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Question

How can community or consumer choice programs better understand and align with the priorities in social/environmental justice communities?

Shirley Rivera's picture
Principal Consultant Resource Catalysts (R|CAT)

Chemical Engineer applying entrepreneurial skills, through my technical, social, and cultural lived experiences. More than 30 years of experience (government, utility, consulting, business owner...

  • Member since 2020
  • 3 items added with 825 views

How can community or consumer choice programs better understand and align with the priorities in social/environmental justice communities, where the programs are responsive to communities' local needs and circumstances rather than a one-size-fits-all approach? 

This question was posed during a recent Energy Central PowerSession: Utilities' Role Delivering Biden's Build Back Better Plan

The PowerSession was so lively and packed with great information that the panelists were not able to address all the questions live, so we thought we would bring the question into the community. By posting the question in the community, anyone can follow the Q&A and or even participate.

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Hello Shirley,

I would add to the previous answers that whenever possible members of local social and environmental justice communities should be given an official role in the community or consumer choice program. That way not only are you encouraging community participation, but you are also ensuring that members of the community will have their voices represented at the decision-making level fostering trust within the community. Also, it's important to present all of the options to members of the community, so that they know all choices available to them, as well as all the pros and cons, in order to best be informed to participate in the conversation. 

First, the most important thing in environmental justice (EJ) work is to know who lives in the service area, with demographics disaggregated by race, ethnicity, language use, disability, and age. Members of industry, suppliers, and utilities should invite public participation, and communicate with local people in a way they prefer and understand. This might require languages other than English, and various media. Outreach needs to be provided in places where people actually are. They aren’t all online. We should find out what local people's needs, wants, and desires are, as well as how they use our product and service. It is essential to know the state and federal laws that pertain to EJ, so that at a minimum we don’t discriminate illegally. This can require barrier lowering, and an understanding of particular, contemporary situations, such as people short of money during the pandemic. A major controversy right now is the threat of energy shut-offs, and moratoria imposed by regulators. Safety is a major issue, with instances being reported of some people using energy sources in a dangerous way. Big decisions made at a high level can have disparate and adverse impacts on local groups. An example of this is Texas’s decision not to connect its energy grid with surrounding states, and how it suffered during this past winter’s storms. Big decisions must be subject to an equity impact analysis, which I’ll be happy to provide more information on. The energy community also needs to look inward to its own employment situation and the diversity of its workforce. This analysis has moral implications, as well as service ones. For example, marketing to particular community groups is aided by employees who know that community well. The nature of an energy utility is that it is supposed to reach all the people in its service area; but is it? Service provision should be equitable and fair, with one group not bearing more burden and receiving less service than another. This can require tailoring service provision to the demographics. A careful historical analysis may show past discrimination or lack of service to particular communities. In these cases, the utility should consider what steps may be required, morally and/or legally, to redress those past errors and oversights. On the big picture level, an energy utility or service provider is just one form of infrastructure, and aligns with others, such as housing, transportation, and education. Big overarching issues such as climate change tend to have disparate impacts on environmental justice communities also, with communities of color and low income people suffering more, for example from increasing heat waves and flooding. The demographics of the United States are changing, with growing communities of people of color. Energy providers and utilities have to change also, to keep up and to stay ahead of these changes. There’s a temptation to adopt the newest technology, but no one should be left behind, especially in essential services.

Hi Shirley,

It's not often that one would say "the great thing about our regulatory framework is..."

But, the great thing about our regulatory framework is that state utility commissions over many years of practice have developed effective ways to listen and respond to the communities they serve. From public participation in rule-makings to safeguards against against abuses, mechanisms are in place to get the community voice on record and keep them engaged.

The evidence of this shows in the record itself.  EnerKnol is a software platform that "listens" to regulatory across 500 different regulatory bodies.

A quick query on discussions about environmental justice since Jan 1, 2021 indicates that is a current topic in 50 different cases in 14 jurisdictions.

Please clarify your question and I can dig deeper.

Shirley Rivera's picture
Shirley Rivera on Mar 19, 2021

Brendan, You asked - "Please clarify your question and I can dig deeper." As a start, this is good to know that EJ discussions are happening in 50 cases among 14 jurisdictions.

My question, asked during the 02/25 PowerSession is paired with this question, also posed at the PowerSession- 

Using an example where California has a state mandate to reduce pollutant burden via air quality agencies directly engaging with environmental justice (EJ) communities, how might existing utilities' programs (e.g., energy efficiency, decarbonization, net zero, ) kick-start collaborations with air agencies, utilities' customers, and EJ communities - thus providing collateral benefits?

Therefore, your response speaks to the role  of PUCs/PSCs. For clarification, when I posed the question to the panelists of which three responded (Mary Sprayregen, Mitchell Beer, Rob Mosher), I am interested in a few things - 

  • what the mechanics and frameworks looks like for what utilities may have in place or are in-process of providing
  • how/if they have chosen to customize existing programs to respond and offer better choices
  • what programs have worked or have not worked
  • what have such communities sought from such programs, whether results have been good, bad or ugly, so to speak

- and then paired with my other question, to what extent, it at all, has the consideration of emission reductions been considered.

For context, my area of expertise has been primarily in the air quality regulatory space. Therefore, my lens, when I posed the question, is often looking at the intersections of air quality impacts, technologies, regulatory framework, and non-regulatory framework (e.g., community-based).

ALSO - feel free to answer the paired question. AND thanks for being the first reply :-)

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