As we transition to a cleaner, sustainable and resilient energy system, equity and environmental justice principles must be at the forefront of our decision-making. In California, the growing number of locally controlled, nonprofit energy providers, known as community choice aggregators (CCAs), can play a key role. Through organizational design, meaningful outreach and engagement, and community investment, CCAs can prioritize community needs and promote equity in disadvantaged and low-income communities of color, as well as tribal and rural communities.
Equity can be embedded in CCA governance
By structure, the CCA model brings energy decision-making to the local level. Every decision, from buying energy to investment plans, is made through the lens of local community needs. While there are different operational models for forming a CCA, all are overseen by local governments. This could be through a joint powers authority with representatives from multiple jurisdictions, as a fund within an individual municipality, or managed by a private company on behalf of local governments. CCAs are governed by locally elected public officials who are accountable to their communities. As a result, CCAs should represent the needs of those communities more closely than regional investor-owned utilities.
In addition, CCAs establish their goals and priorities for the communities they serve through legally binding documents, such as a joint powers agreement, which can be updated and amended. These documents provide an opportunity to embed and center equity and specific community needs into the fabric of the power provider. For example, San Diego Community Power’s Joint Powers Agreement explicitly states:
“Pursue purposeful and focused investment in communities of concern, prioritization of local renewable power, workforce development, and policies and programs centered on economic, environmental, and social equity.”
Similar language is included in the formation documents of most California CCAs, along with provisions such as prioritizing personal and community ownership of renewable resources for low-income consumers, encouraging local workforce development through training and project labor agreements, and promoting supplier and workforce diversity.
CCAs can ensure equitable access and engagement
Local decision-making means greater opportunities for local stakeholder and individual engagement. For example, CCA board meetings are public and held in the communities served, as opposed to private corporation meetings or state regulatory venues that may be harder to access. While such accessibility is helpful, some additional steps CCAs can take to increase participation, especially from communities that have been historically excluded from public processes, include:
- Rotate the meeting location (when in-person meetings are possible) for CCAs with multiple cities in their territory.
- Find avenues to provide support for childcare, snacks, and travel stipends or reimbursements to facilitate attendance at board meetings and other community meetings.
- Schedule meetings after regular business hours, such as in the early evening or weekends.
- Provide simultaneous interpretation services, preferably by professional interpreters, for virtual and in-person meetings.
- Develop culturally appropriate documents in the languages relevant for the community.
It has become a best practice for CCAs to form community advisory boards to encourage more meaningful community perspective. Establishing parameters for the makeup of such boards is another opportunity to ensure diverse and inclusive representation. For example, a CCA can reserve a certain number of advisory board seats for residents from disadvantaged communities or representatives of community-based organizations, which are trusted sources of information.
CCAs can also create coalitions with community-based organizations, environmental justice and equity organizations, workforce development entities, advocacy groups, local jurisdictions, and neighborhood groups. MCE’s Community Power Coalition, serving residents and businesses across four counties in the Bay Area, is an example of this collaborative approach. To coordinate this type of coalition and maintain relationships with disadvantaged and low-income communities of color, a CCA would benefit from hiring full-time staff with equity expertise. This dedicated staff would serve as the liaison to these communities to ensure timely and effective communication and collaboration. This staff would also serve as a CCA’s in-house expert on equity principles and best practices.
CCAs can also compensate community-based organizations for engaging and educating disadvantaged and low-income communities and tribal and rural communities. For example, a CCA could fund these organizations to develop culturally and linguistically appropriate outreach and educational materials and coordinate and host community meetings. Such steps will help avoid solely catering to stakeholders with the time and resources to engage and help ensure that decisions do not only benefit the typical early adopters of clean technologies.
CCAs can invest through an equity lens
CCAs are well positioned to develop program priorities and parameters that benefit disadvantaged and low-income communities historically left behind by energy investments. A CCA can set aside a specific amount or percentage of a program’s funds to benefit these communities, or it can develop programs only eligible for low-income customers. CCAs can also provide free technical assistance to customers in disadvantaged and low-income communities of color and rural and tribal communities. For example, CCAs can help residents and small businesses apply to the various incentive programs they offer.
Similarly, CCAs can focus energy procurement investments with community priorities in mind. For example, East Bay Community Energy replaced a polluting combustion turbine peaker plant run on jet fuel in Oakland with an urban battery system. Local energy projects also keep dollars in the community and result in local jobs. Both procurement and programs can be designed to ensure career-track and family-sustaining jobs and equitable investments.
Because CCAs are governed by a local entity, they are subject to fewer restrictions than some energy-related programs regulated by state agencies. This provides greater autonomy to invest revenue in ways that the community decides. In some cases, this goes beyond typical energy programs. For example, CCAs have demonstrated a rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic and implemented initiatives such as bill relief for low-income customers and small businesses, donations to local food banks and other relief efforts, and a grocery workers appreciation program. Such efforts exemplify the value of community-based decision-making and the benefits of local control of investments.
California can ensure an equitable energy future
California state agencies, investor-owned utilities, and third-party program administrators are taking important steps to integrate equity into policy updates and programmatic investments.
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) adopted its Environmental and Social Justice Action Plan in February 2019. The Disadvantaged Communities Advisory Group was established to review the CPUC and California Energy Commission’s clean energy programs and policies to ensure they benefit disadvantaged communities, including tribal and rural communities. Similarly, the major investor-owned utilities and third-party program administrators continue to administer statewide and regional programs with robust equity goals, such as the Solar On Multifamily Housing (SOMAH) and Energy Savings Assistance (ESA) programs.
These ongoing efforts will continue to be essential, and are complemented by CCA initiatives, which are guided by these power providers’ connection to their communities. With increased local decision-making comes the need for increased coordination. CCAs, utilities and state regulators need to plan and coordinate to ensure the needs of the greater energy system are met and to avoid grid disruptions that can disproportionally affect tribes, rural communities and disadvantaged and low-income communities of color. Also, it is essential that customers not served by a CCA who remain solely investor-owned utility customers are not burdened by unfair cost shifting or left behind by not having access to beneficial programs.
CCAs are in a unique position to promote equitable access to and significant participation in energy decisions. Many CCAs in California are just launching, yet they are already establishing a track record of operationalizing equity through decision-making processes, meaningful community engagement and equitable investments.