Benefits for All:

Engagement for a Just Energy Transition

By Rebecca O’Neill

The energy sector is undergoing massive transformation as it moves to low carbon energy sources and takes up new technologies. This transformation is necessary to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

With change of this scale, there is a need for a thoughtful approach to manage real and perceived trade-offs. And lawmakers, activists and citizens are coming together with a collective call for a ‘just transition’.

Access, equity and inclusion must be taken into account to make sure all people can afford to come on this journey and that communities share in the benefits of the energy shift. Businesses are now working out the best way to manage transition issues for themselves and their stakeholders.

quote quote_mobile

Lawmakers, activists and citizens are coming together with a collective call for a 'just transition'.

Furthering the discussion

SustainAbility has long-partnered with energy companies and strongly believes in the need for equitable solutions to energy challenges. A recent highlight of our work in this space was jointly planning and hosting Shell’s Powering Progress Together, San Francisco.

Powering Progress Together is a global series of events providing a forum for discussion and action on a range of energy challenges. The 2018 San Francisco conference featured a session dedicated to exploring what just transition means for individuals, advocacy groups, companies and others. Within this session, there was a broad recognition that under-resourced communities and communities of color disproportionately bear the burden of environmental injustice and climate change.

quote quote_mobile

There was a broad recognition that under-resourced communities and communities of color disproportionately bear the burden of environmental injustice and climate change.

From inform to co-design

The panel discussion frequently hovered on the point that those making decisions on energy infrastructure projects must do better than just inform. Communities are fatigued with surface-level engagement – they want to know how their perspectives will feed into decisions and project execution. Best practice requires companies and organizations to provide opportunities for communities to input along the way, to enable co-design of the products and services that meet the needs of all stakeholders.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) used a co-design approach for its Oakland Clean Energy Initiative. Chris Benjamin, Director Corporate Sustainability, a speaker on the panel, explained that the company is looking to replace an old jet fuel-powered power plant with distributed clean energy alternatives to maintain transmission reliability. The company engaged a wide range of local groups, such as the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers Local 1245, to shape the project, enabling the initiative to be approved by the state authority.

Coreina Chan, Principal at Rocky Mountain Institute’s Electricity Innovation Lab, pointed out that the regulatory landscape is supporting utilities to find other ways to make money and partner with communities to ensure there are low income energy solutions. She stressed that utilities and communities should collaborate on those business models that benefit both and put those solutions forward to regulators.

quote quote_mobile

Communities are fatigued with surface-level engagement – they want to know how their perspectives will feed into decisions and project execution.

Supporting rate-payers and workers

The solar industry is one area that is seeing positive attention in the just transition debate. Erica Mackie, Co-Founder and CEO of Grid Alternatives, called out her organization’s Energy for All program, which offers low-or-no-cost solar installation for families with low to moderate incomes as well as community solar and multi-family housing. They install solar panels using a “barn raising” model that gives volunteers and job trainees hands-on experience they can use to get jobs in the growing solar industry.

Panelists also discussed how Community Choice Aggregates (CCAs) are trending upwards. CCAs are local entities that aggregate the buying power of individual customers within a defined jurisdiction in order to secure alternative energy supply contracts. The main goals of CCAs have been to either lower costs for consumers or to allow consumers greater control of their energy mix.

Dawn Weisz, CEO of MCE, the first California CCA, highlighted that MCE’s Board of Directors is comprised of one elected Council member or Supervisor from each of their member communities. They are serious about providing both products and career opportunities to lower income communities. MCE has managed to double the amount of renewable energy used by their customers while keeping costs competitive. Their MCE Solar One 10.5MW solar project required that 50% of labor be locally sourced from Richmond, a lower income area.

Looking ahead

The activities above are just a few examples of the ways that different energy actors are engaging with their stakeholders to ensure a just transition. SustainAbility will continue to support the sector to undergo a transformation that helps all people thrive via our research and direct work with companies.

We are heartened to see the growing momentum in this space. Communities (and those government and organizations representing communities) not only deserve to be engaged in those decisions that impact them, they must be to create lasting solutions to the twin systemic challenges of climate change and inequality.

About the author

Rebecca O’Neill

@RebeccaOneill

Rebecca is a Senior Manager in SustainAbility’s California office. She leads the company’s energy sector work and is the Head of SustainAbility’s Member Network.