As we discussed in Part 1 of our Equity Series, the energy sector is not immune to inequality. Broader awareness of our country’s unequal energy system impacts has accelerated in the past few years and momentum around energy equity has led to new clean energy policies. It has also produced a commitment to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in utility programs.
April 2022’s GridFWD Seattle conference included many DEI topics, and we had the opportunity to attend several DEI-focused seminars and reflect on the important messages. Based on GridFWD sessions, interviews with key practitioners, and our own experiences leading equity-focused research, planning, and evaluation, we developed posts exploring key elements for achieving equity in energy programs. In this series, we will highlight two strategies for achieving equitable outcomes:
- Better Tools to Make Data-Driven Decisions
- Community Engagement – Early Partnering with Community-based Organizations
Part 2 explores the role of community engagement. What are communities and utilities doing to meet the dual imperatives of speed and inclusivity? We look to the grassroots level and show how early partnerships with community-based organizations (CBOs) can drive successful community engagement. These partnerships will also set up the energy transition for long-term success.
Community Engagement – Early Partnering with Community-Based Organizations
Many GridFWD sessions explored the challenges of balancing rapid deployment with meaningful community trust-building in equitable grid modernization. There is an urgency to deploy pilots and scale programs to meet ambitious decarbonization goals. At the same time, intentional community engagement and partnerships are critical to cultivate pathways to ensure the benefits of these investments are equitably distributed.
An increasing number of clean energy policies have equity guidelines that require utility engagement with CBOs during planning. This arrangement—seeking community participation during the planning process—is a relatively new concept in the industry. Rather than utilities leading the charge, community input drives program design and delivery. This input often focuses on resource benefits beyond energy, like increased comfort and safety, improved environmental and health outcomes, and job creation. This shift emphasizes a more community-minded approach so utilities and communities can cocreate energy projects.
In the Northwest, Washington’s Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA) is a clean energy policy driving change. CETA requires electric utilities to decarbonize their electricity supply with associated investments. These investments distribute benefits equitably and reduce burdens to affected communities and vulnerable populations. To meet this requirement, utilities have created equity advisory groups that help develop program plans and prioritize specific customer benefits.
In Oregon, a distribution system planning docket provides guidelines for utilities to establish community engagement plans, including involving CBOs early in the planning process. The guidelines provide direct tactics for how utilities can effectively engage with CBOs: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and defer to. This robust approach to collaboration acknowledges that community groups have valuable experience and information to offer.
Regulation is helpful (and perhaps necessary) to carve out a defined space for engagement in the planning process. However, even with regulation, the outcomes take time to fully realize. More equitable planning has the potential to create a deeper understanding of the communities and inform utilities on how best to deploy programs to reach historically underserved groups. This engagement loop helps maximize energy and non-energy benefits for communities.
Implementing Collaborative Community Engagement
Echoed throughout several GridFWD sessions was that effective programs move at the speed of trust—the implication of this statement being that trust is built gradually, not overnight or in a few meetings. To successfully deploy utility programs with equitable participation, community trust must first be established between the community and the utility. In many cities, CBOs are agents of trust. This section will explore how collaboratively designed programs between utilities and CBOs can build that necessary trust.
Community Energy Project (CEP) in Portland, Oregon, is one such community organization. CEP has built trust locally since 1979, when they offered weatherization workshops in communities of color. Today, CEP remains a leader in low-income program implementation and represents communities in utility proceedings. The organization works among several key CBOs on Portland-area utilities’ distribution system planning. CEP’s executive director, Charity Fain, spoke on multiple panels at GridFWD. These sessions emphasized the unique role that CBOs play in the community.
CBOs operate as agents of trust. CEP’s clients trust them to act in their interest, and that trust is the result of repeated and frequent engagements with the community. Through this relationship type, CBOs can provide validity for utility programs by speaking with constituents that will listen to them and knowing they have the communities’ best interests in mind.
A Complicated History
Over the years, CEP learned that many of the community members they work with have significant distrust of institutions, be they governments or utilities. So even for programs where cost is not the barrier—such as free-to-consumer weatherization assistance programs—the lack of trust in the system can lead to lack of participation by those who could benefit greatly from weatherization. With time and trust, CBOs like CEP can support utilities to increased participation from disenfranchised customer segments in beneficial offerings.
During one GridFWD panel, Fain explored the historical process of utility planning. In the past, utilities solicited CBO input late in program development, and because of this, program design rarely changed. As Fain pointed out, meaningful engagement means more time invested on the front end to establish shared understanding. When it comes to the building blocks of our power systems and energy products, utilities come equipped with domain and institutional knowledge of a complex system. To authentically engage communities in energy transition, education is needed around programmatic concepts and the building blocks of power systems.
This context is necessary for a future in which utilities no longer solely deliver electricity whenever customers request it. Instead, utilities ask for access to control devices inside people’s homes to actively manage loads. Before utilities can discuss something as nuanced as distributed energy resource planning, nontechnical community members need context and understanding of the power system and its impacts to the grid and the community. More importantly, they need to know what individual roles are and why they’re important. This is both in terms of the customer-specific benefits and the factors that affect the larger community, and impacts on environment and resiliency.
CBO and Utility Partnership in Action
In 2022, CEP partnered with Portland General Electric (PGE) to facilitate a two-day energy 101 workshop for Unite Oregon, a CBO focused on improving social justice. The event broke down traditional barriers to participation. Attendees were compensated for their time to participate, the slides were in both English and Spanish, and there was a live translator. Participation was high and there was substantial interest and feedback once individuals understood what was being discussed.
The potential for this kind of meaningful community involvement is invaluable. CBOs have the agency to participate in and influence process and outcomes, rather than being passively included in an advisory capacity. The example of PGE’s collaboration with CEP is evidence of progress. Progress aided in part through increased emphasis on equity and collaboration through regulation. These partnerships foster collaboration, encourage engagement, and solicit DEI perspectives, which are essential to gathering meaningful feedback during resource planning and program development.
Alignment between customers and utilities is critical as the relationship undergoes a massive shift—customers are no longer solely consumers of energy, but active participants in grid management. This is fundamentally different from the historic relationship where a customer’s two interactions with the utility were monthly bills and occasional outages. New, distributed energy programs will drive a new relationship that inherently requires more collaboration.
Advancing Equity from within a Utility
During GridFWD, our team also had the opportunity to sit down with Seattle City Light’s (SCL) Emeka Anyanwu, Energy Innovation and Resources Officer, and Angela Song, Transportation Electrification Portfolio Manager. They offered us a better understanding of how SCL is working to operationalize its DEI strategy.
As an electric utility in Washington, SCL is motivated in part by the changing policy landscape of CETA—but their efforts go beyond that. They created an internal team to help: the Change Team. SCL’s Change Team is a group of employee volunteers tasked with bringing equity implications down from an aspirational to a functional perspective. Their focus is to consider equity across all programs, not just pilots.
For example, when planning for electric vehicle adoption in multifamily buildings, the Change Team helped the utility consider what the gaps or unintended consequences are of broad-based infrastructure and program design strategies. Anyanwu noted that community feedback repeatedly identified that transit opportunities (including buses, access, additional vehicles, frequency, and time of service) make the most meaningful impact in customers’ day-to-day lives. Thus, SCL’s electrification priorities and actions take that community feedback into account.
Start Slow to Move Fast
Beginning in 2018, SCL laid the groundwork with local communities and CBOs in the Duwamish Valley to advance environmental justice and equitable development goals. This groundwork included the targeted deployment of energy programs. As part of this strategy, SCL prioritized energy efficiency, renewables, and transportation electrification projects in historically disadvantaged communities. Song has been integrally involved with the transportation electrification efforts in the Duwamish Valley and offered that she’s learned how critical community engagement is. For this project, moving at the speed of trust admittedly required more time than initially anticipated. Song noted that operationalizing SCL’s DEI strategy did not occur according to a regulatory timeline, well-intended utility goals for speed, or the availability of funding or go-to-market technologies.
SCL learned that projects have to start slow to move fast. They need to do more upfront work to educate, engage, and listen. To manage this upfront work, SCL provides staff with the agency to spend the necessary time building trust in communities. Though, as Anyanwu reiterated, deadlines still exist! Building trust and moving quickly means planning for a long-term relationship with a community, not seeking one-time input.
To prove their dedication to the long-term relationship, SCL developed three-year contracts partnering with CBOs interested in transportation electrification. This enabled Song to continually listen to input and incorporate feedback leading to tangible positive outcomes for underserved communities. The extended contract provides stability and opportunity for relationships and trust building. As for those previously mentioned deadlines, they help maintain a sense of urgency within a project’s timeline. After all, SCL knows they’ll be working with the community for a long time.
Building Both Trust and Momentum
The Seattle GridFWD event provided a valuable venue for industry leaders to convene and share ideas about building a future equitable, resilient, and decarbonized energy system. Conference sessions highlighted the tension between the need to build trust and the need to move quickly. However, effective progress toward the energy transition requires both trust and momentum. One message is loud and clear: practical applications of equitable planning are becoming more common through embedded policies and organizational practice. Going at the speed of trust, starting slow to go fast, is demonstrating intentional tactics by some organizations to embrace community engagement and take steps to build a solid foundation, in hopes that both the grid and the community can benefit.
Special thanks to GridFWD, Emeka Anyanwu and Angela Song of SCL, and Charity Fain of CEP for their help with this article.
About the Authors
Scott is a director on Cadeo’s Distributed Energy Resources team and brings over 15 years of experience developing, directing, and implementing research aimed at improving performance of energy programs. In this role, he is focused on improving strategy and outcomes of energy programs at the intersection of equity and clean energy planning. Scott has extensive experience in planning, design, and evaluation of income-qualified energy programs, including traditional evaluation, measurement, and verification non-energy benefits and locational analysis.
Peter is a senior associate for Cadeo’s Emerging Tech team and is a building scientist with over a decade of experience in residential efficiency programs. He currently leads projects for Cadeo that consider diverse perspectives to driving the energy transition, including a market study for the Portland Clean Energy Fund, focused on climate justice investments. Prior to joining Cadeo, Peter worked at CEP, where he was program director for the in-homes team developing and implementing low-income energy programs.
 Washington State Department of Commerce, “Clean Energy Transformation Act,” October 12, 2022, https://www.commerce.wa.gov/growing-the-economy/energy/ceta/; Clean Energy–Electric Utilities–Various Provisions, Senate Bill 5116, State of Washington,
 Consideration for Adoption Staff Proposed Guidelines for Distribution System Planning, Utility commission of Oregon, https://apps.puc.state.or.us/orders/2020ords/20-485.pdf.
 Charity Fain, “Connectivity Means Community: Distributed System Planning for Humans,” Presentation at GridFWD, Seattle, April 19-20, 2022, https://www.oregon.gov/puc/utilities/Documents/DSP-Magnera-Fain-Presentation.pdf.
 City of Seattle, Duwamish Valley Action Plan: Advancing Environmental Justice and Equitable Development in Seattle, Duwamish Valley Program, June 2018, http://greenspace.seattle.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/DuwamishValleyActionPlan_June2018.pdf.
 Seattle City Light, Transportation Electrification: Strategic Investment Plan, https://www.seattle.gov/documents/Departments/CityLight/TESIP.pdf.