An Equitable Energy Transition in California Will Take All of Our Voices

January 23, 2024 | 7:00 am
hand holding microphone on black backgroundPixabay/Pexels
Matthew Beyer
Outreach Coordinator, Union of Concerned Scientists

The governing bodies that regulate California’s energy system are almost as complicated and arcane as the sprawling network of wires, poles, and power plants they oversee. Those looking to influence important regulatory decisions concerning where their energy comes from and how much it costs will find themselves wading through a sea of complex legalese and daunting bureaucratic processes. For anyone who isn’t an energy expert this can make substantive participation in the process difficult, if not impossible. That’s a problem – not just for energy cost and reliability but for the future of the clean energy transition.

California needs a new approach. To ensure energy governance is more accessible and representative in the Golden State, California must embrace a new regulatory approach to advance participatory energy planning and deliberation and ensure communities have a meaningful say in the decisions that impact their lives.

That starts with one of the state’s most important, but historically inaccessible regulators.

The (not so) public California Public Utilities Commission

If you aren’t an energy wonk, it’s likely that you haven’t spent much time monitoring the happenings at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). For most people, regulatory bodies like the CPUC fly under the radar despite the critical role they play in regulating the investor-owned (for profit) utilities that provide our electricity and water. And, as snooze-worthy as your average regulatory meeting might be, this lack of attention is not solely the result of a lack of interest. Barriers to information access and engagement often dissuade participation by members of the public.

While there are formal opportunities to participate in CPUC proceedings, these often require a prohibitive amount of time, prior knowledge, and resources. Becoming a formal “party” to a proceeding necessitates a considerable amount of technical expertise and familiarity with CPUC processes (meaning legal support), which can be infeasible for small organizations, let alone individual community members.

Even less onerous participatory options—like submitting public comment or oral testimony—are often hampered by clunky processes, a lack of broader public engagement, and little clarity regarding the impact public input has on actual decision-making outcomes.

While the CPUC has made efforts to encourage public participation (and is further along than other regulators on this front) it is still a far cry away from meaningfully accessible energy governance. That’s a concern because important energy decisions are made at the CPUC. Really important decisions. Consider, for instance, Integrated Resource Planning (IRP). During this biennial process, the CPUC determines how the state will meet its clean energy and climate goals. At a more granular level, this includes critical decisions about where our electricity will come from and whether it will be clean. Through the IRP process, for instance, the CPUC can significantly influence whether natural gas plants are retired, extended, or built in the state.  

This is not only important for the climate, but for frontline communities that have been historically burdened by fossil fuel energy generation. Gas plants not only release smog and pollution which harm health, but they are disproportionately sited in disadvantaged communities. Decisions that directly impact the exposure vulnerable Californians face from fossil fuel pollution are happening in sparsely populated rooms and Zoom calls with little representation from those most impacted. If our governance processes fail to encourage meaningful civic participation, they will continue to replicate the historic environmental injustices faced by disadvantaged communities across the state.

A new regulatory approach

In practice, greater representational governance at the CPUC would require a shift in the regulatory landscape. It would require the creation of structures and processes that ensure communities have a role in guiding the clean energy transition. And crucially, these new processes need to be accessible, open, and intentionally inclusive of those who have historically been least represented in the energy governance landscape. Broadly, California regulators must shift from a model of engagement in which input is collected from community members (think public comments) to a model in which community members are active, consistent, and long-term participants who are directly informing or actively leading decision-making (think open planning forums). In developing these structures, the CPUC should consider the vast literature on procedural equity.

The following guiding principles can be a helpful starting point.  

  • Ensure meetings and forums are accessible. Midday meetings during the work week are often not accessible to anyone other than dedicated advocates or utility attorneys. Participatory forums must be designed to accommodate those with work or family commitments. In addition to compensation, regulators should consider on-site childcare and hold meetings within communities, among other strategies.          
  • Conduct direct outreach to marginalized communities. Regulators must scale up and more strategically target outreach to communities most impacted by and underrepresented in our energy system. Regulators can leverage trusted Community Based Organizations (CBOs) to facilitate community engagement. Public communication should be proactive and guided by concrete participation metrics. All materials should be translated into relevant languages and reviewed for culturally accessible language.   
  • Ensure data and information sharing is transparent and accessible. Simply publishing information on the web is not enough. Regulatory data and documents must be shared in accessible language and proactively shared with relevant communities. Background information and opportunities for education must be made available (more on this later).   

While specifics might vary depending on the context, Hawai‛i’s implementation of Performance Based Ratemaking illustrates a useful model of what this might look like in practice. Beginning in 2018, the Hawai‛i PUC initiated a process to tie energy rates to customer benefits and emission reductions rather than solely to utility capital investments. Their PUC hosted a series of third party-facilitated public workshops that brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to generate recommendations and input with a focus on collaboration and consensus-building. In a shift from business-as-usual rulemaking, public participants were able to engage in back-and-forth dialogue and deliberation with regulatory staff over the course of hundreds of hours of meetings. The result was a final PUC decision issued in 2020 which reflected much of the feedback voiced during the initial workshops. The Hawai‛i process was described by participants as “open, equitable, inclusive, and relaxed.”  

Support public participation and capacity building

Creating opportunities for more robust public input must be paired with funding and technical assistance for community members to participate in these processes. While the CPUC’s Intervenor Compensation Program is an important foundation, it has often struggled to keep up with the volume of claims from intervenors, with 141 claims between 2011 and 2020 going unfunded. Many smaller groups and individuals choose not to apply at all because the lack of guaranteed compensation and significant technical expertise required to participate makes doing so prohibitive. The CPUC must go beyond simply compensating participation and must invest in efforts to build the capacity of community members as energy leaders and advocates. That is, they must create opportunities for education to cultivate the interest and ability of individuals to engage in important energy issues.

Examples like Massachusetts’ virtual ‘teach-ins’ and workshops on regional grid planning can serve as a model for regulators in California looking to democratize not just energy decision-making, but energy expertise.        

Distribute power, don’t tokenize

Finally, regulators should be cautious to avoid creating shallow, nonbinding participatory processes with no real decision-making capacity granted to community members. Procedurally accessible participatory processes can only go so far without the teeth to influence outcomes. In practice, this means building upon engagement forums like public comments and surveys with more robust public engagement opportunities like community advisory boards or community led planning processes.

To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that public comments are a fruitless or insignificant tool. Advocates speaking up and making their voices heard is crucial to securing change and can often have a major impact on the outcome of decision-making processes. But the state can go even further by ensuring that community members not only have a voice, but are included early and frequently in processes, and are given a clear role in influencing and driving outcomes.    

Public participation is a crucial pillar of energy democracy. And while it is not a silver bullet to democratizing our energy economy, it is a necessary component of a just and equitable energy transition. Regulators like the CPUC must take seriously their responsibility in ensuring energy decision-making is not only accessible but is responsive to the needs of all Californians and particularly those communities that have been most impacted by our current energy system and least heard in its formation.

A just, equitable, and clean energy future will take all of us. It’s time for California’s decision-makers to step up and ensure that all our voices are heard.