sunrise El Paso.

The organization is working with Earthworks to raise awareness of environmental issues in El Paso, most notably the potential negative impacts of the proposed Newman 6 Plant.

“The one thing that we have been pushing for is solar,” says Ulloa.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be capturing energy from the sun and expanding solar energy, and using that as much as possible,” says McCarthy.

El Paso is one of the sunniest city’s in the world, and only uses about 3 percent solar energy.

Last week, Sunrise El Paso and Earthworks revealed a billboard near Hunter and I-10 East to urge El Pasoans and City Council to demand renewable energies in place of natural gas. 

“We’re doing this to protect our people,” Ulloa explains, “it seems like that’s what the community has to do and that’s what builds community.” 

Biden’s plan is slated to alleviate some of the burden to help propel a green future. 

“So if we think broadly about the Rescue Act, ‘Build Back Better’, we’re going to think of the whole story holistically. Like what’s required to improve our climate and our economy simultaneously,” says Tomblin.

The local government is already preparing.

According to a statement from Elizabeth Triggs, the City of El Paso’s Strategic Partnership Officer:

“The American Jobs Plan, as currently proposed, is a $2 trillion climate-focused infrastructure plan that would bring new federal investment to historically disadvantaged communities like El Paso. In addition to a focus on modernizing existing infrastructure, including our land ports of entry, the plan targets climate and clean infrastructure investments that will result in good-paying jobs for our community. We, at the City, are working hard with our community partners to prepare for the opportunities ahead.”

The promise of innovation seems almost too good to be true for a city like El Paso, and the White House is not blind to local trepidation. 

McCarthy is shining a (eco-friendly) light on the opportunity for meaningful change for Borderland residents.

“They have been left behind,” she says, “and it’s time to send a signal that a clean energy future doesn’t mean that anybody needs to be left behind.”

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