Cleveland was once the center of the oil refining industry – and the environmental pollution that accompanied it. Can an economy born of fossil fuels rise from the ashes, promote renewables, and proceed to an equitable and clean-powered future?
For this episode of our Voices of 100% series of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell spoke with Jocelyn Travis, Campaign Manager for the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign in Cleveland. The two met in Milwaukee at the RE-AMP annual meeting to discuss Cleveland’s landmark commitment to 100% and how the city can make it to this goal in an equitable way.
Listen to the full episode to learn how Travis and the Ready for 100 network are taking action to support local, clean energy, and explore more highlights and resources, below — including a transcript and written summary of the conversation.
|Our concern is that it’s an equitable and just transition, that we’re really being inclusive and we’re looking at what’s going to be best for the total community, not just some aspects of the community.
|50 years after the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, the second largest city in Ohio is now working on an ambitious plan to combat climate change and transition to 100% clean energy. Can Cleveland do so in such a way to ensure that all of its residents benefit? Jocelyn Travis has led the Sierra Club’s ready for 100 campaign in Ohio, where she has helped Cleveland become the first city in the state to commit to 100% renewable energy as part of an update to the city’s climate action plan last fall and continues to emphasize the need to ensure the transition is a just and equitable one. Jocelyn joins John Farrell in person at the Midwest RE-AMP network convening of climate and clean energy advocates earlier this summer to record this latest episode of our Voices of 100% podcast series, about communities that are making commitments to 100% renewable energy. This is Local Energy Rules, a podcast sharing powerful stories about local renewable energy.
|Jocelyn, thank you for joining me.
|Thank you so much for having me.
|I’m going to start off with something that you were quoted in a press release about Cleveland’s adoption of the 100% renewable energy target. You mentioned your focus was on quote building an energy economy in Cleveland that works for everyone. Could you share a bit about how you came to this campaign and what motivates your work?
|Well, I’ve always been involved with various issues, community organizing in Cleveland actually all of my life. So I actually also am very active with the NAACP and Jackie Patterson, who is the national climate justice director, came to Cleveland and was talking to us about the lake shore coal burning power plant and how toxic it was and I just really had no knowledge of that. And when I learned about that power plant, that coal plant and what it was doing to our community, I immediately became involved in trying to help shut it down. And so we organized and worked and were finally able to shut that plant down. And, from that point I started doing work around the state of Ohio, you know, just finding so many environmental justice issues, just wanting to do whatever I could to help clean up my community. So that really is what got me involved in dealing with environmental energy issues. And because of my involvement in the community, I somehow was provided an opportunity to work for the Sierra Club and to work for the ready for 100 campaign, which I just love. I love being able to travel throughout the Cleveland community and really get people engaged in issue around 100% clean energy and fighting for clean water and clean air and understanding the importance of it.
|So Cleveland has become now one of over a hundred cities that have adopted this 100% renewable energy target. What do you see needs to change about how the city’s residents and businesses are receiving energy and paying for energy or even producing energy?
|Everything needs to change in Cleveland. You know, Cleveland has a lot of issues. We’ve always been number two in segregation, number one or two in poverty. Our energy costs are just astronomical. We’re in the Midwest, so of course we’re dealing with these harsh winters and we just have a lot of issues and a lot of our problems would be solved if we were to bring about jobs in the clean energy field. If we were to do more around wind energy, you know, it would just solve so many problems. I just think that we’ve got to get our residents to understand the importance of clean energy, what it means. They need to be engaged in and the need to really urge our city leadership to understand the importance and our state leadership so that we can fight for more renewable projects in Cleveland and throughout the state. So I just feel like it would solve so many of our problems. We have a huge issue around lead poisoning in Cleveland that comes from having older housing stock. You know, it’s not like the lead issue in Flint is mostly due to the water. Ours is due to our children eating paint chips and dust from just old houses. And so, you know, we just have so many issues that could be resolved by us working together, understanding the issues and then coming together to resolve. And to make sure that everything we’re doing that is being done in an equitable and just manner is just important to engage the total community and the work that’s being done.
|A couple of thoughts here before I ask you another question about in particular the ready for 100 campaign and how that interfaces with the city’s climate action plan. One is just you mentioned lead poisoning, which I think many people think of as sort of unrelated and yet in Minneapolis recently, the city has been doing some investment in energy efficiency opportunities for low income residents for renters. Many of the properties that have lead poisoning problems, old lead paint for example, and because the city has become involved in these energy issues, they’ve had funding before, sometimes from the federal government, sometimes from the state government, to do lead mitigation to go in and help to clean up these homes, to make them safe for the families and the children that live there. But they’re now able to think about how can we also go in and help them make the home more energy efficient and more comfortable for the folks who live there and more affordable. So it’s a really interesting opportunity there. So I’m kind of interested, with the Ready for 100 campaign, the city’s commitment came about as it was updating its climate action plan. I’m interested in hearing a little bit about how the city developed this plan, and how you and other folks involved with their Ready for 100 campaign were involved in that process, and were there any major challenges as well? You mentioned for example, this really important focus on equity, on making sure that everybody is involved in it. Was that true in terms of the process of developing the plan, but also in terms of the outcomes that it’s setting?
|Well, I would say that first of all, of course we tried to reach out to the mayor, Mayor Jackson as it relates to our campaign of having the city become a 100% clean energy city. And it was pretty challenging getting to the mayor, still challenging getting to our mayor. But luckily we really built a relationship with our office of sustainability in Cleveland and a really good relationship with the chief of sustainability, Matt Gray. Based on that, when we found out that they were doing an upgrade to the climate action plan, we realized this is going to be our chance to really get in there and make a difference as relates to the structure having this component added to the climate action plan. And so fortunately I was asked to serve on the Advisory Council, the Cleveland Action Plan Advisory Council. So I just made sure that I was involved in everything that went on as it related to the process.
But we also want to make sure that we engage the residents of the community, because they, when you’re dealing with so many other issues, just issues of survival. You’re not thinking about what it means to upgrade a climate action plan. Basically going about how you’re going to live day to day and how are you going to eat day to day and, and how are you gonna pay your utility bills and, and that kind of thing. And so we want to make sure again that we were engaged in a community. So we did all kinds of things. We, we did a lot of tabling events. We hit every festival you can imagine. We have petitions, which gave us an opportunity to talk to the community about what was going on to help urge Mayor Jackson and city leadership to support 100% commitment. We did a huge social media campaign. We had a press conference where we talked about issues like health, really wanted to make it relate to the residents. We even did dialogues in the community so that we can listen to the residents to find out what is it that you feel is important for us to talk about and we want to hear you and how can we work together as we move towards the 100% commitment. And so, we just did everything we could to involve and engage the community, to work with the city’s Office of Sustainability as they work towards upgrading their climate action plan. And you know, just by making sure people knew the importance of having a commitment to 100%. So while we’re still trying to meet with the mayor, we are also moving forward. We met with members of city council to provide education to what we mean by 100%. It’s really interesting that a lot of people really don’t understand what 100% clean energy means, what renewable energy means. And I’m not just talking about regular citizens, I’m talking about leadership, community leadership. And so it really is a matter of providing education and the matter of listening to the community as we go through this process.
|Yeah. Speaking of education, I came across, or I should say Marie, my colleague, came across in the Cleveland Climate Action Plan that was developed, a component, and I’ll just read the description here. It was described as quote “a community wide clean energy equity plan to help low income residents and small organizations purchase renewable energy.” So you were saying some people don’t even understand this concept of 100% renewable energy means, people who are often prominent community leaders. Can you help us understand, what is this component in the climate action plan and what do you hope that it might accomplish?
|Well, first of all, Cleveland is a particular city because we have two utility companies. You know we have First Energy, which of course is private owned, and then we have Cleveland Public Power, which is municipal owned. And so that’s the first issue is that most people don’t know who they are even getting their power from. So we’ve got to do education around that piece. And then you have the fact being that first energy is such a huge power in our city. First Energy, everywhere you look, you see First Energy. Our football stadium is First Energy Stadium, just everywhere you go. So it’s such a powerful entity in our community that you know, a lot of people, especially leadership, don’t really want to rock the boat when it comes to doing anything that’s going to be in conflict. So we’ve got to figure out how we can work together in the best interest of the community. I think that’s the first thing to realize that we’ve got to do what’s best for our residents and we’ve got to get residents to, again, talking about education, and understand the difference in the utility companies to understand who they’re getting power from. We’ve got an opportunity by having a public utility company, the city has an opportunity to purchase contracts that’re going to be in the best interest of the community, but again, if we’re not demanding it, I dare say it is not necessarily going to happen. And so I just think that education and involvement is the key when it comes to energy sources in our community. I just again think we have a lot of work to do as far as making sure people understand, and then what we can do as average citizens and make sure we’re getting the best possible energy source for our community.
|You’re listening to an interview with Jocelyn Travis, organizer with the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign in Cleveland as part of our Voices of 100% series of Local Energy Rules. Do you know of any folks we should interview about 100% renewable energy commitments in their community? If so, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org that’s voices of one zero zero at ILSR dot O. R. G. Stay tuned for the rest of this episode after a short message from our energy democracy initiative director John Farrell.
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|So I want to make a quick shout-out to a group called Energy and Policy Institute, which has done some really terrific research on investor owned utility companies, including First Energy. And when you talk about the political power of utilities, they’ve done a really good job of kind of exposing the way in which these companies use customer money sometimes to lobby against clean air and water through some trade associations, contributions that they make to politicians, charitable contributions that they make to nonprofit organizations, that can often sway people to – or at least make people very reluctant to stand up to them. And I’m sure that you’re very aware of that challenge. So one of the things I’m interested in, as you mentioned, there are two utility companies. You have Cleveland Public Power and First Energy. There was a story in Clean Technica about the 100 percent renewable energy campaign where they talked about how the public power utility has really been making some progress, at least toward renewables. But first energy has really been sticking with its coal fired power plants. And of course it’s in the news now first seeking a big subsidy from the Ohio state government for its nuclear plants. Neither utility to this point has more than 20% renewable energy, certainly not leaders in the country. I guess a couple of things is did the utilities at all get involved in the campaign around change to the climate action plan or to the Ready for 100 campaign? Were they saying anything about it? Were they spending any money around that campaign? And I guess, what role do you see them playing in the long term given that they haven’t necessarily been particularly progressive about doing renewable energy?
|Well, first of all, of course they did not get involved in the campaign in a positive way. I think that your comment about the fact that contributions and donations given throughout the community is pretty much what keeps a lot of our leadership pretty quiet about speaking out in support of 100% clean renewable energy. And I just think, again, it’s going to be imperative that residents take a stand and we start holding our leadership and our utility companies accountable. And until we do that, they’re going to continue to dominate in a negative way. Yes, we are dealing with that house bill six right now in a state where you’re looking at consumers paying to bail out these utility companies and it’s just ridiculous. And so, but again, you know, when you’re dealing with so many issues in urban, especially Cleveland is such an urban city and people just don’t have the time and energy to try to deal with all the other issues of survival. And then to try to figure out what’s going on in state legislature. But we’ve got to start doing that. And that’s why, again, engagement and advocacy is so important. I personally love the challenge of being involved in the community and letting people know what’s happening, but we’ve got to again, get more people involved in speaking out and speaking up and taking a stand.
|One of the things I was interested in, and I think it kind of comes back to this issue of your two utilities, is that the city’s climate plan was, and it’s commitment were completed last fall. So you’ve had six to nine months now, which is not a long time in terms of the wheels of bureaucracy moving. But I was curious if the city has been making any progress on implementation. But I guess I was also curious if you see an opportunity here in having two different utilities. So many cities have just a single utility and so even though the utilities here aren’t competing directly, they don’t compete for customers, they have their own service territories, is there an opportunity for the municipal utility, the city owned utility, to sort of set an example and give people a sense of well, hey, if I could be served by them I could get something good that could be helpful in this process. So is the city doing anything yet on its climate action work? You know, is there a chance there to take advantage of that utility split?
|Well, I know that the city is pulling together a team to start really moving forward. We have met with the Office of Sustainability to kind of find out what’s going on because we really do want to be involved with the process. We want to do whatever we can to provide support. So I know that team is being built and, from what I can understand, it’s really a pretty good team. Right now our city is really focused on and they’ve been really working on the celebration of our 50th anniversary of the river burning. That’s a big deal for us. The fact that the Cuyahoga River caught on fire 13 times and that 13th time really is what brought about a change and under the leadership of then Mayor Carl Stokes, and because of the work that was done by his administration, there’s some really good things came out of the river catching on fire. You know, of course we were the butt of jokes all over the country, but also the EPA, the clean water act, you know a lot of things came out of that and that river has really been cleaned up. There’s actually positive activity taking place on the river. You can see people rowing and all kinds of things that would have been unheard of back in the day. And so the city has really been working on that celebration and my understanding is that immediately after that celebration we’ll be moving forward with implementation. And of course our concern is that it is an equitable and just transition that we’re really being inclusive and we’re looking at what’s going to be best for the total community, not just some aspects of the community.
|I’m going to sort of roll this together with my question about advice. Are there other cities that you look to as a model or examples of initiatives that other cities have put forward when you’re thinking about equitable implementation that you know you either want to see or that you have seen somewhere else that you think Cleveland could follow?
|Well, one of the things I’m excited about is that this national campaign at the Sierra Club is doing, the Ready for 100 campaign is always compiling case studies and we all work together. We have national conference calls so that we can talk about positive things taking place in other cities. Why reinvent the wheel? So we are working together. I’m really excited that Chicago and Atlanta have made a commitment to 100%. Those are huge cities, so that if they can do it, anybody can do it. And my understanding is that the Atlanta plan is a really great plan and I understand that the consultants that were used with the Atlanta plan are going to be used for the Cleveland Plan of Implementation. So I’m just really inspired by the vision and commitment of the Sierra Club and we have great leadership with our national Ready for 100 team and our team members have let the city know that we’re here to provide support, whatever we can do to help with this process. So I think it’s got to be a win win because I believe that we’re going to be able to work together. And if not, I think they know that we’re very serious about this (laughs). So I think it’s in everybody’s best interests to just work together.
|I like that. That’s a subtle notice that we do need to make progress there. I just wanted to note, we did do an interview with the Atlanta Sustainability Director, I believe last year about the plan that they had put forward, which I thought it was really interesting because they had a few different kind of scopes. One was looking at how to maximize local energy production and kind of economic benefits as well as kind of a range of depending on the utility which has been very interesting of course because Atlanta, like many southern cities, is served, and like Cleveland, by an investor owned utility with a history of not doing a lot around clean energy and so kind of a tension there of, well we don’t have a lot of power over this utility in Atlanta and yet we do see some real significant opportunities. So I hope they can give Cleveland some good advice as well about how to think through that plan.
|So do I.
|Especially since you have that opportunity with the city owned utility. I guess I would like to wrap up by just asking what advice would you give to other communities? I mean what’s great about this campaign that you’re a part of, as you mentioned, is that it’s taking place all across the country. That you have these other cities that you can network with and talk to. What advice would you give to, maybe not to the city, but to the people of that city if they care about clean energy, if they care about health from energy related generation, where should they get started? How can you approach this issue?
|Yeah. Actually, even though, of course Cleveland is the 83rd city to make a commitment. Cincinnati, the 100th city in Ohio, we’re at about a 125 cities now that have made a commitment to 100% and then we also have some states and counties that have made a commitment as well. And I would just say it would be great to have people contact your mayor, your your city leadership in regards to having your city make a commitment to 100%. We have all the resources and support that you would need in order to to really get the ball rolling. Feel free to contact us at the national Ready for 100 office. We will certainly bring you on board, provide you with the support. We need to get as many cities on board as possible because we realize that this has got to be done city by city. It’s got to be a local effort in order for us to keep this movement going. And I would dare say that once we had the commitments, now let’s all start working together to make sure that it’s an equitable and just transition and that it’s a win win for the total community. So I would just urge people, if you are in a community that has not made a commitment yet, work with us, come on and get involved. We need everyone to realize the importance of saving our planet. We need you.
|I think that’s a great call out to others that there are people that are waiting to work with them. So Jocelyn, thank you so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it.
|Thank you so much.
|Thank you so much for listening to this episode of our Voices of 100% series where our host John Farrell was speaking with Jocelyn Travis, organizer with the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign, about her work to ensure that Cleveland’s transition to 100% renewable energy is equitable and just. You can hear about other ways organizers from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Portland, Oregon are prioritizing equitable transitions to local clean energy in their cities in earlier episodes of this podcast, including those produced as part of this Voices of 100% series, which covers how cities plan to meet their renewable energy ambitions, while you’re on our website, that’s ILSR Dot Org. You can find more than 80 past episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast with new episodes every two weeks. You can also sign up for one of our newsletters and connect with us on social media. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.
A Time to Celebrate
On September 20, 2018, Cleveland committed itself to 100% renewable energy. As the 83rd city to do so as part of the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 Campaign, Cleveland set a commitment date of 2050. In a long process driven by the community, Jocelyn Travis and her team got the city to add the 100% goal to an update of their Climate Action Plan.
While the city celebrates its decision for a clean, renewable future, it also celebrates the 50th anniversary of the infamous Cuyahoga river fire.
Photo credit: USEPA via Flickr
Throughout the 20th century, the Cuyahoga river caught fire a dozen times. Without regulations, Cleveland industries were free to dump flammable waste into the river. The last blaze, in 1969, finally caught the attention of the country. The fire sparked an environmental movement responsible for the Clean Water Act and the formation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Fifty years later, Travis says that being the “butt of jokes all over the country,” has motivated her and other Cleveland residents. In the decades since the fire, environmental improvements have addressed the underlying pollution. Now, the renewable campaign can take heart from the history. Travis describes rowing and recreation on the river, while the EPA recently declared Cuyahoga fish safe for eating.
Once the city’s celebration of the transformation ends, Travis says that the city will turn its attention to fulfilling its commitment to an equitable, clean energy future.
Hurdles Along the Way
At first glance, Cleveland seems an unlikely place for a successful Ready for 100 Campaign. The city is in the center of the Rust Belt and had few midwestern examples to follow. Additionally, Travis cites Cleveland’s long histories of pollution, segregation, and poverty as reasons why transitioning to 100% renewable energy might not have been the city’s top priority. However, these factors became fuel for Travis’ campaign and all the more reason to make the commitment – with an equity focus.
When Travis heard that the city was making a new Climate Action Plan, she saw this as the perfect opportunity. As a member of the advisory council, Travis was determined to make sure equity and inclusion were always part of the process.
The campaign had its challenges. While Mayor Frank Jackson is one of hundreds of “Climate Mayors” across the country, it was hard to get his office involved. Instead, Travis and her team connected with the City’s Office of Sustainability.
The powerful investor-owned utility, FirstEnergy, also challenged the commitment. The utility has a lot of power in the area, from political contributions to elected officials, or even the marquee name on the Cleveland Browns football stadium.
Photo credit: Erik Drost via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Lately, FirstEnergy has been in the news for its influence over the Ohio legislature’s House Bill 6. This bill, just signed by the Governor, will charge Ohio ratepayers to bail out two failing nuclear plants and coal power plants. Though the plants are important for their local economies, FirstEnergy customers will have to pay $150 million per year to keep them afloat – in a market with less expensive electricity from renewable energy. Utilities will no longer have to meet prior renewable portfolio standards, or support energy efficiency programs.
Despite popular disapproval of the bill, Travis describes how leaders are reluctant to “rock the boat” in regard to FirstEnergy’s interests. Having just invested a lot of political and financial capital in non-renewable energy, the shareholder-owned company may prove unhelpful in meeting the city’s renewable energy goal.
For more on the power of investor-owned electric utilities in energy markets and politics, listen to this podcast from ILSR’s Building Local Power series.
Cleveland’s clean energy organizers also faced an uphill struggle to inform residents about their utilities. Unlike other cities, Cleveland is served by two utilities. In addition to FirstEnergy, a portion of the city’s electricity customers receive power from a municipal, city-owned utility.
Travis and other organizers hope that giving Cleveland residents more knowledge of their energy system will be an important first step. Once residents have more knowledge about their energy, they have more power to hold their leaders and utilities accountable.
The city has an opportunity to purchase contracts that are going to be in the best interest of the community, but again, if we’re not demanding it, I dare say it’s not necessarily going to happen.
Equity at the Forefront
Throughout the conversation, Travis reiterates the importance of equity and justice. Considering her background in the environmental justice movement, she is well practiced in uniting a cause that is too often separated.
For Travis, equity – ensuring all Cleveland residents benefit from the renewable energy transition – comes from community engagement and working at the local level. First, the residents of Cleveland need to know how the Climate Action Plan affects them and why they should care.
When you’re dealing with so many other issues, just issues of survival, you’re not thinking about what it means to update a climate action plan. You’re thinking about how you’re going to live day to day, and how you’re going to eat day to day, and how you’re going to pay for utility bills.
Travis and Farrell discussed a potential connection. In Minneapolis, a program targeting lead in homes of low-income residents has begun providing assistance on energy conservation to lower residents’ energy bills.
Our concern is that it’s an equitable and just transition. That we’re really being inclusive, and we’re looking at what is going to be the best for the total community – not just some aspects of the community.
Clean, Renewable Opportunity
In the wake of the 100% renewable commitment and on the shore of a cleaner Cuyahoga river, Travis has many reasons for optimism. She sees renewable energy as the solution to many problems in the community, one being unemployment.
In spite of legislation that has impeded the generation of renewable energy within the state (Ohio has one-third of the wind capacity of neighbor Indiana), Ohio has the third most renewable energy jobs in the Midwest. As there is already public support for expanding renewables, Cleveland could fulfill its commitment using local renewables and keep the economic benefits of renewable energy in Ohio.
Data from UC Berkeley (2004) shows the job potential in renewables:
In addition to rolling out renewables, there are compounded economic benefits from keeping energy production under local control. ILSR published a report called “Advantage Local: Why Local Energy Ownership Matters,” which found the following results:
This data shows some of what Cleveland has to gain through a transition to clean energy.
Individual Commitments, Collective Movement
Cleveland individually made its commitment to 100% renewable energy, but it didn’t do so alone. There are now over 120 cities and several states committed to making the transition. Travis brings up the value of the Sierra Club’s national campaign and its network, which supports individual cities however it can.
As Travis says, “why reinvent the wheel?” All of these cities can learn from and support one another as they work toward their commitments. A large city like Cleveland can take some pointers from Atlanta, which Travis says has a strong implementation plan.
Once we have the commitments, now let’s start all working together to make sure that it’s an equitable and just transition, and that it’s a win-win for the total community. So, I would just urge people, if you are in a community that has not made a commitment yet, work with us. Come on and get involved. We need everyone to realize the importance of saving our planet. We need you.
Cleveland has undergone quite the transformation since 1969. Now, to fulfill its commitment in an equitable and just manner, it will have to do so again. Achieving a goal like this takes time and effort; the work of Travis and other environmental justice advocates is far from done. We hope that in 2050, the city will be celebrating once again.
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For concrete examples of how towns and 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 the 12th episode of our special Voices of series, and 82nd 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.
Featured Photo Credit: Chris Capell via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)