Energy may be in a state of constant flux, but local energy advocates are feeling optimistic about its future. A recent conference focusing on climate solutions was well-attended by numerous organizations involved in so-called “clean energy” — alternatives to fracking, over-reliance on fossil fuels, and other “dirty energy” practices which are harmful to the environment.

California “is at the forefront of clean energy solutions,” Kristin Schwind of Bay Localize told attendees at “Clean Power, Healthy Communities: Energy Solutions for Community Resilience,” a one-day conference held in October and sponsored by Oakland’s Local Clean Energy Alliance, a consortium of energy advocates. Not only is the state leading the nation in setting new models for energy-efficiency standards, Schwind said, but our local region is at the cutting edge of the movement. “The Bay Area is at the forefront of the forefront,” she added.

attendees at the Clean Power, Healthy Communities conference

attendees at the Clean Power, Healthy Communities conference

Held at the California Endowment’s downtown Oakland headquarters, the conference was organized around a series of panel discussions and workshops. Topics included the decentralization of energy; local initiatives that offer alternatives to fossil fuels; reducing  greenhouse gasses through energy efficiency measures, community based solar and renewable energy; political strategies around democratizing energy and the inclusion of ethnic communities; addressing business and labor concerns; and overcoming financial challenges.

Gopal Dayaneni, after speaking at the opening plenary

Gopal Dayaneni, after speaking at the opening plenary

During a discussion titled “What’s at Stake and What’s Possible for Bay Area Communities,” panelist Gopal Dayaneni, of the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project, opined that we need to move beyond superficial discussions like paper or plastic and uncover deeper issues. Clean energy, he said, isn’t just about “getting the dirty out, it’s about getting the dirty money out.”

Rather than accept corporate control over energy use, he said, energy should be “decentralized, democratized, and diversified.”

Dayaneni was followed by Mia Yoshitani of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, who noted the struggles of the Laotian community in Richmond, a city where one corporation, Chevron, is responsible for the majority of the pollution. Yoshitani said poverty and pollution are “part of the daily life” for low-income communities of color, both locally and across the globe.  In her view, this amounts to “environmental racism.”

New models can and should be built, she said. “We can produce clean renewable energy we need right in our own neighborhoods.” Sound energy policy, she added, is “not just about pollution or solving climate change,” but also addressing economic inequity through “local solutions” such as transportation-oriented development with affordable housing.

Annie Loya speaks at the Clean Power, Healthy Communities panel

Annie Loya speaks at the Clean Power, Healthy Communities panel

The next panelist, David de la Torre of Local 261, indicated a need for environmentalists, community members, and organized labor to work together.  Annie Loya, of Youth United for Community Action, described how “undertones of race and class” crept into a recent debate over flood prevention in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto – two neighboring cities which have widely divergent median incomes and ethnic demographics.

The clean energy movement, she reminded attendees, was “born out of the environmental justice movement.”

Breakout sessions offered conference attendees a chance to hone in on topics of specific interest. During the energy efficiency session, a panel of experts described the technical considerations in furthering energy efficiency goals, as well as the inherent challenges. Some businesses are resistant to installing energy efficient measures because of the process is intrusive, said Cal Broomhead of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment.

Another challenge, he added, revolves around CPUC definitions of energy usage in affordable housing, which may not reflect actual usage. While energy use overall continues to grow—as Broomhead noted, a smart phone can consume as much energy as a refrigerator, due to round-the-clock server farms—there are systemic barriers in place to achieving large-scale gains in energy efficiency.

Tara Marchant, Cal Broomhead, and Miya Kitahara at the energy efficiency breakout session panel

Tara Marchant, Cal Broomhead, and Miya Kitahara at the energy efficiency breakout session panel

One of those barriers, said Tara Marchant of the Emerald Cities Collaborative, is in the affordable housing sector, where the expansion of energy efficiency for multi-family residential homes is constrained by financing limitations. For instance, Broomhead said, buildings with a high tenant turnover can get bank loans more easily than rent-controlled buildings.

Since affordable housing projects are on a 10-15 year cycle of rehabilitation and redevelopment, “we have to catch them when they’re recapitalizing,” Broomhead said. “Any other time in the cycle is really difficult to get them.”

One significant upside to energy efficiency, Marchant said, was in the workforce development sector. “That’s where the opportunity is,” she said, noting that there is a 20% turnover among construction workers due to retirement.

The conference seemed to focus as much on identifying new engagement strategies and models as it did on firing up advocates about the work they were already doing.  The keynote address was delivered by Tom Steyer, a Wall Street investment banker turned environmental advocate and a sometimes controversial figure who’s been called a “billionaire activist.”

Tom Steyer addresses the Clean Energy, Healthy Communities conference

Tom Steyer addresses the Clean Energy, Healthy Communities conference

Steyer has put his money where his mouth is, contributing tens of millions of dollars to defeat a ballot initiative which would have repealed AB32, California’s landmark climate protection law. He’s one of the most visible opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline and was one of the most ardent supporters of Proposition 39, the “Clean Energy Jobs Act,” which closes corporate tax loopholes and allocates funds to schools for increased energy efficiency.

During the keynote address, Steyer explained the corporate perspective on the environment thusly: “if I have a garbage business, and my strategy is to dump my garbage into your yard, I can run a business very cheaply.” If you’re a monopoly, he added, “your incentive is to produce the worse possible product at the highest price.”

Record profits for fossil fuel companies, he said, come with a hidden cost: US fleets in the Strait of Hormuz and Asia which are “never factored into the price of gasoline.”

It’s possible, Steyer said, “to use a lot less energy,” and in the process create a lot more jobs. Over a ten-year period, energy-efficient office retrofits, he estimated, could produce two to three million jobs “that have to be done by Americans.”

The resistance of corporate polluters and investor-owned utilities (IOUs) to proposed clean energy initiatives isn’t difficult to explain, he said. “It’s like going to Coke and saying, we’re going to get people to drink more water from the faucet.”

IOUs, he added, have “different incentives from society, customers, and normal business.” But even so, he predicted, widespread local generation of energy is “something that’s likely to happen.” Steyer pointed to post-Fukushima Japan, where 89% of new homes sold since the disaster now have their own power generators. “People are not going to go back on the grid,” he said.

Steyer’s comments resonated with local energy advocates, particularly his remarks about the increasing diversity of the environmental movement. Latinos, Asians, and African Americans, he said, have been consistent supporters of proactive environmental policies. Recognizing the “need to have a broad coalition,” he said, was critical to the success of the environmental justice movement.

Besides tackling the weighty issues inherent in California’s transition to a clean energy economy, the conference also afforded abundant opportunities to network. It spotlighted some local green businesses:  during breaks, attendees milled about, exchanging business cards and snacking on gluten-free pasta and beverages from local companies House Kombucha and SolidariTEA.

A next step for attendees is to push for community choice energy, which bypasses the stranglehold IOUs have on the energy matrix and promotes local, renewable energy, which is both democratic and meets community needs.  Community choice will not only reduce overall consumption but also promote economic development by creating clean energy jobs.

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