When the moon was set to move over the sun in 2017’s total solar eclipse, DeAndrea Salvador wasted no time to plan a community watching event. The former executive director of Renewable Energy Transition Initiative (RETI)—a nonprofit focused on making energy affordable and efficient in North Carolina—got to planning with only two weeks until the celestial moment.
At least 300 people showed up, including children, adults—people of all ethnicities and incomes. Salvador used the occasion to highlight the need for communities to eclipse the energy burdens they were experiencing through energy efficiency and conservation. Using a rare solar occurrence to talk energy was clever, to say the least. More than three years later, the event is etched on the memories of some who attended.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Wow I would’ve never guessed this many different types of people in Charlotte would care enough to come out,’” Kaleia Martin, the southeastern climate justice organizer for the Climate Reality Project who used to share an office with Salvador, tells me. “She has a way of finding the things that bring us together.”
Now, she is bringing those skills into the North Carolina state legislature. Salvador just won a race to become a senator in the state—and best believe addressing energy poverty is at the top of her to-do list.
Welcome to The Frontline, the best way to start your morning. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. For this week’s final celebration of local victories, we’re diving into DeAndrea Salvador’s story and the significance of her election to the North Carolina Senate. At only 30 years old, she’ll be its youngest senator (no little thing).
As a young girl, Salvador remembers watching her grandmother manage her energy bills. She didn’t realize back then how chronic an issue energy was in North Carolina and across the U.S. (She shares some of this in a 2018 TED Talk.) In 2015, for instance, North Carolina saw more than half a million households spending 20 percent or more of their income on energy.
But Salvador never planned to get into politics; she didn’t even expect to wind up working in the energy field. Salvador went to school for economics, so she tells me she imagined she’d wind up working in the banking and finance sector in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she’s from. Instead, she used that expertise to dive into the forces behind energy.
“Having the ability to reach millions and also be a voice when I see things that aren’t making sense or may not be in the best interest really just prompted me to jump up and say, ‘Hey!” Salvador says. “Some folks may know for a year they’re going to run—I knew for less than a month.”
“When I do something, I absolutely am looking at it from what is the best outcome for the community.”
At 23, she founded RETI, which focuses on teaching Charlotte residents about energy efficiency and conservation. The organization also works on community solar initiatives in South Carolina, where it more easily advances community solar projects that don’t require putting solar panels on people’s roofs to bring clean energy into their homes. In Charlotte, Salvador focused on bringing people rooftop solar through a donation program she helped set up.
She’ll now be entering a Republican-controlled North Carolina Senate. Still, she remains hopeful. At the top of her agenda are addressing voter suppression in the state, improving access to quality healthcare, and creating equitable and efficient energy and transportation sectors. Once she’s sworn in, come January, Salvador will really know what she’s up against.
For her, equity is at the heart of her work: Energy systems can’t be equitable if only some people have access to clean sources—and they certainly aren’t equitable if some people are having to make tough calls when their monthly bills arrive.
“When I do something, I absolutely am looking at it from what is the best outcome for the community,” she said.
Her background will prove essential to North Carolina’s transition into a clean energy economy. In 2018, Governor Roy Cooper signed an executive order to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent of its 2005 levels by 2025. That won’t be easy, but having voices like Salvador’s can help ensure that this work centers the needs of communities of color and low-income families across North Carolina.
“Having [Salvador] and other people who have the lived experience and the expertise of understanding the implications of environmental justice threats and harms and impacts … having someone connected to that place is a win for community to advance us to the side of solutions that are going to benefit those who have been most harmed by the decisions that have come out of our legislature ,” says Nakisa Glover, a Charlotte-based climate justice thought leader who’s known Salvador for years.
“She represents all these various facets that allow people different entry points to see themselves in the work for the greater good of our community.”
Glover and Salvador share many of the same roots—from where they grew up in Charlotte to where they went to university. Though Glover herself is an expert in this space, Salvador was the person who helped her understand the meaning of “energy poverty,” which assesses the costs people pay for their energy, as well as the quality of service. Glover describes Salvador as thoughtful and genuine—two key traits to properly represent marginalized communities in the state Senate.
Glover remembers entering the environmental sector back in 2013 and often being the only Black person in the room. At last, Salvador brings a number of much-needed perspectives into the space.
“She represents a Black, lived experience,” Glover says. “She represents a motherhood experience. She represents an experience as a wife. She represents an experience as a founder and as an entrepreneur. She represents all these various facets that allow people different entry points to see themselves in the work for the greater good of our community and an access point to also begin to dream and envision a bigger future for ourselves.”