Despite Promising Policies, Advocates Are Still Fighting for Community Power — Episode 153 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 30 Mar 2022 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

ILSR’s Community Power Scorecard evaluates state policies based on how they help or hinder local clean energy action — but do the grades that states receive reflect the experience of advocates on the ground?

For this episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Crystal Huang and Al Weinrub. Huang is a co-founder and worker owner of the People Power Solar Cooperative and the national coordinator of the Energy Democracy Project. Weinrub is the coordinator of the Local Clean Energy Alliance and a collaborator with the Energy Democracy Project. Farrell, Huang, and Weinrub discuss energy democracy challenges in California, the gap between policy and implementation, and how ILSR’s Community Power Scorecard could better represent and mobilize local organizers.

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

Crystal Huang: It’s really important to look at where the forces that the decision making power is happening. So then we can actually move. So then the programs that all seem good, do not get co-opted by the false framework of a centralized energy model. So we can look at a decentralized energy model. And I’m talking about decentralized energy model, not about the technology, but really about how decision making power is being made. How are people being invited into at the table to make, to participate and make decisions together?
John Farrell: For nearly five years, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has produced a community power scorecard, an annual evaluation of each state’s policy environment with an eye toward enabling energy democracy and local action. But what happens when clean energy advocates in the states see their state’s grade and disagree? In today’s episode, we talk about whether our policy scorecard is enough and how we might better evaluate how the on-the-ground experience aligns with the policies on paper. I was joined in March 22 by Crystal Huang, co-founder and worker owner of People Power Solar Cooperative and the national coordinator of the Energy Democracy Project, and Al Weinrub, coordinator of the Local Clean Energy Alliance to discuss the shortcomings of and the possibilities to improve ILSR’s community power scorecard. 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, Crystal and Al, welcome to Local Energy Rules.
Al Weinrub: Thank you very much.
Crystal Huang: Thank you. It’s such a pleasure to be here.
John Farrell: As I said in the introduction, ILSR has been producing what we call our community power scorecard now for, I think about five years and the intention behind this scorecard was to approach evaluating state clean energy and climate policies from a little bit different angle, really as from one component of the idea of energy democracy, which is how much are we localizing decision making? How much are we giving power to cities, to counties, to communities to make their own decisions about clean energy? So that could be doing solar on rooftops. It can be community solar. It’s the authority for cities to decide which fuel sources they can use for building healing and cooling and to have the power to prohibit certain sources, kind of a whole range of things around the idea of local authority.

And in the, in this year’s scorecard – every year we always grade states from A through F and there are always a few states that get an A or a B, that score very highly on the scorecard. Of the four states that got an A in 2022, California was on the list near the top and both Crystal and Al reached out about the scorecard, having seen those grades and their reaction was, I don’t know that grades appropriate or the work that we’re trying to do, actually making sure that this community level policy is effective. And so I would love to hear more about what it is that they see as the shortcomings of the way that we’re doing these grades and see if we can have some conversation about what ways we can more effectively track and understand the progress of energy democracy at the different states.

So, Crystal, I would love to invite you to just talk about kind of, what was your reaction when you saw the scorecard giving such a good grade to California, where you have done so much work trying to advance energy democracy, and what’s the problem that you see there.

Crystal Huang: I mean, you normally, when you see you get a grade A, you say, oh yeah, I did it. We don’t have to do anything anymore. We could relax and go on a vacation. But in reality, what I’m feeling is that over the past year, at this point, or more than a year, energy democracy had been a really challenge, a struggle in California, especially with the net energy metering reform that’s happening with the California Public Utilities Commission. It is a direct assault from the utilities. The private utilities are pushing to gut rooftop solar, which in many ways, threatens energy security and resiliency for low income and BIPOC communities. But the way they’re playing it, they use a lot of misinformation to confuse all of us and even co-opt the concept of equity to pit solar customers to non-solar customers, and we call it a utility power grab.

This is an effort for private utilities to continue the current central centralized energy system that they get to rake in lots of profit in for, and try to prevent our transition into a decentralized energy system that is centered around justice, that we urgently need to get to. And the hole in California is not just in California. We all know that net energy metering fight is happening all across the country. Florida just a few days ago had passed a bill to gut net metering completely. So this fight is all connected and it’s hard to see it isolated state by state. And when we’re just fighting within California of looking at as an A, and especially coming from a B last year, going into an A it’s very disorienting for me, it makes me question whether the fight is going to actually have any legs. If someone, I mean, we deeply respect ILSR. So like if then people pit ILSR’s grade report against our campaign, what do we do? What does that mean? is a question that we have in mind.

Al Weinrub: I mean, I think I had the same reaction to the scorecard when I saw it. It was like this a sort of like a shock. What, how did California get an A? So now partly the thing is when we talk about A, getting A to E’s or whatnot, this is like when you’re in school and you get score, you know, you know, you get grades. So it’s like an absolute grade. I mean, A is like the top 20% or whatnot. But, you know, I think from our perspective, an A, in this case would represent about a 5% grade or maybe a 10% grade, not a 90 to 100% grade. In other words, there’s something about the way this is framing it, giving you the impression that in terms of where we wanna go that an A represents largely getting there, where an A actually means, okay, that there are some, but it’s a question of like the existence of policies is not the same as the actual implementation of policies and real effects on the ground.

I mean, just, just to say, okay, Florida gets a D for a law. I mean, Florida gets a D on the scorecard and they just passed a law which totally guts net metering. And then they say the inspiration for that law came from California and what’s happening in California, which gets an A, alright, so wait a minute, state that gets a D represents that their draconian measures, regressive, comes from a state that got an A there than somehow a, this, if that’s what’s going on. So, and I think Crystal sort of pointed to the fact that policies in name don’t represent actual political power on the ground. So the strength of utilities in the states is really an important criteria. Like to what extent does the utility sort of dominate a state energy policy and then what the institutions of the state actually represents.

Um, so in California, it’s true. We have many organizations that are doing advocacy around renewable energy and so on and so forth. And you can take about 10 of them. And then they get involved in some 50 proceedings at the state Public Utilities Commission, all of which basically follow this basic principle. They set up a proceeding to deal with an issue. They ask the utilities how they want that utility, that issue to be resolved. They go through a one year or a two year proceeding in which they invite everybody to and waste all their time. And then they decide on what it was that the utilities wanted to do in the first place. Now, you know, if that’s your measure of community power, California gets an E minus, right? Cause the state’s Public Utilities Commission is nothing but, uh, blah, blah, blah, you know, sounding board for what the utilities wanna do. So the notion that the community has any power in this situation, you know, is like, just seems like, it is like, you know, that that situation doesn’t represent an A basically what we’re saying. So it’s, the different policies are important policies, but how they got there, the extent to which they’re functional or the extent to which the community is really benefiting from them, like what metric is really being used at a community level? These are very challenging questions. And it’s not, it’s not about the fault of what the scorecard is doing in principle. That what the extent to which it actually really represents empowerment of communities around energy… I’ll stop there. But I mean, those are some of my thoughts.

John Farrell: Crystal, you just sent me an article this morning. I think it gets into this issue about the gap between policy and implementation. Could you talk more about that particular example? And I think you also have some other examples. I know that we’ve talked previously about the implementation of community choice energy, for example, for which California scores very highly on the scorecard. And that is maybe not living up to what people would envision it being about.
Crystal Huang: Yeah. So you’re referring to is an article called “What’s Missing in the California Solar Debate” by high country news, talking about energy justice advocates really pointing out the hole that is in making renewable energy accessible, which is community solar. And in many ways that’s the center of what the scorecard is. Rating is community having power localizing the decision making power. And one of the main things that’s being mentioned in the article is about the only community solar law that kind of works in California, specifically for disadvantaged communities called Community Solar Green Tariff. On paper, it’s a great program that specifically gives benefits to disadvantaged communities. Subscribers get 20% discount on the utility and the load serving entity basically procures these localized community solar projects. But then in practice, what ends up happening is it follows the process of a very typical for-profit developer-centric process that is very fast. And so when we’re talking about engineering, procurement, and construction, if you want community to have some sort of decision-making power, you cannot move in a way that for profit developer comes and look at the land and then cut a deal. And you don’t, there’s very little transparency in terms of where the financial benefit goes to and how the design of the system will look and what the relationship between the developer and the installer and the load serving entity will look like, and communities are completely shut out of that.

And what ended up happening in this article actually talks about a specific story in the El Dorado Park, which is an unincorporated community near Fresno, California. They’ve actually had this amazing community solar project idea that they mobilized the entire community, which by the way, 93% of the community are renters. And they’re all coming together to build a community project, community solar project using the specific policy and program that is designed for disadvantaged communities, just like the residents of El Dorado Park. And their proposal, or the bid got declined, rejected twice. And you can imagine in order to put together a bid, you have to put in a lot of upfront cost and the developers are able to do it because it’s a high volume and very fast moving industry. But if you really wanna move at a speed of a community and actually allow communities to work, you can’t compete with that speed. And despite the difficulty, this group were able to put together the bid twice to move forward. But because the program is being administered by the investor-owned utilities, in this case, PG&E and also in the process in which there’s not designed for the community, it’s not implemented centered around the community.

The policy and program on paper looks great. It falls flat. It ends up wasting a lot of resources for the community and end up creating more hurt than it is useful. And whatever program that comes out will likely continue to push community out and away from the table to make decisions. And they continue to just be pigeonholed as a consumer that get 20% electricity bills savings. The empowerment is completely taken away.

John Farrell: Al, I’m wondering if you could talk about another, I think, potent example of the gap between policy and implementation with community choice energy, cuz I know Local Clean Energy Alliance has worked a lot on the policy concept of community choice energy, and also on trying to implement it in a really community centered way. And I think I interviewed Jessica Tovar a couple of years ago for this podcast about East Bay Community Energy and some of the components on that – again on paper, the local business development plan, that seemed like they really were realizing this benefit. But what has been your experience with how that’s been implemented?
Al Weinrub: Well, Crystal’s example was a good one around community solar. And just to point out, you know, around the community solar piece, I mean, nobody in California really knows about community solar. I mean that particular program is a very much of a, like, I don’t know what you call it. It’s like a program that’s very small and it’s very bureaucratized and California gets a score that’s a tantamount to like Minnesota and Massachusetts and New York, where there’s actually, you know, a lot of stuff going on. In California, you don’t see it at all. So we would say that we don’t have any community solar law that really makes sense here.

Community choice is another place where you got now about 23 functioning community choice energy programs across the state due largely to, you know, advocacy on part of communities about setting up these programs and whatnot. And for people who don’t know, community choice is basically a kind of program where a state decides that a community or set of communities or some jurisdiction can take over the procurement part of energy and leave the actual delivery of energy up to the utility. You know, the distribution system and whatnot stays. There’s sort of a kind of hybrid system where, okay, now you have a local community agency actually deciding a procurement of electricity and providing energy services to the community. So I mean this on, you know, just in concept is a great opportunity to now really have put communities in the driver’s seat of shaping our own energy future. And so we have both a statewide organization called the California law for community energy that represents organizers and activists across the state, or basically, pushing for a notion of community choice that says, okay, the reason to have these community choice programs is really to basically promote local development of energy resources, like community power in that sense, you know, C community resources, whether it’s, you know, energy generation or storage and energy efficiency and all that stuff, you know, to create those specifically for the economic and environmental and social justice benefits of communities, right?

So that’s, that’s sort of the goal, that’s the notion and it seems like a great thing, but when you actually deal with it in reality, you get these agencies that are set up, they hire people from the utilities who are the technology experts that come in, they could care less about what the community thinks cause they actually know the way to run an energy system, and what do we know in the community. And what they do is they go and they replicate the utility model, almost hook line and sinker, you know, the whole centralized model, based on procurement, electricity and so on and so forth. Now it’s sort of understandable, but it’s understandable from the point of view that the utilities, you know, have been at war with community choice and concept ever since, and the state’s public utilities commission, you know, are sort of the attack dog for the utilities.

So the fact that you have a community choice program and name, even that you have 23 community choice agencies, does not really signify significant motion toward a decentralized energy model and more democratic control of energy. In fact, here’s an example in the central coast of CA, which is a very large community choice district. So the folks in the community really wanted to push very strongly for better workforce standards for work that’s being done around energy development and whatnot. And so they went to the community advisory committee, which is in many cases, these agencies do have advisory committees and they pushed in this direction. And so what did the staff of the agency do? They put forward our proposals to basically gut and neutralize the community advocacy apparatus, because who is the community to suggest that we should have better workforce standards?

You know, so it’s just an example of how, how the agencies don’t function at all in a way that respects and brings in a partnership with communities, but actually it’s hostile to the community. Another example of this was, PG&E, which the largest utility in the state, has all this excess now nuclear power. So what was it gonna do with this excess nuclear power? Let’s push it down onto community choice programs. And you get community choice programs talking about, they can take this, this nuclear power and add it to their mix. I mean, these are community choice programs that are to do renewable, reliable energy. And they’re talking about, you know, taking nuclear power from PG&E as part of their energy mix. It’s just totally outrageous.

And we actually did pretty well in winning that battle. We started in the East Bay and a couple other places and we got 75% of the community choice program that say, no, we’re not gonna take that stuff. But even that ,we even think about it is crazy. So just an example, you know, just examples of how the measure in this particular scorecard is that if you have a law that allows for community choice, you get a seven, but what does that seven really mean in California? Which is quote, “the most advanced community choice,” is really, it’s a big fight. And then you get Illinois getting a seven where community choice in Illinois has been a vehicle for actually increased fossil fuel production in the state. I mean, what does that mean? And so on and so forth. So I guess there’s just a sense to which we need to have a standard of community that somehow captures and represents the actual political fights and the political difficulties that are going on in the state. I talked for too long. I’m sorry about that.

John Farrell: I think that context about the nature of the implementation versus the policy is really important. I really appreciate that example of Illinois too, in terms of, if we were thinking about how those policies have been implemented, like you said, there’s always this difference between what’s on paper and what’s happening. And there is a very, I think, strong bias in this scorecard to just say, if you have this policy, we check the box, you get a certain number of points. And the disadvantage in that, like you said, that then the experience of people on the ground doesn’t match what the scorecard says, nor does it really serve. You know, if we’re giving A’s to states where there’s a lot of work yet to be done, as Crystal said, are people ready to take vacation when there’s actually a lot of work to be done?
Al Weinrub: And not to minimize the difficulty, I mean, there’s a lot of people who are coming up with scorecards of various kinds these days, cause in the absence of being able to really achieve anything, what you do is create a scorecard. I mean, I’m not blaming anybody about this, but I’m just saying a score, you know, like whatever, what does a scorecard represent? And then how can it actually misrepresent reality on the ground? It’s a very, very difficult struggle we have in the United States around this and largely due to the power of the utilities, of the investor-owned utilities and, and stuff like that. And I know we’re, we’re all interested in trying to do that.

I just thought of another example, you know, around stuff like in California, where people are getting burned out of their houses, having their power shut off. The question of microgrids is a big issue, right? Being able to set out community based microgrids. So even the state legislature passed a law that said, we need to commercialize microgrids in the same way solar has been sort of commercialized. And so the California of Public Utilities Commission took that law, and that was really about communities being able to really establish microgrids, to give them agency to do that. California Public Utilities Commission took that, they asked the utilities what they wanted to do. The utilities said we wanna set our fossil fuel generation at utilities substation so that when we shut down, when we basically, we have these things in California, they called power shutoffs that the utilities do, they shut off power cuz they don’t wanna start a wildfire. So then when they do that, they can keep a distribution system up and running by having a fossil fuel generator.

I mean, it’s like just craziness, you know, to think that we can’t make any headway around trying to get really a community based micro-grids built in California when there’s such a crying need for it. You know? And how do you represent that in a scorecard? It’s, it’s really difficult. So.

Crystal Huang: And I understand the importance of the scorecard in many ways is to provide the visibility in which the political landscape of what’s going on because things are so complicated, we’re trying to actually move together and like create a movement to change the system. We have to be able to understand what we’re looking at and have a common shared commonality of the view and then figure out how to strategically intervene and do the right thing. And especially now we’re talking about something as complicated as our energy system and there’s also energy policy. I understand the importance of the scorecard. And I think what we’ve discussed so far in many ways really points to the visibility. Sometimes we really need to look at beyond just policy.

And because like, even when we have, like I mentioned earlier with the community solar law in California, every moment you have a community solar law, which by the way, in New Mexico, they just passed a community solar law and what is going to happen as they always do in every single place in this country is that developers are gonna swoop in and walk away with the money in their pocket. And communities are left with just the crumbs: bill savings, and that’s the best they can get. So if we really talk about energy democracy, we really talk about localizing the decision making power. We’re really talking about the forces that is happening. This is not just about investor utilities versus public municipal utility. This is more not just about community solar law versus rooftop solar law. This is not just about like what are the programs and policy that needs to happen, but really recognizing the forces that’s going on.

And Al’s really great storytelling and, and description of what’s happening and community choice energy program is a perfect example. Like when you look at East Bay Community Energy is such an amazing, inspiring example when it started with a local development business plan. But if the force is still in this ideology and framework of a centralized energy model, either we’re talking about a community choice energy program or community solar project, they’re going to just be acting exactly the same thing that they say they’re better at than the investor utility. They’re just gonna treat it as oh some way to get cheaper or decarbonize clean energy, but they’re just as good as the investor utility that’s burning the state down and not actually allowing communities to have a choice and build local economy. And so I think it’s important from like my summary of our conversation so far is really important to look at where are the forces that the decision making power is happening. So then we can actually move. So then the programs that all seem good don’t get co-opted by the false framework of a centralized energy model. So we can look at a decentralized energy model. And I’m talking about decentralized energy model, not about the technology, but really about how decision making power is being made. How are people being invited into at the table to make, to participate and make decisions together?

John Farrell: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we discuss suggestions for evaluating state policy, we invite the reader into the work about the role of institutional racism and undercutting the implementation of policy, and the reason that urgency is a dangerous sentiment in advancing energy democracy. You’re listening to a Local Energy Rules podcast with Crystal Huang, co-founder and worker owner of People Power Solar Cooperative, and the national coordinator of the Energy Democracy Project, and Al Weinrub, coordinator of the Local Clean Energy Alliance, about the opportunities to improve ILSR’s community power scorecard.

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John Farrell: I’m really interested in hearing your thoughts. And I, I obviously don’t think that this is your problem to solve. Just cuz you have this critique doesn’t mean that I I’m gonna say, okay, Crystal and Al, you tell me how to do the scorecard, right? I think that’s my responsibility, but I’m kind of curious when you think about how you would get at that question of how are we tracking whether or not the decision making is decentralized. Obviously the policy itself is not accomplishing that right? Having community choice energy or not having community choice energy opens a pathway. And that’s, that’s the way I sometimes think about this, is are we opening the pathway for the things to happen that we want to happen? Same with community solar, like in Minnesota, we’ve got over 800 megawats of community solar projects that have been developed and nearly every single one is the same model of like a private developer, customers sign up for subscription on their energy bill. And it’s, you know, maybe 10% or 20% off their bill. It’s exciting in the sense that it’s not utility developed, right? It is an alternative to that, but it is following largely the same model and the kinds of participation in access to that are restricted in the same way that things have been restricted for a long time. You know, they skew white, they skew wealthy, they skew toward, in case of Minnesota, commercial customers. Do you think that there’s an approach, for example, to this where we would more put more scrutiny on the actual policy? Like are there carve outs or intentionality around like marginalized communities, low income communities, that kind of thing, or is this really about thinking about a different component to the scorecard where we talk about implementation?

And maybe it’s not even a scoring thing. It’s something where we go out and have some conversations with folks that work in those states. And we say, okay, if we look at the policy environment, it’s an A, but we’re gonna talk to you today about what does it actually feel like when you’re doing this work? Like, what does that look like? So I don’t know. I’m gonna leave it there. I’m gonna stop talking cuz I’m just interested in hearing your feedback about how do you think we capture that in this project in a way that doesn’t leave people feeling like either this doesn’t speak to us or, we’re really disappointed that somebody who talks about being about energy democracy is in fact giving the public impression that we’ve already accomplished it.

Al Weinrub: Crystal, do you have some thoughts about it?
Crystal Huang: Yeah. So I’m gonna go a little spiritual here because we’re talking about making change and really looking at the word hope and really recognizing that. So the, the way I define and I see like the, what’s the difference between optimistic and being hopeful. I think optimism comes with, you’re looking at the facts and data and you feel optimistic about what’s going to happen. Whereas hope is despite the fact that all the data is not pointing towards the right direction, you still believe that there’s going to be some sort of a positive. So you can a cynical person, but you can, you are hopeful. And I definitely put myself in that camp. And when I talk, when we talk about hope, I think it’s important for people to understand that hope is not a static word. Hope is not just something that you can look at and be good. And I’m hopeful about the future, so now I’m just gonna go watch TV and not do anything. Hope is a verb. Hope is about how am I actually showing up and be hope.

And I think when we’re talking about a scorecard and creating a change, it’s all about how can we actually create a condition in which people can show up and participate and build power. So how can a tool like a scorecard create a condition in and engagement that people are like, okay, now I have the information I need. So I’m going to participate and be part of it. I think the danger of scorecards in general is that it creates a bystander relationship of my relationship with whatever I’m assessing. I’m just here watching and I feel good or bad, but that’s just their thing. And I judge you and I walk away, how can we actually create an environment in which the scorecard can allow people to lean in and participate more?

And I I’ve seen scorecards done like that very rarely, but like Emerald City Collaborative’s energy democracy scorecard is designed in a way with facilitation guide that community, any community members can come together and start to look at the different pillars of energy democracy, and then do assessments. And an assessment is not just, oh, is it good or bad? Oh no, it sucks. Cuz it always sucks. We live in a, our condition today right now is not good. So how can I actually create a condition where people look at the scorecard, just feel depressed and go home and cry, but really feel like, okay, well this is a situation and here are the strategic points of intervention that I can start to participate in with the community that I feel pulled in and actually create that tool to allow people to participate even more is, is how I, I look at a potential for scorecard that could really, it’s all about power building. How can we actually allow more people to lean in and participate and be the hope that we are hoping for.

John Farrell: That’s great. All right. So we’ve talked about kind of creating more hope, our hopefulness, inviting people to like be part of this solution as, and I think you gave that great example of the Emerald City Collaborative energy democracy scorecard, that it has a facilitation guide. So it’s not just a static thing that you look at and you say, okay, this is where things are today. It’s saying, okay, how can I actually impact where things go in the world?

One of the things I wanted to ask about in relation to that actually is, and this just comes of some of my own personal education in the past few years about the results of historical discrimination. So we talk about things like redlining from time to time, we talk about things like Jim Crow laws and whatever. And there is, I think this impression certainly given when I was in school, that like we solved those problems and that problems that we have today about discrimination don’t have as much of a basis in history or there’s no reason that we have to address them. And I guess one of the things I’m curious about is when we think about looking at policy implementation, one of the things that we’re also trying to overcome is not just that barrier in terms of like who has the power and the – I can’t remember how you described it earlier, Crystal. I think I really liked the way that you said it basically about this idea of how the power structure in the system still works. I guess I’m kind of curious how we think about all of the historical harms that have sort of accumulated, especially in communities of color and how policy has to be designed to expressly address that if it’s gonna be successful. And that if it isn’t, if it’s just sort of generic and like this applies to everybody that it’s likely to fall short.

Al Weinrub: Well, I have some thoughts about this topic, the impact of race in this country, which is probably one of the strongest dynamics. I mean, clearly there’s, there’s always been a fight between working people, the people who are the owners of stuff, you know, this class kind of struggle that’s been going on in this country has been a down and struggle. But within the U.S., I mean, racism has had a specific very, very powerful, effect and it has infused every aspect of life. So we talk about red lining and green lining and all of these things where, you know, there are whole structures set out to discriminate against people on the basis of race and income. And that’s certainly true in the energy sphere, especially in terms of fossil fuel energy. It’s given rise to the whole environmental justice movement because, the negative impacts, the harms have been so distinctly focused on communities of color and in the energy sphere, even in the renewable energy sphere, there’s a continuing concern because I mean, the way I would capture this to say that the centralized energy model is basically that extension of racial discrimination into the renewable energy sphere, right? It is the institutionalized forms of discrimination that take place. And most immediately obvious is that the, the impact of the centralized energy model are to accentuate the harms of climate change.

So for example, in California, where you have this whole centralized energy model and the abuse of it, you know, leading to wildfires and whatnot, who is impacted by the wildfires, also low income people and people of color who get burned down, whose rates get thrown up and whatnot in every, every impacted manifestation of the centralized energy model, including the fact that climate change. I mean, if you really wanna address climate change, then building long power lines, you know, that are affected and attacked by the elements, by floods and wind and fires. And I mean, you would really want to have resources close to home. The shutting off of power to millions of people really hurts low income people, the hardest and the worst.

So I mean every aspect of the impact, from rising temps to fires, to deaths and whatnot impacts low income people and people of color most strongly. And that is an institutionalized form of racism that we have with a centralized energy model. So, this is just the way of saying that, that this whole racialized impact any every economic sphere is certainly true within the energy system. And so people who talk about addressing climate change without addressing the racialized impacts of climate and energy are essentially just saying, well, the main dynamic that’s shaping power in America, we’re gonna ignore that in order to try to save the planet that, that doesn’t work, that that doesn’t really work.

So the whole notion of a decent energy model is its ability to empower communities at the local level, and to be able to address racialized forms of discrimination by empowering, not just communities in general, but by empowering those communities who have been excluded from power. I think what I’m just trying to say is that the racial dynamic is a predominant dynamic within energy. And so when we are talking about any form of community benefits, we have to be talking about the racialized impacts, not just the impacts in general. So it has to do with how any policy or whatnot.

So let’s say take net metering just as an example like net metering is a, is a policy framework that in terms of its design was really meant to utilize investment in capital from our affluent family. So the direct impact of having solar on rooftops has now been shared equally across all populations, but has been largely focused and, and more affluent household. We’re talking about, you know, residential rooftop, solar, and that’s a real problem. And it’s an example of how policies that are implemented without an eye to racial discrimination end up just increasing racial discrimination. And that’s a problem. So Shalanda Baker and her book, Revolutionary Power really talks a lot about dynamic and people should be encouraged to read it. It’s about the centrality of race in terms of trying to have policies that are really effective and really work. And so thinking about race as a secondary question is to make a big mistake.

And we have actually seen that in this country where, you know, to address climate change, we’ve basically failed, right? I mean, we have not really moved to a renewable energy structure and that’s because a majority of the folks in this country, largely low income and people of color, don’t see this as in a really like that policy is a key issue for them. And so they haven’t joined a white movement to decarbonize because what’s in it for them? And so to that extent, this question to race is the key question, you know, social and economic, we’ll put it as an energy justice, is key solving the climate problem. It’s key to any really sustainable energy policy that measure. So one way that we could capture this is like within, within the scorecard, for example, where is the measure of equity as an example, right? There is no specific measure equity and some of the, and some of the scoring, there is a notion about some equity within some of the categories, but like equity should really be a primary way of measuring community empowerment, because if it doesn’t empower low income communities and communities of color, well, then it’s not really community of empowerment in any real sense.

John Farrell: Thanks Al. Crystal, I don’t know if you have more that you wanted to add, but I have one other question for both of you about kind of another sort of tension that we have in the approach to how we do and deploy renewable energy.
Crystal Huang: Yeah. Well, I think a brief thing I do wanna add is, I mean, I really appreciate the energy democracy framework that the work ILSR is focusing on in terms of like climate solution, because your audience understand that this is about democracy. This is not about decarbonization. And when your audience understands that, then we don’t have to waste our time debating whether this is an earth science problem or a social science problem. I think I would be pretty confident to believe that a lot of your audience probably understand that the climate disaster is not about whether you’re recycling in the kitchen or not. It’s not about your individual decision. It is about a global imbalance that is rooted in the lack of democracy. It’s allowing some big corporations or some, a big institution to come into somebody’s land and sort drilling for resources and take it for profit. It is rooted in our economic system. It’s rooted in how we live every single day.

So to separate the systemic racism from how we treat, how we wanna redesign our energy system is missing the point of what democracy really looks like. I’m just affirming that. I’m pretty sure your audience already understand all of this. And the fact that we, any thought of trying to separate them is falling into the current economic framework and the culture in which we should separate everything and having conversations that connect all of these like we are having here is the answer to advancing energy democracy, to truly understand the background, the systemic racism, and how history continues to repeat its until we come together and reach that common understanding.

John Farrell: I just wanted to offer Al had a book mentioned there, Shalanda Baker’s book, Revolutionary Power. And I would offer one thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is I’ve read the Color of Money by Mehrsa Baradaran. And she talks about the sort of intentional affirmative action that our federal government took in the thirties and forties under the New Deal to help white folks and only white folks buy homes, basically propped up an entire system of ownership to build wealth for white households and black folks and other communities of color were completely excluded from that. And so it’s you can’t in my mind then because that, and, and she goes onto detail how we really haven’t ever solve that, frankly. There’s, in fact, there is evidence today about still harder as a person of color to get a mortgage than it is as a white person, everything else being equal.

And I think about that when you come back to what Al was saying about net metering, for example, right? That the, the notion of the policy is that private capital can do something in the energy system for their own benefit. And it’s a beautiful idea. I love the sort of like market, you know, competition concept there. Like it’s not just about the monopoly utility, but it’s also very impractical and very inequitable. If that’s all there is knowing that the system on which it’s built has already been inequitable. So another book recommendation for folks, if in terms of like understanding this been very illuminating for me.

I know we don’t have much time left. We’ve literally only got five minutes before I have another podcast, but I wanna ask about this tension, I think that I see sometimes, and it’s not necessarily tied to the scorecard, but I think it’s sort of incorporated in this idea of implementation and something that I think you said earlier, Crystal, kind of how we involve communities at the pace of decision making, you know, the climate crisis is really urgent. I think one of the successes of the climate and energy movement in the past few years has been to help people understand that we really have some serious deadlines here that we have to meet that maybe the electricity system needs to be a hundred percent renewable by 2030, or maybe even sooner. And so I think I see, I see increasingly orientation around the idea that we are in a hurry from a climate standpoint to decarbonize. And I wonder how that works with the idea of, and I just wanna say this for myself. I don’t see it as incompatible with how we have conversations about involving communities. But I also feel like there’s a, there’s a potential for that or sense of urgency to allow our bias toward like centralized decision making to continue.

Crystal Huang: Yeah, definitely. I’ll jump in and say that, you know, for centuries, indigenous people have been saying that the way of extraction is wrong. Indigenous communities have been trying to even just continue their way of living because they know how to live in harmony with nature, live in balance with nature. And systemically our institution, our government try to remove that. And so we’re facing today is not a whoa, whoa we’re of this come from some alien just came in or some meteorite is coming in. This is the result of something that the indigenous people have been warning for centuries. They might not have seen it exactly as we are saying it today, but this is the result of that imbalance that the indigenous community have been saying that we need to maintain a balance.

So when we’re talking about urgency, it was already the urgency of needing to produce agricultural based society and removing indigenous people from the land and do whatever it is. The colonizers need that urgency mindset that divides people and separate people from the relationship with the land with the world is the problem that is causing us to be in the climate disaster. So if we continue to move from fear from urgency, we are continuing to move in the exact same mental framework that got us to where we are today. And I’m talking about mental framework. We’re still in some way in the middle of a pandemic. And, and on top of is systemic racism, climate crisis. All these are creating a lot of stress and we’re also seeing on the news the way people react, unfortunately, all these crises that is continuing to bring bear down in our communities instead of trying to move in a way that is rooted in community and love. We are seeing so many people who are moving in one that’s rooted in fear and zero sum gain. I’m gonna shut my door. I’m gonna stop talking to people. I’m going to divide up. I’m going to protect my thing as opposed to, how can we lean in and build. And until we can figure out how to heal that trauma and move that fear away and start to lean in is the only way we can get out of this. I think if we keep thinking that this is an urgent thing and I don’t have time to talk, I have to protect my property. I have to protect my thing and my legacy for my children and forgetting that all of us as human species, we need to move together. We’re never going to get out of suicide mission that we’re on right now.

John Farrell: I really appreciate what you said there. I love that idea about the fact that that sense of urgency is merely continuing the problem that we’ve gotten ourself in. And that we really need to think about a different way of doing things in order to be successful at solving the problem like to get ourselves out of that rut. And it touches on a lot of different approaches to this, you know, the zero sum, also a key principle, I think in stuff, helping us for being successful with a lot of the things that we’re trying to do around community based and democratic decision making. I wish I had more time to talk to you both about this. I can say that I have found this really helpful in thinking about how we’re gonna iterate our scorecard the next time around and think about how can be in service of helping people engage with rather than be bystanders, as well as thinking about this question of implementation. So more conversations to come, maybe even more podcasts, but Al and Crystal, thanks so much for taking the time today.
Crystal Huang: Thank you for engaging.
Al Weinrub: We really appreciate the work that you and other for folks at ILSR have been doing in this space for many years. A lot of people depend on it and it’s really valuable.
Crystal Huang: Truly.
John Farrell: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules, where we discussed the Institute’s community power scorecard with Al Weinrub, coordinator of the Local Clean Energy Alliance and Crystal Huang, co-founder and worker owner of People Power Solar Cooperative, and the national coordinator of the Energy Democracy Project. On the show page, look for links to ILSR’s scorecard, the energy democracy scorecard from the Emerald Cities Collaborative and the High Country news article we discussed on the shortcomings of California’s community solar program. We’ll also have links to the California Alliance for Community Energy, to the two books we mentioned: Shalanda Baker’s Revolutionary Power and the Color of Money by Mehrsa Baradaran. Local Energy Rules is produced by myself and Maria McCoy with editing provided by audio engineer Drew Birschbach. 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.


Energy Democracy Work is Far From Done

ILSR released its 2022 Community Power Scorecard in February. Huang and Weinrub, both energy democracy organizers in California, were disoriented by California’s high rank on the scorecard. Huang and other organizers spent much of last year countering a “utility power grab” in California. Private utilities are trying to gut rooftop solar, says Huang, through misinformation and by co-opting the concept of equity.

When you see you get a grade A, you say, oh yeah, I did it… but in reality, what I’m feeling is that over the past year, energy democracy has been a challenge, a struggle in California

— Crystal Huang

Weinrub shares the same feelings. Though California checks off many of the policy components evaluated in the scorecard, he asks: how much is the community benefiting from these policies?

The existence of policies is not the same as the actual implementation of policies and real effects on the ground.

— Al Weinrub

California’s Policies Look Good on Paper

Prior to their discussion, Huang sent Farrell “What’s missing in california’s solar debate” from High Country News. The article’s argument is that the current debate on net energy metering and fairness ignores the most viable solution to solar accessibility: community solar.

California has a program called Community Solar Green Tariff (which earns the state four points in ILSR’s scorecard). On paper, says Huang, it is a great program. Residential customers can subscribe to a solar garden for a 20 percent discount on their electricity bill. In practice, however, the program precludes community input and few people benefit from it.

If the force is still in this ideology and framework of a centralized energy model, either we’re talking about a community choice energy program or community solar project… they’re just as good as the investor utility that’s burning the state down and not actually allowing communities to have a choice and build the local economy.

— Crystal Huang

Weinrub and the California Alliance for Community Energy advocate for a community choice energy model that promotes local resource development and community participation. Right now, says Weinrub, California’s community choice entities are just replicating the utility model. The implementation of community choice energy in Illinois has even advanced the construction of fossil fuel generation, he adds.

The fact that you have a community choice program in name… does not really signify significant motion toward a decentralized energy model and more democratic control of energy.

— Al Weinrub

In ILSR’s 2022 Community Power Scorecard, 10 states (including California and Illinois) earn points for their community choice energy enabling policy.

How Could ILSR Improve the Community Power Scorecard?

Huang suggests that ILSR’s scorecard could do more to encourage participation. She says that reading a state’s score creates a bystander relationship with the policy environment. Huang provides an example of a scorecard that encourages readers to take action: Emerald Cities Collaborative’s Energy Democracy Scorecard.

How can we actually create an environment in which the scorecard can allow people to lean in and participate more?

— Crystal Huang

The centralized energy model has especially harmed low-income communities and communities of color, says Weinrub. In evaluating state policies for the scorecard, ILSR should do more to measure whether policies address previous harms and include those who have been excluded from forms of power.

Equity should really be a primary way of measuring community empowerment, because if it doesn’t empower low-income communities and communities of color, well, then it’s not really community empowerment in any real sense.

— Al Weinrub

Episode Notes

See these resources for more behind the story:

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 153rd episode 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 ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update.

Featured Photo Credit: Fabrice Florin via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Maria McCoy

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