Driven by her personal experience with energy poverty, a recent Energy News Network 40 Under 40 honoree is working hard as a senior policy associate at a U.S. community solar developer to ensure that ethnicity, language barriers, and income do not bar homeowners from accessing renewable energy.
Recently interviewed by ENN publication Centered, Nexamp’s Theodora Okiro spoke of how her own childhood experiences in Nigeria, where she and her family lived with energy poverty, were the inspiration behind her career in renewable energy, and her fight for a world with greater energy access and equity.
“We’re helping communities understand what community solar is and how it benefits us collectively, especially our low-income and people of colour communities,” she said. Okiro told Centered that Nexamp does not “participate in practices that perpetuate redlining”—such as requiring the submission of credit scores—and it doesn’t ask participants to pay enrollment fees or up-front costs.
In addition to working to break down the “access barrier,” Okiro, through Nexamp, is also committed to ensuring that potential clients are armed with knowledge, and can get the information they need in their own language.
And then there is the issue of trust. “There’s a long, endemic mistrust not just of authority, but also of utilities, in many communities,” Okiro said. “It’s really important to go to trusted community leaders and develop a relationship with them…to address a lot of the negative externalities that have impacted primarily low-income communities for decades.”
Also in Nexamp’s mandate: alleviating the historical mistrust many of its clients feel toward financial institutions, and deepening its economic contribution to communities by hiring locally.
Okiro was born in New York, but spent periods of her youth living with her family in Lagos, where they didn’t always have reliable electricity. “This doesn’t have to happen,” she thought then. “I don’t have to live through darkness.”
Now, those experiences have made her particularly empathetic to the plight of the families she meets in places like Chicago’s South Side—families who had “to choose between paying their rent and the power bill” while at the same time living in the shadow of lung-destroying coal plants.
“I think connecting those thoughts and seeing how the struggle is personal and collective really encouraged me to seek solutions to this ongoing issue about energy access and energy equity,” she told Centered.