Building Healthy Communities from the Ground up

Power to the People: Energy Democracy Now!

By Jose Torres, CEJA Energy Equity Program Manager and Mad Stano, CEJA Program Director

Originally published in La Opinion de la Bahia

In East Oakland, from one block to another, neighbors anxiously watched up the street to see if they would lose their power. Residents unable to access official notifications and maps of PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shut-Off (PSPS) this past week were left with only their best guess.

What could be a minor inconvenience to some is a life or death situation for others who are suddenly in a world without power.  The impacts of a PSPS are not the so-called luxuries of electricity, it is about the oxygen machine that shuts off for 90 year-old neighbor who depends on it to survive.  It is the power shutting down a local retail store where hourly employees suddenly lose wages they depend on. It means unexpected expenses for a family whose food spoils in the refrigerator. It is about non-English speaking families without proper notice when last-minute warnings are available only in languages they don’t speak.

In short, the cost of the unexpected power shut-off was far greater for Californians who already experience environmental and economic burdens.  In East Oakland, and communities like it, those most impacted were our elder neighbors, the linguistically isolated, working class families, parents, undocumented communities, homeless and other vulnerable populations. 

The California Public Utilities Commission President Marybel Batjer stated that PG&E’s conduct was “unacceptable.”  What may be most unacceptable is that a utility company who was already failing financially, recklessly disregarded public safety, while planning for millions in executive bonuses, was bailed out by the State with ratepayer monies.

PG&E’s business, and its approach to climate adaptation and wildfire mitigation, are not working.  Like most Californians, we are eager for solutions that prevent climate catastrophes and potentially fatal wildfires.  The current utility-centered energy system, however, will continue to put the public at grave risk, both in the short and long-term. 

In order to ensure a reliable and safe energy system, we need community-led, innovative energy solutions respond to our climate and economic needs, rather than the top-down approach that failed miserably this past week.

We need greater community ownership of our energy system. We need to hold utilities and other load serving entities accountable when they make mistakes and incentivize safer operations. We need our elected officials to act faster and bolder, commensurate with the crisis at hand, including greater investments in clean technologies, like paired solar and storage that allow greater resiliency, energy bill savings, and provide environmental and safety benefits.

The California Environmental Justice Alliance, a statewide community-led coalition that works to achieve environmental justice by advancing policy solutions, has been thinking creatively with those most impacted by these unjust systems. Together, we are building a future without dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure, where all Californians can access affordable, safe and clean energy.

The PSPS may have turned the lights off for nearly 2 million people, but it also has sparked important conversations on what we must demand in our future energy system. In response to PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shut-Off, and as always, power to the people!

CEJA Principles for Energy Democracy

Energy Democracy as a Human Right

  • Access to clean air, energy, and a healthy environment are basic human rights.
  • Energy Democracy and community-based leadership is essential for the success of EJ communities.
  • Access to clean, renewable energy must be equitable and affordable.

Wildfire Relief & Protection of Vulnerable Communities

  • Those responsible for maintaining the energy system electricity grid should be incentivized to operate it safely, and should be held accountable for risky behavior.
  • Protect underinsured, uninsured, undocumented, linguistically isolated, rural and hard to reach Californians.
  • Protect workers, especially at disconnection, billing, and reconnection.

A Resilient Path Forward

  • Invest in resiliency and climate adaptation for EJ communities.
  • Manage the decline and phase-out of natural gas infrastructure.
  • Ensure all Utilities, IOUs, CCAs, POUs, Load Serving Entities use best practices to serve frontline communities.