How a Decade of Community Choice Changed California’s Energy Landscape for Good
By Dawn Weisz, CEO, MCE
“New ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can’t be done. 2) It probably can be done, but it’s not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along!” –Arthur C. Clarke
Community Roots: Making History Together
Part of MCE’s story began in the early 1990’s where my work with small environmental justice groups in southern California drove me to seek a big change that would pivot large corporations and polluting industries away from harming communities. These hard-working, passionate groups like Mothers of East LA, Concerned Citizens of South Central, and the Labor Community Strategy Center, were all fighting seemingly impossible battles to keep polluting industries from impacting their community’s health and economy. With polluting industries being concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color, the lack of resources and political power made these battles seem insurmountable. Polluting industries might promise local jobs to win approval, but then later choose to fill all jobs from outside the community. Meanwhile, fossil fuel emissions were starting to show impacts around the globe.
Fast forward to 2001. I had joined the County of Marin and completed a study on greenhouse gas emissions, finding that buildings were the number one contributor to the County’s carbon footprint. I was tasked with finding ways to reduce the County’s emissions while all around me, local leaders and advocates pushed for system-level change to build a more sustainable energy future. I saw an opportunity to make a big change that would not only help scale back fossil fuel impacts, but at the same time, reduce impacts on low-income communities and communities of color. At that moment, I decided this effort would be worth everything we could muster. While the vision seemed impossible to some, it was backed by the passion of local leaders and community advocates, and it was ultimately the beginning of MCE.
At that time, MCE was a bold idea to help the planet and our communities simultaneously. We imagined a public agency that would empower us to declare energy independence from fossil fuels and pursue an equitable and just transition toward a clean energy future. Our vision was to provide alternatives to the costly global warming impacts of fossil fuels by investing our revenues in renewable energy projects, good-paying jobs, and energy efficiency programs. This new model would deliver more than just clean power. It would offer the power of choice, the power of a transparent, publicly accountable agency, and the power of local economic reinvestment.
Launching a Movement: The Power of Choice
The passage of California’s Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) legislation in 2002 opened the door to turn this vision into reality. Local governments were now allowed to become the electric generation provider for their communities. Some said it was too risky; that it could never be done. Others even deliberately fought against MCE’s creation. In fact, the small grants and loans that funded our formation were vastly outmatched by our opponents’ spending. Nevertheless, local leaders, environmental advocates, champion businesses, and individuals from all walks of life came together, and on May 7, 2010 MCE started serving our first customers.
Five years of analysis, hundreds of local public meetings, and countless planning documents came together to create the first community choice program in the state of California. We launched service to just under 10,000 customers, but flipping the switch to community power was only the beginning of our movement. The start of MCE service marked a redefining of the energy landscape as we knew it. Californian consumers could now choose the power of locally-governed electric agencies to secure electricity on their behalf. The concept was contagious and just a few years later, in 2012, MCE moved beyond Marin County with the City of Richmond’s request to receive MCE electricity service.
Richmond, CA joined MCE service in 2013.
“As a community that has lived directly with the consequences of fossil fuel production since our inception, the power that MCE brings to our community cannot be understated. Having the ability to make decisions on where our power comes from and how our energy dollars are spent, means the power to fight the impacts of fossil fuels in our community is tangible and immediate. MCE made that possible for us, when no one else could.”
Tom Butt, Mayor of Richmond and MCE Board Director
MCE Today: Committed to Innovation and Equity
MCE has continued to grow since that request, expanding to serve 34 communities across Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, and Solano Counties. Our mission to reduce greenhouse gas emissions grew beyond just providing renewable energy to our customers, and began to include energy efficiency services, workforce and economic development, and most importantly, a focus on creating equitable communities.
As a local service provider governed by a Board of elected officials, MCE has the unique ability to shape ourselves to our customers’ needs. No project exemplifies this more than MCE Solar One. The 10.5-megawatt project is located on the Chevron Refinery site in Richmond, utilizing 60 acres of brownfield that would be otherwise unusable. The project was a partnership between MCE, Chevron, the City of Richmond, and the local workforce development agency RichmondBUILD. This project supported over 340 jobs with a 50% local hire requirement, helping local residents build new experience in the clean energy industry.
The power of an agency like MCE isn’t just in the ability to choose where our energy comes from. It’s the power to choose how our dollars are spent, and prioritize our communities over profits. Having the ability to enact this type of widespread change is a privilege that we owe to our customers and to all the advocates and leaders that fought for our existence from day one. This wonderful community we serve is what makes MCE’s story one of prosperity and change.
Our success quickly grew beyond MCE’s service area. Within a few years of MCE’s formation other local communities across California have followed in our footsteps and launched CCAs across the state – now totaling 21 programs serving more than 10 million customers. Community choice programs are beginning to rival the investor-owned utilities, offering cleaner and more cost-effective solutions to energy problems that were previously thought unsolvable. Today, almost 10 years later, our seemingly unattainable vision has become a reality.
Workers at MCE Solar One, Richmond, CA.
“MCE is about more than just keeping the lights on. It’s about keeping the power in our customers’ hands and addressing some of the inequity that has been a part of the energy industry for too long. Our mission will always be to serve in the best interest of our customers and we wouldn’t be able to do that without including equity and environmental justice in every decision that we make.”
Kate Sears, Marin County Board of Supervisors and MCE Board Chair
Looking Ahead: Building a Brighter Future For All
In April, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. What once was a small environmental movement has grown into widespread global activism to address how we can live sustainably within the boundaries of our environment. Celebrating Earth Day amid COVID-19 amplifies how inextricably linked the health of our planet and our public are. A just and successful transition to an equitable energy future can only happen if we also pay special attention to those particularly impacted by fossil fuels. As we step into our second decade of service, these priorities will define our next steps:
- Strengthening community resiliency with a focus on vulnerable and underserved communities
- Reinvesting in decarbonizing our vehicles and buildings
- Accelerating our carbon-free energy content to 99% by 2022
- Continuing innovation in community energy program delivery, including solar plus storage solutions, a Feed-in Tariff program incentivizing local renewable development, and expansion of other incentive programs
- Ensuring local workforce and diverse community benefits are anchored in all aspects of our work
MCE would not be the organization we are today without the support from all of our stakeholders and advocates. We will continue to prioritize bringing underrepresented voices into the conversation and working with our local community organizations to ensure the most vulnerable are represented across our agency. MCE’s ability to work with local governments and engage diverse stakeholders puts us in the best position to lead programs and investments that are most impactful to our communities – but that is only possible with increased support from state policy makers and private industry.
We ask all of our supporters, advocates, partners, and customers to continue demanding the best from MCE and from the governments and companies that impact our decision-making processes. Every individual has the power to make a difference, whether that’s choosing 100% renewable energy, supporting businesses that are leading with sustainable practices, reducing energy consumption, or asking elected officials to favor environmental policies. Together we built this small agency that has grown into a statewide movement, and together we have the power to build even more.
In 2001, I sat at a small desk in the County of Marin Civic Center, working on sustainability initiatives. On the wall in my office hung a framed quote that said, “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I have found this to be true time and again over my years at MCE. Ultimately, what drives MCE is the same purpose that we all share. We want a better future, for ourselves, for the ones we love, for all things living on this planet. What we have learned from our success is that great things happen when we empower communities to create their own choices.
We thank you.
“We’ll just keep trying to do the right thing, as we always do, for as long as we can. I imagine that this point is the main theme of all our hard work – to do the best for the Earth and all her children, all the time, with every action and decision we make. We may lose most efforts, but we are engaged in ‘right livelihood,’ and that’s what matters most. Hopefully, some greater purpose is holding all of us as we try to win a better future for our lovely world and her kids.” -Charles McGlashan, MCE Founding Chair (July 15, 1961 – March 27, 2011)
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