Equity Through Energy: How the East Bay is becoming the heart of inclusive energy

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LIGHTING THE WAY The benefits of solar energy should be available to everyone, regardless of their income level.

Despite pandemic woes and ruthless extreme weather events, from wildfires to droughts, the East Bay makes great strides in keeping communities resilient—in large part by spurring our districts to embrace clean technologies. Equally important, we have made significant progress in broadening access to these technologies and clean energy resources for more residents across the region.

At East Bay Community Energy—a local public power agency providing greener energy, low rates and local benefits—we think of this current era as one defined by “inclusive energy,” in which our community members are not just “ratepayers” but partners on this collective journey to a more sustainable future. Within our own agency’s DNA, our community members’ needs are deeply interconnected; when customers reach out to us, we’re there for them. At the same time, we proactively engage with customers to find ways to extend the value and benefits of renewables to some of the East Bay’s most sensitive, but traditionally overlooked, neighborhoods.

In the spirit of putting action to pledge, we are highlighting three initiatives centered around debt management, community solar and backup battery storage that put choice into the hands of our community members when it comes to their clean-energy sources.

Unfortunately, with energy costs and job losses rising during the pandemic, many residents who fall within PG&E’s territory struggle to keep up with payments. Although it has extended its disconnection moratoriums and offered financial assistance programs, PG&E is not positioned to ensure eligible residents actually take advantage of these benefits.

For EBCE’s Arrearage Management Plan, we conduct in-depth customer outreach, high-touch customer service and targeted marketing campaigns that go the extra mile in enrolling customers for these services. By proactively engaging with our community members, we actively point them straight to the application, walk hand-in-hand with them through the process or next steps and continually follow up to make sure they get the most out of the experience. By extrapolating key insights from our unique data-augmented approach, we have a clear view of customer usage, past due payments and other factors that help steer us toward those who need us most. Once we connect with those community members, they are able to gain much greater peace of mind during turbulent times.

One increasingly more ubiquitous solution for flexible renewable energy is solar power. However, up to this point in time, residents of mid-to-high income levels have had exclusive access to rooftop solar, leaving only a handful of other people with this available opportunity. These economic disparities have perpetuated gaps in efforts toward environmental justice and equity. Today, we want to make the benefits of solar available to everyone, regardless of their income level.

At EBCE, we’ve developed a program offering community solar at a 20% price reduction for small-to-medium-sized facilities within disadvantaged communities, bringing this renewable energy supply to customers at a significantly discounted rate. This program directly benefits communities that have long been overlooked in the push for clean energy, who now can say they’re receiving 100% solar power—and at a fraction of the price. In tandem, our team at EBCE conducts individualized outreach to prospective customers within our communities to ensure they not only have access to these options, but are aware of their availability in the first place.

Wildfires, heatwaves and high peak demand on California’s grid have resulted in traditional utilities completely shutting down the grid. For institutions such as hospitals and 24/7 facilities, that approach is simply not an option. At EBCE, we’re charting a new path that couples solar with battery storage to provide customers with energy solutions that circumvent the challenges of traditional resources reliant on the grid, while also improving the reliability of the grid. At the end of the day, we want to help our community members keep the lights on, especially when it matters most.

Starting with neighborhoods that lie within frequent fire threat zones highly impacted by public safety power shutoffs, we provide home-battery giveaways for customers who fall within low-income rates and who depend on life-sustaining medical devices. Our data-driven approach and targeted proactive outreach to county health services and local hospitals enable us to gain deeper insights into the specific corners of our communities that would benefit the most from these backup storage solutions without overstepping patient confidentiality. For example, at a high level, we can infer that X number of people who rely on CPAP machines live in a certain neighborhood, or that X number may need to keep their insulin refrigerated—and if the same neighborhoods intersect with regions susceptible to public safety power shutoffs, they will need additional reassurance that they can keep their medical devices powered no matter what.

Not without challenges and road bumps, we are entering a new era of inclusive energy. Through it all, our customers work with us side by side to help us devise new programs, scale enrollment and embrace the transition to clean energy. This collaboration and reciprocal structure has only improved access and quality for communities traditionally underserved, who have been disproportionately affected by climate change while often lacking sufficient renewable- or clean-energy options. At EBCE, we work to flip the script and put choice and power into the hands of our community members—with a goal toward providing all our customers with 100% renewable energy by 2030, well ahead of California’s target 2045 date.

If you or anyone you know would benefit from these initiatives, visit ebce.org for more information.

Dianne Martinez is the Chair at East Bay Community Energy and Mayor of the City of Emeryville.