by Emma Foehringer Merchant
March 22, 2019

It’s been nearly a year since California’s Disadvantaged Communities Advisory Group held its first meeting. 

Senate Bill 350, which in 2015 increased the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 50 percent by 2030, created the group to advise both the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Energy Commission on energy justice issues. The commissions established the group in 2017 and it began work in April 2018. 

Though there are numerous environmental and energy-justice organizations around the country, including ones associated with government, California’s group is the first I’ve found that works within the structure of a public utility commission or energy commission (please let me know if you’re aware of others). 

As one group member, Stan Greschner, said, “California is always first.” 

The group is especially unique because its mandate is to advise the commissions specifically on clean energy programs, as well as energy efficiency and transportation electrification projects.

“What we want to do is identify the structural barriers that are embedded in program design that are making the programs inequitable,” said Greschner, who is also the chief policy and business development officer at Grid Alternatives. “Not only do we want to identify those barriers, but [we want] to provide thoughtful solutions to overcoming those barriers.” 

Bringing equity into regulatory proceedings

In the last year, the group has participated in commission proceedings including those related to electrification projects for underserved communities in central California’s San Joaquin Valley and for storage programs like the Self-Generation Incentive Program and AB 2868, a law that requires the California Public Utilities Commission to determine storage targets for regulated utilities. The group also helped the CPUC develop its Environmental and Social Justice Plan, finalized last month.

The CPUC’s document borrowed heavily from the Disadvantaged Communities Advisory Group’s own equity framework, created last year. The CPUC plan lays out nine goals to “advance equity in its programs and policies” and work on programs that will specifically benefit those it identifies as environmental and social justice communities.

The commission identifies those communities as those that are majority communities of color or low-income, those that suffer disproportionate impacts from "environmental hazards," those that lack representation in policymaking and groups that are likely to experience unequal implementation of environmental regulations or receive less investment in their communities. The CPUC also includes tribal lands and communities in the top quarter of those analyzed using CalEnviroScreen, which maps the impacts of pollution in communities across the state. 

Creation of the Disadvantaged Communities Advisory Group (DACAG) and the CPUC’s plan represent a growing understanding “that not everybody is starting at the same starting line,” according to Stephanie Chen, a member of DACAG and energy and telecommunications policy director at the Greenlining Institute, who spoke to Greentech Media last fall. 

Public utility commission proceedings are, by nature, generally pretty wonky. Greenlining’s Chen said the group aims to bring in stakeholders who traditionally have not had a voice in building regulatory frameworks.

“You don’t have to be an energy expert,” said Chen, in a previous interview. “You have to be a community expert.” 

Commissioner Guzman Aceves backs the effort

Community groups, environmental organizations and energy access groups often participate in CPUC and CEC proceedings through public comment periods. But Greschner sees the DACAG’s role as complementary to those efforts, both providing official advising to the commissions and serving as a venue to elevate voices that may not have participated in the past. 

In addition to commenting in active proceedings, members of the group have a direct line to commissioners through DACAG meetings. Greschner said the group’s gatherings, held monthly, usually have participation from CPUC or CEC commissioners, senior staff and advisers. 

“We have a lot of direct dialogue that we’re able to have with commissioners and their staff around what we see as barriers in the programs that are being implemented or explored and talking about solutions to remove those barriers,” said Greschner. “Those are public meetings, so it’s an open dialogue.” 

Much of the group’s work in the first year involved identifying its goals, creating parameters for its work and fleshing out how it would provide support to the commissions. Though the DACAG did provide comments on several programs in its first year, Greschner said its participation should pick up in 2019. The group held its latest meeting just this week.

According to CPUC Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves, it’s an important time to include the group’s input. 

“We’re right in the middle of the transition, and I feel like that’s the biggest opportunity we have to work with the disadvantaged community members throughout our state to make sure we’re making these investments as strategically as possible,” she said in an interview last summer. 

"The challenge is real"

The Green New Deal has helped elevate discussions of a just energy transition to the federal level, but California’s conversion to renewables is further along than many other states' efforts.

The passage of SB 100 requires California to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2045, and in 2017, according to the CEC, 29 percent of the state’s electricity already came from renewables (using clean energy metrics, California topped 56 percent using large hydroelectric, nuclear and renewables). Though the general trend for states looking toward 100 percent has accelerated, Greschner said DACAG acts as a “unique model” that can continue California’s leadership. 

And though the clean energy industry often looks to California as a first mover, Guzman Aceves said the state has plenty of issues to solve, too. 

“Unfortunately, the role we have nationally is we have some of the worst air [quality] and some of the worst poverty,” she said. “The challenge is real for us.”