Local Clean Energy Alliance: Power to the People

by Dave Room, Co-founder, Bay Localize and Local Clean Energy Alliance

July 2009 meeting of the Local Clean Energy Alliance in celebration of the City of Oakland’s decision to adopt our recommended climate protection goals, reduce fossil fuel dependency, and embrace local renewable energy development.

In 2008, Bay Localize played a central role in the establishment of the Local Clean Energy Alliance, the first alliance in California to advocate for Community Choice Energy (CCE). CCE is a powerful policy tool that allows cities and counties to pool their purchasing power to rapidly scale and deploy renewable electricity in their communities.

It all started when Neal de Snoo, then Energy Engineer for the City of Berkeley, reached out to three local organizations he respected: Sierra Club Bay Chapter, Pacific Environment, and Bay Localize. Neal wanted to share with us the potential he saw for Community Choice Energy to create locally-controlled energy systems that cities and counties could use to drive large-scale climate action significantly faster than the timelines set by the state and federal government. What’s more, a preliminary study by Navigant consulting suggested that the cities of Berkeley, Emeryville, and Oakland could shift up to 50% of their electricity demand away from coal- and gas-fired power plants toward a mix of renewable sources by 2017. We were blown away by the potential, and with the help of Rory Cox from Pacific Environment, Kent Lewandowski from the Sierra Club, and the Bay Localize team, we co-founded the Local Energy Energy Alliance to make Community Choice happen in the East Bay and beyond.

Local Clean Energy Alliance Co-founder and initial coordinator Dave Room leads a regular meeting with community members.

With financial support from Pacific Environment and the California Endowment, we set out to hire a part-time coordinator, and were fortunate to recruit our very own Dave Room. Dave organized monthly meetings with speakers on various local energy issues including clean energy advocates, activists, city environmental staff, and local business leaders. These meetings, which typically attracted several dozen participants, were the basis for recruiting local nonprofits and companies to join the alliance. Within the first two years, the Local Clean Energy Alliance boasted over 80 members.    

With interest clearly growing in Community Choice Energy and local renewable power, we decided it was time to become more strategic in our organizing efforts. In 2010, we hosted the first Clean Power, Healthy Communities Conference, which evolved into a seminal gathering of advocates to assess challenges and opportunities for building an inclusive, socially just, local clean energy economy. The conference featured two days of visionary presenters from around the region and state, including Bill Gallegos from Communities for a Better Environment, Bill Powers from Powers Engineering, and San Francisco Supervisor David Campos.

Former Marin County Supervisor Charles McGlashan, whose advocacy was central in launching California’s first Community Choice agency, Marin Clean Energy.

Perhaps one of the most inspiring presenters was Marin County Supervisor Charles McGlashan, who along with staffer Dawn Weisz and local advocates, were getting ready to launch the state’s first Community Choice energy program in the North Bay. The Local Clean Energy Alliance supported the establishment of this new agency, and helped galvanize public support in the face of growing opposition from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). Seeing Community Choice Energy as a threat to their bottom line, PG&E spent nearly 50 million dollars on Proposition 16, a statewide ballot initiative designed to block future CCE programs by making it nearly impossible to start them.

Local Clean Energy Alliance Coordinator Dave Room speaks at the California Public Utilities Commission against PG&E’s Power Grab Proposition 16, which would have made it harder for Community Choice Energy agencies to form in California.

In response, the Local Clean Energy Alliance formed a grassroots working group to defeat Prop 16, and recruited Alliance Steering Committee members Woody Hastings and Larry Chang to co-chair that effort. We worked with our allies at The Utility Reform Network (TURN), Sierra Club, Local Power, the Greenlining Institute, and a growing number of local activists to run a scrappy, grassroots, “David vs. Goliath” campaign against Prop 16. We used applied storytelling and metaphors, events, blog posts, and video to enroll citizens in the defense of our right to energy self-determination in the face of the PG&E’s ”monopoly power grab.” (See above video of Dave speaking at a California Public Utilities Commission meeting against Prop 16.) Colin Miller, then a fellow at the Greenlining Institute, spoke at our conference and went all out in support of our opposition campaign, despite just having to have his appendix taken out. We also worked with a local videographer to create a series of public service announcement videos featuring community members, which went viral on social media.

Statewide Prop. 16 results, 47.5% in favor and 52.5% against, demonstrating that people power can prevail against the odds over corporate-funded campaigns.

At the time, we had no idea that PG&E had such a powerful, entrenched political machine with deep money ties everywhere from local city halls to the California legislature to the CPUC. The political wisdom at the time was that we were “crazy to take on PG&E,” and that what we were doing was impossible. Going into election eve, we had no idea how the dominos would fall.  Although PG&E outspent us 500 to 1, we defeated Prop 16 by a respectable margin (see results above). That was a turning point in California politics, reversing the conventional wisdom that big money can simply buy state ballot propositions.

Labor and Sierra Club organizer Al Weinrub took the helm of the Local Clean Energy Alliance in 2010. He has volunteered his time to lead the alliance for nearly a decade, and has built a strong team of organizers to carry it forward.

Marin County successfully launched California’s first CCA that year, despite a concerted direct marketing campaign against it by PG&E. Unfortunately, the movement lost their chief advocate Charles McGlashan to a heart attack the following year. Just as we lost McGlashan, the movement gained Al Weinrub, who became a tireless volunteer organizer for the Local Clean Energy Alliance. Having earned his organizing chops in the labor movement and the Sierra Club, Al was well-suited to taking on the role of coordinator for the Alliance, which has become a powerful force in the region for advancing a socially just, local renewable energy economy. Al and the growing Alliance team have also made sure to provide a space for the social justice movement to base its work around a deeper vision of Energy Democracy.

Through its early work, the Local Clean Energy Alliance established a foundation for inclusive, visionary advocacy that has resulted in the establishment of Community Choice Energy programs around the region, shifting hundreds of millions of dollars toward the purchase and development of cleaner, renewable energy for the Bay Area.

At the 10-year anniversary of the Local Clean Energy Alliance (see graphic above), Kirsten Andrews-Schwind, now the Communications & Outreach Manager of Peninsula Clean Energy, said: “Community Choice energy is upending California’s energy system with strong local climate leadership, going farther and faster than anyone thought possible to clean up our electricity to the point that California may meet its Renewable Portfolio Standard goals an entire decade early.”