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Episode #69: 'Innovation and Leadership From California's First Community Choice Aggregator' With Dawn Weisz, CEO of MCE [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry...

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  • Feb 15, 2022
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We're truly experiencing the most dynamic time in the power sector, and it's not just the technology that's going through evolution but even the traditional business model. The availability of distributed energy sources and the desire of customers to embrace clean energy, for example, has given rise to a new type of utility: the community choice aggregator, or CCA. Customers in areas with CCAs can make the decision to break from their incumbent utility and embrace the offerings of a local CCA that better aligns with their desired energy company, and that's empowering the ratepayers as well as the power companies.

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Today’s guest on the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast is the CEO of the oldest CCA in California, Dawn Weisz of MCE. During the course of the conversation, Dawn shares with podcast host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester the history lesson of how and why CCAs first arose, highlights the unique opportunity for innovation that this business model provides all stakeholders, and stresses the community aspect of her company: building up the green workforce, ensuring equity in clean energy availability, and more.

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Thanks to the sponsor of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West Monroe

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TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price: 

Hello, and welcome to this week's episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast. This is the show that brings leading minds to discuss latest challenges and trends transforming and modernizing the energy systems and the utility industry of the future. And a quick thank you to West Monroe, our sponsor of today's show. Now let's talk energy. I'm Jason Price, Energy Central Podcast host and director with West Monroe. Coming to you from New York City. And with me as always from Orlando, Florida is energy central producer and community manager, Matt Chester. Matt, before we bring in today's guest, you did some digging on the subject of community choice aggregation, which is today's topic. Can you give us a premier on CCA?

Matt Chester: 
I sure did. And I'd be happy to Jason. So CCA, it's a relatively new business model dating back to the late 90s. As of today, there's only a handful of states that have passed legislation that allows for the formation of these community choice aggregators. You can kind of think of it as a buyer's club where the community pools its money together for the purpose of leveraging its purchasing power to make clean energy purchasing decisions. Unlike a co-op or a muni or even a utility for that matter, who runs and operates the grid, a CCA is instead, primarily about just the source of the generation. And keep in mind the energy is delivered and billed by the distribution operator, but the power used to turn on the stove and the lights, it comes from the CCA.

Jason Price: 
That's great, Matt, very helpful and thanks for setting the stage for today's conversation. With us today is Dawn Weisz, the CEO of Marin Clean Energy or MCE. Dawn has been with MCE as their CEO, since the agency's launch in 2010. As the first and oldest CCA in California, MCE has introduced new types of services and innovations over the years. We will hear what some of these areas are as well as the successes and challenges in operating a CCA. Dawn brings a unique lens and focus in areas of equity and workforce development, topics that have rightfully become pillars of the most forward looking and progressive utility players. It's not every day you get to hear from those who start a movement right from the beginning. So let's dig in. Dawn Weisz, welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

Dawn Weisz: 
It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Jason Price: 
Before we dive into the main topic, Dawn, I want to give you a chance to introduce MCE. Many of our listeners are coming from traditional utility models like IOUs or municipal utilities, but you're doing something a bit different at MCE. Tell us about that.

Dawn Weisz: 
Well, MCE is a community choice aggregator or CCA, which means that we're a not for profit public agency that helps our customers access clean energy. Our focus is really on supporting communities in a way that fosters use of renewable energy, economic growth, and workforce development, and adoption of clean energy technologies like solar, plus storage, and electric vehicles. Our mission is to tackle climate change and create a better sustainable future for our communities, especially those that have been historically impacted by the consumption of fossil fuels.

Jason Price: 
Thank you for that introduction. So tell us, how did you become MCE's CEO?

Dawn Weisz: 
Well, I worked at the county of Marin during the early 2000s when the idea of CCA in California was just that, an idea. I had the opportunity to lead the county's effort in exploring our own CCA, which later became a reality with MCE. So I've been with the agency since its inception. My background in community organizing around environmental justice issues is part of what inspired me to help create MCE. I knew that MCE through renewable energy choice could be a turning point for climate change and environmental justice at the same time.

Jason Price: 
Dawn, take us back to the origin story and paint the picture for us on what was the proliferation of renewable energy when you first started?

Dawn Weisz: 
Well, the short answer is access to renewable power, a choice in power supply. When MCE launched, we offered our customers 28% renewable energy, and the incumbent utility was only offering 12%. So as a locally controlled, not for profit public agency, we were really excited about the opportunity to keep our rate payer dollars in our community with the community benefit projects and programs that we were able to offer. We also wanted to offer community projects and programs that were focused on the unique needs of our customers from an equity perspective. One example is our workforce development programs, which focus on hard to reach groups in our service area that have been chronically under or unemployed. We help people get living wage green collar jobs. And this type of community respondent programming is something the larger corporate utilities simply can't do because they're not led by local officials. And their ultimate focus is to serve shareholders.

Jason Price: 
Yeah. Understood. So take us a bit further into why you're here today, which is basically about the areas of equity and workforce development. Level set for us why are these areas important to the industry widely and how did equity become so critical to the MCE mission?

Dawn Weisz: 
Well, historically the energy industry has neglected certain populations. The fossil fuel industry contributes to public health harms that disproportionately impact black, brown, indigenous, Asian, and poor communities. Fossil fuels generate toxic air and water pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions that drive global climate crisis. And exposure to fossil fuel pollution is linked to negative health impacts for people living near these pollution sources. So equity has always been a central part of MCE's mission because our grassroots community advocacy is really what started MCE. We're driven by the understanding that we're all connected and we share this planet together. We're building a future that benefits everyone, not just a select few. We need to address the inequities that are impacting our communities. And we know that everyone deserves clean air, clean water, and a habitable environment.

Jason Price: 
So how do you measure success? What does success look like and what are some of the specific equity and workforce goals you have?

Dawn Weisz: 
Well, that's a great question. We really look to prioritize folks that have been neglected in the past. For example, our workforce development programs focus on those who need it most, low income residents, people who have been previously incarcerated, folks without a high school diploma, or GED, those with limited English proficiency, or folks that have been unemployed for a long period of time. We believe that clean energy jobs can create career pathways for people entering or reentering the workforce. And this supports economic growth and healthy communities.

Jason Price: 
Can we go a little further on this and basically maybe distill down some actual concrete examples so that you've implemented to achieve this?

Dawn Weisz: 
Sure. I think a really great example of this is our MCE Solar One project. This is a 10.5 megawatt 68 acre project located in Richmond, California. We partnered with the city of Richmond and their workforce development agency, Richmond Build to supply labor. And we set a 50% local hire target. We trained these folks in solar installation and a number of them went on to other solar companies and installation jobs in the Bay Area and even in other states. So that's ultimately what we're looking to do. We want to help folks gain the skills they need to become part of the green collar economy and then move on to jobs with agencies that are doing this work on a regular basis.

Dawn Weisz: 
We've partnered with other organizations as well, like Future Build in Pittsburg, California, and they helped train the employees that now work in our call center, which is based in the community. Also, Rising Center for Opportunity located in Oakland is partnering with us on our workforce education and training program to train folks in energy efficiency jobs and pair them up with certified contractors. This program is unique because it's a pre-apprenticeship program. So we're really creating a pipeline for clean jobs.

Jason Price: 
You mentioned the ability to bring green collar jobs to low income and traditionally disadvantaged communities. So how are we defining this new class of green collar jobs? And why do these communities have a particular tough time getting into this sector?

Dawn Weisz: 
Well, we consider green collar jobs to be any jobs in the clean energy industry. So that could be construction work, electrical work, or even administrative work for a clean energy or technology company. A lot of the jobs in the clean energy industry tend to be skilled labor in construction or electricity. So there's a learning curve and some training required. For disadvantaged folks, there are a lot of barriers to getting that training. The barriers could be something like an ability to pay for the training or maybe difficulty affording childcare and without childcare folks can't participate in a training program. Or it could be something as simple as not having a vehicle and being unable to physically get to a training. MCE's focus is on working with partners who are already active in the community, helping to reduce or eliminate these barriers to entry.

Jason Price: 
So you've been around for a long time and there are certainly success stories. There must be some failures or missteps along the way. If so, can you share some of these?


Dawn Weisz: 
Well on this same project that I was talking about, the MCE Solar One project, it was a big challenge to meet the 50% higher goal. Because most workers who were qualified for the jobs and were in the traditional trades were earning enough that they had moved out of the Richmond community to more affluent parts of the area. Also, the businesses and vendors who might traditionally bid on this type of work were large and not based in the community of Richmond. So we learned that we needed to break the work into small pieces and actually make calls to local small businesses.

Dawn Weisz: 
As an example, we proactively tracked down local person who had experienced pouring concrete and another who had experience putting up safety fencing. And we invested two years in training folks in the community so that they'd be ready to apply for and fill the jobs once we were ready to build the program. That one on one outreach combined with the direct training helped us to almost meet the 50% hiring requirement. But even with all that effort and even though we created over 350 jobs, we fell just short of that 50% goal. We hope that the lessons that we learned can help us be even more successful with future projects going forward.

Jason Price: 
The areas of equity and workforce development is a challenge across pretty much every domain, including even what the IOUs face. So share with us your position as a community choice aggregator, how do you play and address that? And in your opinion, is it any easier or more challenging than say a large IOU that deals with these same similar issues?

Dawn Weisz: 
Well, as a CCA, I would say approaching our work with an equity focus is actually easier than it is for the IOUs. We're already community focused, mission driven, and we're also much smaller. We're able to be highly engaged and active in our communities. And that really gives us an edge I think. We hear directly from our communities about what they need and our board of directors is made up of elected officials from each community that we serve. So we're always up to speed on local projects and initiatives that we can collaborate on.

Dawn Weisz: 
There aren't a bunch of barriers between our customers and the decision makers at MCE. And that makes a big difference. Folks have easy access to us. All of our meetings are public. And it's easy to reach out to our staff directly or any ideas or problem solving that needs to happen. We have some communities in our service area that we know are underserved, but aren't identified as such by the state guidelines. But because we serve a smaller area, we're able to really get granular and find these hidden inequities so that we can prioritize those communities in all of our work. So that's just a few examples.

Jason Price: 
Sure. Dawn, before we go into the lightning round and have some fun, do want to ask you, I want to go back to the origin story. When you were conceptualizing the idea, what was the penetration or proliferation of renewable energy? Because we're talking about when in the early 90s or the late 80s, when CCA began? Can you sort of paint the picture for our audience, what the renewable environment was like in California or in your territory?

Dawn Weisz: 
Sure. Absolutely. When we launched, it was 2010 and at that time, the incumbent utility was providing 12% renewable energy. At that time solar was still a relatively expensive resource. It's come down a lot since that time. And large utilities were saying it was going to be very difficult for them to go beyond the amount of renewables they were already providing. When we launched, we immediately were able to offer a product that was double the amount of renewable energy that the incumbent utility was offering. And at the same time, we offered a 100% renewable choice for all customers. And within about a year and a half of our launch, the incumbent utility suddenly started offering 100% renewable option as well. So we saw that as a real success. I think we were able to raise the bar on what's expected by community based utilities and it kind of spread to the corporate utilities as well.

Dawn Weisz: 
And now all customers in California in our service area have an option of getting a 100% renewable or getting our default product. And since 2010, when we launched a lot has changed. Our current default product has grown in its renewable content. So now we're at 60% renewable and 90% carbon free. So anyone who's an MCE customer can't get anything less renewable than 60%, but they can still choose that 100% if they want to. So a lot has changed in just the 12 years that we've been delivering service in our area.

Jason Price: 
That's great. Really a fascinating story and a great journey. And you've done a great job so far. So keep it up. Now Dawn as I alluded to, we're talking about the lightning round is next, which is an opportunity for us to dig into you as a person and not just as an energy and utility expert. So I'm going to ask you a question and your response will just be one word or phrase. Are you ready?

Dawn Weisz: 
I am ready.

Jason Price: 
What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Dawn Weisz: 
Eggs.

Jason Price: 
What is the best way to spend a Friday night?

Dawn Weisz: 
Sharing a meal with family and friends.

Jason Price: 
Where's the one place on your bucket list to travel to?

Dawn Weisz: 
Arches National Park.

Jason Price: 
What would you be doing for a career if not in energy?

Dawn Weisz: 
Community organizing.

Jason Price: 
What are you most hopeful for?

Dawn Weisz: 
Our young people.

Jason Price: 
Well done. And because you knocked it out of the park, I want to give you the traditional last word of the episode. So given you're speaking directly to an audience of utility decision makers, what's the key message you want to impart? What's the main takeaway our listeners should remember from today's conversation?

Dawn Weisz: 
Well, thanks. I think the main thing I want folks to take away from today's conversation is that we all have a part to play in creating an equitable energy future. We have the opportunity to improve public health, tackle the climate crisis, and confront systemic racism. I'm really honored to be part of MCE and the work we're doing to support, adjust, transition, but there's always more to be done. We as an industry really need to take a look at our impacts, large and small and see where we can do more to improve the lives of the people who are using our services. And the people who live in and around the resources that we rely on. A clean planet is something we all benefit from and we all have the power to create change.

Jason Price: 
Thank you, Dawn. Those are terrific and inspiring words and thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. We'll surely hope that you and our listeners can have that conversation again and continue it as well after this podcast on Energy Central platform. So thanks again for joining us today.

Dawn Weisz: 
Thank you so much for the opportunity.

Jason Price: 
Absolutely. So you can always reach Dawn through the energycentral.com platform, where she welcomes your questions and comments. And we also want to give a shout out of thanks out to the podcast sponsors that made today's episode possible. Thanks to West Monroe. West Monroe works with the nation's largest electric, gas, and water utilities in their telecommunication, grid modernization, and digital and workforce transformation. West Monroe brings a multidisciplinary team that blends utility, operations, and technology expertise to address modernizing aging infrastructure, advisory on transportation electrification, ADMS deployments, data and analytics, and cyber security. Once again, I'm your host Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com. And we'll see you next time at the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

 


About Energy Central Podcasts

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network community member to discuss compelling topics that impact professionals who work in the power industry. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ is the premiere podcast series from Energy Central, a Power Industry Network of Communities built specifically for professionals in the electric power industry and a place where professionals can share, learn, and connect in a collaborative environment. Supported by leading industry organizations, our mission is to help global power industry professionals work better. Since 1995, we’ve been a trusted news and information source for professionals working in the power industry, and today our managed communities are a place for lively discussions, debates, and analysis to take place. If you’re not yet a member, visit www.EnergyCentral.com to register for free and join over 200,000 of your peers working in the power industry.

The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

If you want to be a guest on a future episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, let us know! We’ll be pulling guests from our community members who submit engaging content that gets our community talking, and perhaps that next guest will be you! Likewise, if you see an article submitted by a fellow Energy Central community member that you’d like to see broken down in more detail in a conversation, feel free to send us a note to nominate them.  For more information, contact us at community@energycentral.com. Podcast interviews are free for Expert Members and professionals who work for a utility.  We have package offers available for solution providers and vendors. 

Happy listening, and stay tuned for our next episode! Like what you hear, have a suggestion for future episodes, or a question for our guest? Leave a note in the comments below.

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Thanks once again to the sponsor of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West Monroe

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