California’s Communities Are Hungry To Solve Their Energy Challenges

December 20, 2022




Smart, passionate leaders in California’s diverse communities are focused and ready to make the changes needed to achieve California’s energy goals—and they’re waiting for California’s policies and programs to catch up.

The backstory  

This sentiment emerged as one of several key themes from more than 20.5 hours of informal community outreach meetings Gridworks facilitated for the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Energy Commission in Fall 2022 as part of the CPUC’s High Distributed Energy Resource Proceeding. The meetings were organized between September and November to hear more from community leaders about community needs for distribution system planning and operations both now and in a future characterized by a high number of installed distributed energy resources—microgrids, solar, demand response, and more.

In total, Gridworks and agency staff spoke with 85 participants representing 55 governments and organizations, including tribes, local governments, community-based organizations, and community choice aggregators. Participants were predominantly folks who are rarely involved in CPUC proceedings but who have a clear and vested interest in their communities’ energy goals. 

They spoke to us of communities facing myriad energy security problems: resiliency and reliability concerns; cost and affordability concerns; community growth and grid interconnection concerns; concerns about California meeting its electrification goals considering existent reliability and affordability issues. For some meeting participants, fundamental energy access barriers were top of mind. For others, distrust of policy-makers, investor-owned utilities, and utility incentive structures amplified their concerns about the state being ready to respond to community needs in its transition to clean energy.

Community leaders broadly offered suggestions to state agencies and utilities to improve existing community engagement practices. And where communities are already paving the way to their energy future to respond to these challenges, they also urged policy-makers, utilities, developers, and installers to get out of the way, catch up, or pitch in.

Communities are ready to lead

“When tribes decide to take matters into their own hands, when communities decide to take matters into their own hands, that’s something we should consider very explicitly—and recognize there should be ways to support that,” one leader told the CPUC at a recent High-DER workshop about public engagement.

Already, tribal and rural governments are exploring energy independence through microgrids. Tribes are also exploring and planning their own move to tribally-owned electric service to meet their needs, whether traditional utilities are ready for it or not. Urban and suburban communities are exploring distributed energy resources to improve local resiliency to outages and extreme weather events and to make strides on energy affordability. Service providers who haven’t historically operated in an energy space are stepping up to meet community needs. For example, in one community we heard of water service providers who are exploring the development of pumped storage to offset water costs and rates as well as enhance grid reliability. 

Tribes and local governments have developments, projects, and distributed energy resource infrastructure investments ready to plug in. Neighborhoods and community-based organizations are looking to local opportunities for community-owned and -operated solar to support low-income and disadvantaged communities.

Broadly, community willingness and readiness to lead the energy transition is there. The opportunity, however, needs more work to develop. 

Barriers to success

Community leaders shared numerous barriers to achieving their own plans for clean electrification. Many of these are known to us through similar conversations in other venues — challenges of retrofitting and upgrading infrastructure; poor housing stock; land-lord tenant concerns. The reminders of these perennial challenges are timely and welcome. And, participants told us, they’re exacerbated by structural policy and programmatic barriers in California’s clean energy transition, including:

Coordination Barriers: Participants told us of their frustrations with a lack of coordination between California’s energy goals, the creation of resulting energy agency policy, and how local governments might implement those policies, especially from a financial perspective. We heard of slow, difficult distributed energy resource implementation even if those projects had explicit utility and state program support. Participants told us that siloed approaches to achieving necessary easements have left communities entirely cut off from the grid. Moreover, siloed planning approaches disconnect, for example, community needs for housing upgrades or broadband upgrades from related energy service upgrades leaving residents and community leaders in a frustrating chicken-or-egg standstill.

Program Requirements and Information/Marketing Barriers: Particularly for tribal representatives and representatives of disadvantaged communities, we heard how program and project requirements do not accurately reflect realities in communities that are disadvantaged, low-income, or sovereign. Where grant, program, and project requirements might align, communities are still left unaware of or uninterested in opportunities due to poor marketing and information sharing about the usefulness of distributed energy resources to communities and customers in meeting affordability, air quality, quality-of-life, and resiliency goals.

Financial Barriers: Cost barriers may go without saying. But beyond the affordability and price-tag concerns of electrification and distributed energy resources, many community leaders and residents alike face confusing financing structures, including tax credits, that are difficult to navigate. Financing and financial benefit timelines may not align with the realities of project coordination and implementation; for example, grant timelines run out before communities can even break ground or utility interconnection delays run out the clock on development financing timelines. Local governments are challenged by a lack of state funding to support California’s electrification mandates and to support the required residential and commercial upgrades to meet those mandates. Community members and advocacy groups find that project developers are uninterested in installations in low-income and disadvantaged communities because the profit numbers don’t align.

Grid Capacity Barriers: Where development and DER project implementation does succeed, community leaders tell us they’re often still left in a frustrating limbo. Constrained utility interconnection queues and a lack of capacity to support tribal and local government’s planned upgrades leave communities waiting for months, sometimes years, before the project can go live. The challenge, we heard, is often about transmission capacity.

Partnership Barriers: Undergirding all these barriers, community leaders told us, is an attitude towards energy planning, regulation, and programming that discourages or excludes tribal, local government, and community involvement as co-creators of California’s energy future. Written and unwritten planning norms place tribes and local governments in the role of “customer” rather than a role of co-planner, and a lack of access to planning data and lack of transparency into utility planning decisions further hinders partnership efforts.

Despite these barriers, and in many ways because of them, community leaders are taking matters into their own hands. Communities across California want distributed energy resources for one reason or another, and they’re working to achieve those goals. 

So how can policy-makers and utilities better partner with communities to support their goals?

As one participant in a later workshop stated: “The state is really our best partner and who we’re relying on to ensure that infrastructure is built pursuant to the welfare of Californians.”

Community recommendations for coordinated partnership

Through our conversations with community leaders, a few recommendations emerged about how California policy-makers and utilities can partner with leaders who are already highly engaged and hungry to address the challenges they face:

Prioritize proactive, on-going, relational engagement with communities and community leaders. Policy-makers should consider meeting with communities—at venues in their communities—around California, including local planning meetings, instead of siloing engagement within specific proceedings and topics. Policy-makers should be responsive to public feedback that comes to them outside of specific proceedings. Both policy-makers and utilities should engage tribes in regular, facilitated dialogue that promotes creative thinking about institutional and economic challenges facing tribal energy goals.

Engage in long-term community and grid planning. Utilities and policy-makers should engage local governments in long-term planning that connects community growth plans and grid planning. Where tribes are interested in developing strategic energy plans, policy-makers and utilities could engage with and help to develop those plans in order to develop better relationships with tribes. Tribes and local governments would like to see proactive sharing of power planning data and plans from utilities and policy-makers to enable their partnership in long-term planning efforts.

Center community input in policy development. California policy-makers broadly should not set one-size fits all mandates for California’s diverse communities. Policy-makers should engage communities early and meaningfully in policy discussions. They could do so by recognizing that regulatory and policy jargon is often overly complicated and by facilitating conversations in ways that are inclusive to all. In agency proceedings involving equity considerations, policy-makers could provide clear pathways for non-traditional stakeholders to know when their input is being solicited. Policy-makers could build on models like California Air Resources Board’s Environmental Justice Advisory Committee and CPUC’s Disadvantaged Communities Advisory Group to center environmental justice issues in energy policy conversations.

With these types of structural changes to policy and programmatic design discussions, California may get closer to ensuring its long-term energy planning reflects realities in California communities and the plans communities already have for how that future may look.   

To learn more about Gridworks’ work on the CPUC’s High DER Proceeding, click here. For an unabridged summary of the Fall 2022 outreach meetings, click here.

Post by Kate Griffith