Berkeley Puts Equitable Climate Action on the Ballot — Episode 115 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 21 Oct 2020 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

When cities have done their part to power the community with clean electricity, the final push of the clean energy transition rests on individuals. Still, individuals can come together, pass innovative local policy, and hold themselves accountable to a clean and equitable ethos.

In this episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Ben Paulos of the Berkeley, Calif. Energy Commission. Paulos and the commission have given the community a chance to put its money where its mouth is with a “climate equity action fund” on the ballot this November. Farrell and Paulos discuss how voting yes to Measure HH is a step toward the city’s zero carbon emissions goal — all while centering energy equity.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Ben Paulos Why is it a growing movement? I think it’s frankly, because we’ve seen the federal government is moving in the wrong direction. And if we could count on the federal government to do all of this for us, if we had a national carbon tax and national renewable energy laws and EV policies and so on, then they’d probably be a lot less concerned at the local level, but that is absolutely not happening. We’ve suffered under years of the Trump administration and people are getting sick of it. You know, I think there’s much greater willingness to take matters in our own hands to make things happen. And it’s really no longer enough to just hope that somebody else is going to solve this problem.
John Farrell It was the third U.S. city to declare a climate emergency and Berkeley, California has long been a leader in setting ambitious climate policy. Ben Paulos, Berkeley resident, energy professional, and volunteer on the city’s energy commission, felt like it was time the city put its money where its mouth is. He joined me in October, 2020 to discuss the measure HH, an initiative on the November ballot to fund equitable climate and clean energy programs in Berkeley with a higher fee on utility bills. I’m John Farrell, director of the energy democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and this is Local Energy Rules, a biweekly podcast sharing powerful stories about local, renewable energy.

You and I have both been working to advance local distributed energy together for a long time, including when you were helpful in supporting the initial Minneapolis Energy Options campaign in my hometown. And we’ve worked together on community solar. And now you’re involved in a new initiative in your hometown of Berkeley. I was hoping you could tell us about your role on the city’s energy commission and why you’ve been so focused on local climate action for a long time.

Ben Paulos So my, my background is in energy policy. It’s my day job. And I worked for many years for the Energy Foundation giving out grants. And I do a lot of consulting now with various nonprofit and government and corporate clients on energy. And, you know, I looked at, I didn’t really pay much attention to local affairs here in Berkeley until the city council put out a proclamation that the city wanted to be fossil fuel free in 10 years. And I thought, well, that’s pretty darn ambitious. I wonder if they need any advice, you know, from a professional energy person. So I learned that there was an energy commission and I started going to their meetings. And if you go to the meetings, you kind of get recruited to be on the commission because we have 36 citizen commissions here in Berkeley. It’s not a big town, so like every third person is on a commission advising the city. And because I went to the meeting that meant I got onto the commission and the more we looked at, you know, things would come up and I thought, well, these, all these things we’re doing are okay, but there’s really no money to pay for them. So we need some money to pay for all of these great things that the city says they want to do. And that was really Genesis for the climate equity action fund to put our money where our mouth is.
John Farrell So let’s dive right into that. You’ve helped basically get a measure on the ballot this fall, or this election, measure HH. Can you talk a little bit about what are the things the city wanted to do? What is this going to help fund that folks were proposing as ways to get to this ambitious fossil free goal?
Ben Paulos Yeah, well, so most of our emissions, carbon emissions come from transportation. About 60%. Our electric power system is clean and getting cleaner. We’re, we’re served by community energy supplier, East Bay Community Energy, CCA and EBC does not buy any power from natural gas or coal. So we are close to being carbon free already, but there are plans to increase the amount of wind and solar in the portfolio. Really the remaining emissions are mostly cars and trucks and then natural gas in buildings. Those are the two big ones. Berkeley was instrumental in creating East Bay Community Energy. So we’ve made a lot of progress on cutting carbon in the power sector, through EBCE, while we haven’t done much at all on is cutting carbon in transportation or buildings. Both of those things require effecting the decisions of lots of individuals, business owners, and residents of the city to make decisions about how they get around what kind of vehicle they own, what kind of appliances they have in their home, how they heat and cool their home, et cetera.

We need to reach individuals to help them take action and make the right decisions. And I think the best way to do that is to put some money on the table to say, if you make the right choice, we will give you a rebate. You know, we’ll help you pay for that. So really I feel like it’s, I mean, there are a lot of things that the city needs to do itself, like building infrastructure, more bike lanes, better transit, et cetera, but really the big carbon emissions are not from the city government operations. They’re from all of us, from all the citizens and businesses of Berkeley. So I think that to me, that’s the real target and the best way to solicit action from the public is to offer them cash incentives.

John Farrell I know that Berkeley just last year got some notoriety for proposing to no longer allow gas hookups for new buildings and an effort to kind of slow the growth at least of gas use in buildings are the, are the funds that you would use things that would help people to avoid gas use in their building then like with an electric appliance, like an induction stove or an electric water heater, that kind of thing?
Ben Paulos Yeah. That’s a really good target. And as you say, the banning gas in new construction is, is okay. And over time it will be good. We are building some new housing here. We’re very densely built and pretty much fully, well, we’re not fully built out. We’re building a lot of apartment buildings and there’s a very strong debate about densifying neighborhoods, but really, yeah, the big carbon emissions in buildings, all the gas use is in all of the existing buildings and getting homeowners and apartment owners and business owners to switch out their appliances for electric heat pumps instead of gas furnaces, we’ve got to make it penciled out for them. We’ve got to intervene at the right time when they’re making that decision. You know, when the old furnace burns out, it’s time for a new one. That’s when we want to be there to help them make the right choice. So financial incentives are a good part of that. The state of California is actually moving that direction too. We have a billion dollar energy efficiency program in the state. They’ve just recently finally approved the idea of promoting fuel switching from gas to electricity, before that was not allowed because they didn’t want to favor a one industry over the other. But now the carbon benefits of clean electricity have steered them to allow for fuel switching. So that program is going to be developing incentives for electric heating and cooling, like water heating, et cetera. So the Berkeley fund, if assuming voters approve it, we can certainly piggyback on that. We can offer more incentives for faster action, for example.
John Farrell How much would measure HH raise every year and how is it paid for? And I guess one last question on there too, is how is it distributed? So like how old impact, like a low income customer versus a middle class person?
Ben Paulos So equity is very high priority for our community. And it’s right in the name of the program. The climate equity action fund equity has really three, there are three aspects to it. One is how we raise the money. One is how we spend the money or what we spend it on. And the third is why equity is so important. So the money would be raised, we pay a local utility tax here called the utility user tax on our gas, electricity, broadband phone water, I guess. And it’s currently seven and a half percent that applies to every utility customer in the city, regardless of income. So the first thing measure HH would do would be to exempt low income customers from the tax altogether. We really shouldn’t be taxing low income people. It’s not equitable. We have a couple of rate discount programs called CARE, and FIRA in California. And if you were low income, you sign up for it. You get a discounted rate. Now the city can take that designation because normally the city doesn’t know your income, right? You don’t, we don’t pay a local income tax. The city doesn’t know your income, but we do know now if you’re signed up for this rate discount program to the utility and therefore we can zero, the, and that puts about $160 back in the pockets of low income households. We have about 5,000 customers like that in Berkeley. So coming right now in the middle of the pandemic and the recession and the high unemployment as extremely valuable for low income households to, to get that tax break. The second thing that HH does is that it raises the tax for everybody else because we want to spend money on climate action between the cut and the increase we end up with about two and a half million dollars a year.

The increase for the, for all other customers is about $4 a month on average, less for apartment owners and more for big businesses, of course. So it’s equitable in that sense that the more you use, the more you pay. So the net take is about two and a half million dollars a year. And the goal is to basically put that money back out to businesses and citizens in Berkeley to take action on climate change. So it’s really a collective action to get ourselves, to take responsibility and to move on climate change. And I do want to talk about the equity aspects. As I said, that’s really critical. We have its, we are increasing equity by cutting taxes for low income households. We want to focus when we make the decisions about how to spend the money. We’re going to put equity as a priority. Just cutting carbon is good, but if we can cut carbon and create green jobs, create job training programs, if we can improve the health of our, of our neighborhoods and our communities right now, fire and smoke is a great big problem. So if we can reduce smoke and air pollution from vulnerable households, that’s a real plus of it as well. And that problem is just going to be getting worse as climate change gets worse. So anyway, equity is number one on the list. So it’s really that sweet spot of finding how to improve equity and environmental justice. All at the same time, cutting carbon emission, creating green jobs.

John Farrell We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, I ask about the politics of the ballot measure, how the utilities have reacted to the proposal, and why so many cities seem to be supporting new funds for climate and clean energy. You’re listening to a Local Energy Rules interview with Ben Paulos, energy expert and volunteer on the Berkeley Energy Commission, about Measure HH to fund local climate work.

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Who is working on supporting the measure in Berkeley?

Ben Paulos We’ve gotten a really incredible amount of endorsements, not just from the usual green groups. We have Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA — whose executive director lives in Berkeley. That was a bit of a surprise endorsement. We weren’t really seeking national endorsements, but you know, 350, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, et cetera, but we’re also getting an increasing number of equity groups and racial justice type groups. We have a group called East Bay Working Families that has endorsed it. The Berkeley Tenants Union just came in this morning. So those are people who advocate for renters. League of Women Voters, the FCIU local, the, the union local. We’re also looking for help from some of our notable citizens. We have quite a few notable people in Berkeley considering our small size, Amy Leonard is the CEO of Greenpeace USA. Alice Waters, the famous chef with Chez Pannise, has endorsed it. Actually two members of the California Energy Commission live in Berkeley and have endorsed it. We have a growing list of thought leaders types here in Berkeley, and we hope that it’s going to affect not just what happens here, but what can happen in other communities in California and across the country.
John Farrell You come across any opposition to it? For example, how do the utilities, their bills are gonna, that are charged to customers are going to be changed at least modestly, you know, you said like $4 a month, how do they feel about it? Do you have opposition? And do you feel like you can overcome the opposition on the ballot this fall?
Ben Paulos I’d say the utilities are not opposed. It’s really up to every community to tax themselves as they see fit. One thing we are, I don’t know if this is too much in the weeds for you, but the tax is on gas and electricity. And we would much rather tax gas and not electricity, right? Because we want people to switch. However, because of the way the billing software is set up, we can’t really split them right now. So we, that’s kind of the next step after this passes is we need to figure out a way to split the taxes so we can make it more, make a stronger incentive to switch buildings from gas to electricity. So the utilities are frankly, California utilities are more or less on board with that. We already have very strong state regulations heading for a zero carbon economy. Fortunately, our utility is a gas and electric utility, PG&E. So like many gas and electric utilities, they see that any sales they lose in gas, they’re going to make up on the electric side. It’s the gas only utilities who are getting very nervous in California. Like SoCal Gas, but our utilities here, we haven’t heard any opposition from it, from them. And in fact, I’m hoping we can work with them to solve this taxing problem down the road. Really, the only opposition we’ve seen is that we have, we send out a ballot book with descriptions of every measure in it, and there are pro and con arguments. So a group called Alameda County Taxpayers Association Incorporated wrote an opposition to it, for that, because they don’t like taxes. That here in Berkeley, that’s practically an endorsement. We’re very much in favor of paying our taxes and having the government do good things. We like that here.
John Farrell That’s funny. Well, I’m glad to hear that. You know, I wanted to ask you sort of about the broader picture nationally. It really seems like this idea of local funds for climate investment is a growing movement. Minneapolis raised a similar fee, a franchise tax, which I was involved in much the same way you are as a volunteer, helping to explain why we thought that’d be a good idea. Seattle’s jumpstart tax, who are going to have an upcoming podcast about that, as well as Portland’s clean energy fund. Why do you think this idea of local taxes, local funds is so popular all of a sudden? And do you have any thoughts also about some of these differ in their strategy? Some of these are taxes on utility bills, but others of these are on payrolls of large corporations and thoughts about what kind of taxing might actually be better in terms of how it would help both raise. For example, the jumpstart tax in Seattle is going to raise, I think over $20 million a year for clean energy work. Obviously Seattle is a bigger city than Berkeley. And I think Portland’s clean energy fund is similarly in the tens of millions. Both those taxes are not on utility bills. So anyway, a long winded question, but why is this getting popular? What are your thoughts about the strategy?
Ben Paulos Yeah, there are really two fundamental questions. Like how do you raise the money and how do you spend the money? Those are the two bottom line questions, right? And I think why is it a growing movement? I think it’s, frankly, because we’ve seen the federal government is moving in the wrong direction. And if we could count on the federal government to do all of this for us, if we had a national carbon tax and national renewable energy laws and EV policies and so on, then they’d probably be a lot less concerned at the local level, but that is absolutely not happening. We’ve suffered under years of the Trump administration and people are getting sick of it. You know, I think there’s a much greater willingness to take matters in our own hands and make things happen. And it’s really no longer enough to just hope that somebody else is going to solve this problem. There’s something 1700 communities around the world that have declared a climate emergency. Berkeley was number three on the list. So we’re early adopters, but just declaring a climate emergency doesn’t do anything. You actually have to follow through with it. You actually have to write rules and regulations. You need to pre create incentives, just hoping somebody else solves your emergency is not really taking responsibility. So I think a lot of communities are really at that point where we really have to do something. I think the smoke and wildfires of the last few years have really ratcheted that up in the West. It’s really climate change is not a problem in the future. It’s a problem that’s here right now and it’s in our faces and it’s in our lungs. So I think there’s a much greater sense of urgency about taking action. In addition to the ones you mentioned, Seattle and Portland, Denver also has a tax on their ballot this fall that would create a climate fund. And our neighbor here in Albany, California, which is a very small town, they likewise are creating a small climate fund. My hope is that once it catches on like this, that we can go back to all of these cities that have climate plans and climate emergency declarations, natural gas hookup bans, and say, well, here’s the next step now that you’re willing, now it’s time to pay for it and to actually do something.
John Farrell You’ve already answered this last question in what you just said, but what advice would you have for other cities that have, whether it’s declared a climate emergency set on 100% renewable energy goal, sometime in the future in terms of making progress on those local climate efforts?
Ben Paulos Well, I think every, every community has their own values and their action on climate change will have to reflect those values. Here in Berkeley, the highest value is equity. We are going to make sure that everyone benefits from this and we can use the climate fund as a way to redress all of the past environmental injustices, the red lining, the pollution near the refineries and the highways. So that’s going to be our priority here. I’d say one, one thing I’m looking ahead to is that the process of actually spending the money can be very complicated. When I first raised this idea of a climate fund, people would always say, Oh, I want to spend it on free transit passes for poor kids. I want to spend it on bike lanes. I want to spend it on electric buses. And there are a hundred things you can put on that list. The real bottom line is going to be, how do you decide how to spend the money? What we’re proposing here is a panel of experts. You know, one of our commissions, actually my commission is going to be transformed into this, probably with some new appointments and my idea is that we take proposals from nonprofits, from businesses, from government agencies. And we weigh those proposals based on how many tons of carbon does it cut? What does it do for equity and environmental justice? How many jobs does it create? Is it cost effective? Do we leverage some other kinds of policy, you know, state policy? And really kind of score those and be really systematic about it. Because that process can be kind of overtaken by whoever is the most passionate or yells the loudest or the best connected. So we really want to make sure that it’s open to everyone that we hear all voices and that we really weigh all the opportunities in a smart way. This is a big college town. So I’m hoping that that idea will also catch on, but really it’s just raising money is a good start. It’s a good way to follow up on your plans, but you really have to, you know, every city exists in a context of state, federal governments, technologies change, business models  change, opportunities change, and the risks change. So I think being flexible and pursuing the best opportunities at the time is really what’s gonna make the money go farthest.
Well, Ben, thank you so much for joining me to talk about measure HH and good luck with election season.
Ben Paulos Thank you.
John Farrell Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules with Berkeley resident and city energy commission member Ben Paulos recorded in October, 2020. Local Energy Rules is produced by myself and Maria McCoy with editing provided by audio engineered Drew Birschbach. On the show page, look for links to the Measure HH website, our podcast interview with Berkeley city council member Kate Harrison, about the city’s ban on new fossil gas connections, and links to other interviews and stories about cities using their local authority to generate more funding for equitable clean energy work. On our website, you can also find our community power map of all cities with 100% renewable energy goals like Berkeley and an interactive community power toolkit for stories on how cities have advanced toward their goal with new funding and new strategies. Tune back into Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear more powerful stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

Already a Leader in Ambitious Climate Policy, Berkeley Hopes to Handle Remaining Emissions

Berkeley, Calif. gets its electricity from East Bay Clean Energy (EBCE), a community choice energy entity. EBCE provides fossil fuel-free electricity to its customers, including Berkeley.

Hear East Bay Clean Power Alliance Coordinator Jessica Tovar explain how EBCE was established, and what it does for the community, in episode 98 of Local Energy Rules.

Having a clean electricity supply, Berkeley is left to address its transportation and building emissions — and the city can only do so much. Some of the clean energy transition must be carried by individuals, households, and businesses.

Ben Paulos, an energy professional, joined Berkeley’s energy commission after the city announced it would be fossil fuel-free in 10 years. He hopes to help the city get there — but how? By creating a fund for energy equity and climate action.

We need some money to pay for all of these great things that the city says they want to do… that was really the genesis for the Climate Equity Action Fund, to put our money where our mouth is.

Solar Arrays in Berkeley, Calif.

Ballot Measure HH

Berkeley Ballot Measure HH creates a fund to fight global warming by taxing utility sales. Called the Climate Equity Action Fund, the money raised will create electrification, energy efficiency, and clean energy incentives in Berkeley.

The best way to solicit action from the public is to offer them cash incentives

Utility customers in Berkeley are already charged a 7.5% utility user tax. To increase equity, Measure HH exempts low-income customers from this tax and increases it for everyone else. Low-income households will be identified by their subscription to California’s CARE or FERA rate discount programs. Paulos estimates that the tax exemption will save 5,000 utility customers $160 each.

Increasing the tax on other customers — to reach approximately $4.00 per month, depending on energy use — will raise about 2.5 million dollars a year. Plus, as Paulos reiterates, this money will be returned to the customers as rebates for their electrification, clean energy, and energy efficiency improvements.

It’s really a collective action to get ourselves to take responsibility and to move on climate change.

Beyond reducing taxes for low-income households, Paulos hopes that Measure HH will further equity by creating clean energy job training and cutting local pollution.

Berkeley Tackles Building Emissions

Berkeley was the first city in the country to ban gas hookups to new, multi-family buildings. However, Paulos says that there is little new construction in Berkeley. To be truly fossil fuel-free, the city needs to address gas use in existing buildings.

The Climate Equity Action Fund can support homeowners, and others, who are willing to trade out gas appliances for their electric counterparts. The fund could also pair with energy efficiency support from the state of California, which now recognizes the value of fuel switching.

Learn more about Berkeley’s revolutionary gas ban from Kate Harrison, City Council member for Berkeley, Calif., and Sean Armstrong, Zero Net Energy Designer and Managing Principal at Redwood Energy.

Widespread Support, Little Opposition

The Sierra Club, Greanpeace,, Citizens Climate Lobby, East Bay Working Families, the Berkeley Tenants Union, and the League of Women Voters have all endorsed Measure HH. Paulos also lists several “notable citizens” (business and thought leaders) of Berkeley who support the measure.

Stubborn utility companies often present a barrier to progress, but in this case, utilities are unopposed. Paulos explains that since Pacific Gas & Electric is both a gas and electric utility, it does not fight fuel switching — it will make up losses in gas sales with more electricity sales. 

One anti-taxing group opposes Measure HH, but Paulos says that “here in Berkeley, that’s practically an endorsement.” He believes Berkeley residents are unafraid of taxes — provided the city does good things with their money.

Local Clean Energy Taxes are Trending

Many cities are utilizing taxes and fees to create funds for their climate and clean energy goals.

Farrell draws attention to several, including Minneapolis’s Franchise fee (a fee on the utility), the Portland Clean Energy Fund (a surcharge on big businesses), and Seattle’s JumpStart Tax (a payroll tax on high-level corporate employees). Paulos adds that Denver has a climate fund sales tax on the ballot this fall.

If we could count on the federal government to do all of this for us, if we had a national carbon tax and national renewable energy laws and EV policies and so on, then they’d probably be a lot less concerned at the local level — but that is absolutely not happening.

Stay tuned for an upcoming episode of Building Local Power featuring Abigail Juaner and Jill Mangaliman, advocates for Seattle’s JumpStart tax.

How Should Cities Use their Clean Energy Funds?

Cities take action reflective of their values, says Paulos. Berkeley Measure HH, if passed, will demonstrate the city’s commitment to advancing equity as it decreases its carbon emissions. 

Once Berkeley has the money, it will have to plan how to use it. Paulos believes that the commission should review outside proposals, taking care that everyone gets the opportunity to pose an idea — not just the loudest or most connected individuals.

Climate change is not a problem in the future. It’s a problem that’s here right now and it’s in our faces and it’s in our lungs.

Paulos hopes that the Berkeley Climate Action Equity Fund demonstrates a “next step” for other cities that, like Berkeley, have clean energy goals or climate emergency declarations.

Episode Notes

See these resources for more behind the story:

For concrete examples of how cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is episode 115 of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

Local Energy Rules is Produced by ILSR’s John Farrell and Maria McCoy. Audio engineering by Drew Birschbach.

This article originally posted at For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update.

Solar array image credit: Firstcultural via Wikipedia (CC0 1.0)

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Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a Researcher with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.