(From October 2020)
Pacific Power is one of the United States’ largest power utilities, serving customers in Southern Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. Like a great wave of utilities across the globe, Pacific Power is steadily increasing the amount of its power it receives from renewable sources. Pacific Power is also a North American leader in its partnerships with local businesses, supporting them in increasing their own renewable energy share. These partnerships in turn help fund community solar projects. Check out Pacific Power’s Blue Sky Program for more info on this awesome initiative.
In October 2020 I decide to develop a few ideas for the Blue Sky program, and others like it, that are already doing fantastic work to get local businesses on board with clean energy, as well as bringing solar and wind power to communities across the U.S. What I thought was missing from programs such as the Blue Sky, are targeted, equity driven initiatives to bring more of the share of clean energy benefits to disadvantaged populations– who are often the most affected by climate change and fossil fuels in the first place. I need to note before going on here that above all else, I do not pretend to be any kind of expert in social justice and climate change, or a just energy transition. I still have much, much to learn and understand about racial and social injustice and the deeply rooted systemic issues our society is steeped in. It is with every sincerity I say I can only take- knowing I may make mistakes and deeply eager to correct them- what I have learned so far, and apply it to my knowledge of the clean energy transition. I can also pledge, as I have done, to incorporate social justice into every element of my climate change work, and continue to learn, unlearn, and listen. It is not one of us fighting the climate fight, or one group of us. Nor should we think it enough for disadvantaged and BIPOC communities to only have a voice at the table- it is critical we recognize these communities as important leaders in our clean energy transition, and in our fight against climate change.
Gregg Small from WA-based Climate Solutions recently stated eloquently, “out of sickness and death, economic disruption, and social isolation has emerged a new focus on what is important in our lives, visibility into racial injustice in American society, and a new willingness to pursue systemic change to address the challenges we face- including the climate crisis”. The Brookings Institute estimates that the bottom fifth of US counties ranked by economic vitality will experience the largest damages from climate change, facing losses equal to nearly 7 percent of GDP after 2050, if no policy action is taken today. Let’s hope that the next U.S. President will be one with a sound and actionable climate plan- huge progress would be made as Joe Biden plans to allocate 40% of benefits from his climate plan to front-line communities.
Even with a positive election outcome, the U.S. will still have a long road ahead in ensuring the economic and health benefits of our clean energy transition reach those most in need- vulnerable and highly impacted populations. Solar and storage projects are more competitive than extending the grid in rural communities, and are growing in number thanks to initiatives from companies like Pacific Power, government grants and innovative financing solutions. And yet, as Cisco DeVries, CEO of demand-response startup OhmConnect says,
“There is still not nearly enough attention paid to lower-income [and] moderate-income folks and renters related to the energy transition. When we talk energy transition, most people’s minds shift right away to solar on household roofs and an EV in the garage.”
Many disadvantaged families across the US are not home-owners but are renters, making rooftop solar and EV access even more difficult. Even further compounding on this issue, these demographics are disproportionately affected by high concentrations of diesel pollution, found in high traffic corridors, seaports and bus depots.
Leading power companies like Pacific Power who are already investing in clean energy should ensure their impressive 2020 Energy Vision targets disadvantaged communities. For example, if Pacific Power’s 2020 Energy Vision and Blue Sky program are expected to create hundreds of construction jobs and add millions in tax revenue to rural economies- the company has a powerful opportunity to ensure these construction jobs and the projects themselves target disadvantaged demographics. I was fortunate to volunteer with a fantastic renewable energy startup in Canada called Iron and Earth, who targets its hiring within First Nations communities in Rural Alberta.
I propose three ideas for Pacific Power’s Blue Sky program that will push it further in supporting climate justice in the U.S.
1. The Blue Sky program could have a targeted initiative to ensure two outcomes:
A) A certain percentage of its community projects are in disadvantaged and BIPOC communities.
- Projects could target both schools and public buildings but also Multi Unit Dwellings. Existing and new MUDs constructed to support affordable housing, have high potential as sites for solar + storage and also passenger EVSE (see #2 below) that targets a lower-income demographic.
- There are many other innovative ideas Blue Sky can consider here, by like one I recently read about from Southern California Edison, who is equipping medically qualified, low-income customers in high-fire-risk areas with small batteries sized to power the customer’s medical devices. The batteries also come with solar panels to charge from.
B) Targeted equity-driven hire policy:
- The Blue Sky program could ensure a certain percentage of contractors for your community projects are people of color, Indigenous, women, recent graduates from low-income families, and other disadvantaged groups. This condition would also provide a backstop to the equity challenge that many of these families cannot afford to install rooftop solar, or purchase an EV themselves.
- I also recommend a partnership between Blue Sky and groups like the NAACP’s west coast chapters, that already have solar initiatives in place. Nonprofit GRID Alternatives also has great initiative called SolarCorps Fellowships. This program has enabled Native Americans from reservations across the US to spend a year installing solar.
- One of their recent graduates, Wyatt Atkinson, said: “When I found out about GRID’s SolarCorps, it was like the universe came into alignment and placed a stepping stone to my dream right in front of me: the chance for a meaningful job after college that would give me the skills I would need to help make my reservation energy independent”. Blue Sky would benefit greatly from having a story like Wyatt’s on your website, showing your commitment to a just transition.
2. Incorporating electric transportation to the Blue Sky Program.
- I am so inspired by the community projects featured on the Blue Sky website. Companies like Pacific Power are leading the way for rural communities to join the energy transition through solar power, and ensuring these projects are not just about low lease cost, but about generating value in the form of economic and health outcomes.
- Additionally, including clean transportation projects in the Blue Sky program could be of great value to these communities. Pacific Power already offers grants for EV charging infrastructure in WA, OR and CA-it could link this funding up with the Blue Sky program community projects. For instance, funds from the Blue Sky could go towards procuring electric school buses for the community, in tandem with applying for Pacific Power’s EV grants.
3. Expanding educational opportunities in disadvantaged communities.
- Blue Sky’s website says, “these community projects also provide educational opportunities for community members to learn about the benefits of renewable energy.” This is so important, and I hope to hear more on how Blue Sky supports and facilitates this learning.
- Particularly in disadvantaged communities, many adults are not even aware of how dangerous air pollution from diesel can be, and yet their family’s access to clean transportation may be a life or death matter. Blue Sky may be doing this already, but it could support local community centers or schools in organizing an educational town-hall evening. Or, a pub night at a brewery who is a Blue Sky customer, that could also serve as a fundraiser to apply for your EV grant and procure a few electric school buses for the community!
- The Blue Sky program could partner with fantastic and little known groups like EVHybridNoire, who “educate underserved and diverse communities about the benefits of EV ownership…and advocate for increasing access to the public charging infrastructure to more diverse communities.”
The above three practical ideas would allow Blue Sky to elevate its promotion of the program to the following: “customers can not only lower their bill each month but contribute to clean energy solutions- and a just and equitable energy transition”.