When it comes to clean energy policy, legislative solutions are often in the spotlight. While legislation has a vital role to play in advancing our energy transition, there is an equally crucial, and often much less visible, path away from fossil fuels and toward a brighter, cleaner future. That path runs directly through state energy regulatory bodies, like public service or utility commissions. Regulation is where some of the most impactful decisions on energy generation, costs, and consumption are made. When approached through a people and justice-first lens, the results can be transformative. When that lens is removed, we run the risk of exacerbating existing power structures that benefit wealthy utility companies over the people they’re tasked with serving. How we choose to show up, and who we make space for at the table, can mean the difference between truly equitable solutions and maintaining the status quo.
One shining example of equity-centered regulation done right comes from Michigan, where Vote Solar and our partners negotiated a landmark settlement with utility giant, DTE Energy. Through a combination of hard-fought negotiations and a public pressure campaign, we secured a settlement that will add 3,800 megawatts of renewable energy to the grid, retire coal seven years ahead of schedule, and direct $38 million toward utility payment assistance programs and energy upgrades for low-income customers. The settlement provisions will lead directly to improved health outcomes for communities who have long borne the brunt of pollution from fossil-fuel facilities. Moreover, fewer families will be forced to make impossible decisions between paying their utility bill and affording other necessities like groceries and medication. According to Will Kenworthy, Vote Solar’s Senior Regulatory Director for the Midwest, the agreement was “one of the biggest regulatory wins” we’ve seen. While there’s always more progress to be made, we’re incredibly proud of the possibility this achievement represents.
This year also brought progress in Minnesota, where we and our partners in the Just Solar Coalition urged the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to address entrenched racial and wealth disparities in bill affordability for Xcel Energy customers. While the PUC’s decision didn’t include everything we advocated for, it did include a major finding. In its order, the PUC explicitly acknowledged the importance of justice in setting energy costs: a very rare occurrence that speaks to just how far advocates have been able to shift the needle in our collective understanding of energy justice and equity.
These victories, and many others, were made possible through a combination of regulatory expertise and justice-focused, collaborative partnerships with frontline, community-based organizations. We walked in lockstep every step of the way and showed up as a united front. Most importantly, we respected and relied on one another’s expertise. Without the deep knowledge and lived experience of our frontline partners, our understanding – and thus the energy decisions made – would fall short of serving the very people who are most impacted by them.
Unfortunately, this type of collaboration is still the exception, not the norm. Both community-based organizations and individual members of the public face structural and systemic barriers to participation in making decisions that directly impact them. Regulatory proceedings are often shrouded in technical jargon and unwelcoming to those without advanced knowledge of regulatory policy — not to mention those who primarily speak a language other than English. Even if someone does feel empowered to share their perspective, logistical hurdles like work schedules, transportation, and caregiving responsibilities can stand in the way. For organizations, intervening in a regulatory docket — the formal process of opposing a utility’s proposal — is often time-consuming and expensive.
State energy regulators have both a responsibility and an opportunity to break down these barriers to participation — and fortunately, there’s already a good amount of trusted guidance on how to make that happen. Earlier this year, Vote Solar joined a working group convened by the Massachusetts Attorney General to release recommendations for improving public participation. In speaking to more than 650 Massachusetts residents, our working group learned that even relatively easy-to-implement solutions can make a meaningful difference when it comes to public engagement. For example, providing language interpretation, scheduling public hearings at accessible locations and at varied times of day, and developing education resources in plain, non-technical language could all empower someone to step into a room they’ve previously been locked out of.
Of course, the onus isn’t solely on regulators and other policymakers. Clean energy advocates — especially those of us privileged enough to have adequate staff and financial resources — also have a responsibility to ensure that we’re conscious of who is being consulted, heard, and invited. True energy equity requires that everyone have the opportunity, knowledge, and access to participate fully in the regulatory process. As Vote Solar continues to advance our mission of a resilient world, powered by the sun, our commitment to centering justice has never been more important. We invite, and implore, you to join us.
Sachu Constantine is the executive director of Vote Solar, a national nonprofit working to realize a 100% clean energy future through a solutions-driven, people-first approach.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.
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