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Five Steps for Utilities to Foster Authentic Community Engagement

Electric utilities across 11 US states are now governed by legislation that aims to equitably decarbonize the electricity sector. Public utility commissions (PUCs) and advocates alike are adding further pressure on utilities to address expanded equity considerations.

Many of these equity provisions create new requirements for engaging community voices in the transition. Obtaining stakeholder input can be time-consuming and challenging for both utilities and their communities, but it’s necessary to ensure an equitable clean energy transition. While communities around the United States face distinct vulnerabilities and burdens that need to be examined at the local level, the growth in these requirements creates an opportunity to share baseline best practices for more efficient engagement between utilities and their communities.

Based on our work collaborating with utilities and communities across the country, RMI offers five steps utilities can take to build beneficial relationships with their communities.

1) Identify historically underserved communities and invite community members or community representatives to the conversation

In many cases, states with equitable electricity decarbonization policies mandate delivering targeted benefits to historically disadvantaged communities. While the terms and definitions for these communities vary by state, each designation requires greater intervention to truly define who these communities are. Utilities have knowledge of the customers they serve and access to critical data, which enables them to play a unique role in ensuring that these customers benefit appropriately from the energy transition.

An example from Washington State shows how utilities can capture vulnerabilities specific to the communities they serve. Two utilities, PacifiCorp and Puget Sound Energy (PSE), each compiled a list of over 20 “vulnerable populations” in coordination with their respective equity advisory groups. While both lists include populations such as renters, people living in poverty, and people with mental health illnesses or concerns, each utility also identified vulnerable populations unique to their communities. For example, PSE identified a vulnerability around the urban heat island effect, which can raise the cooling costs of urban residents. PacifiCorp serves more rural parts of the state, so this vulnerability is not a focus in its service territory.

In this process, utilities must ensure that 1) the burdens or challenges felt by these communities are to at least some extent addressable by choices the utility can make in its investments, operations, or offerings, and 2) the characteristics of the “disadvantaged populations” are based on measurable criteria. Where data is not readily accessible, utilities may need to partner with community organizations or state/local governments or forge data-sharing partnerships.

2) Compensate underrepresented voices for their participation and expertise

Just like other expert consultants hired by a utility, community members and organizations provide vital expertise — an understanding of the lived experiences of utility customers. In exchange for their expertise, utilities should dedicate resources to ensure meaningful participation. Compensation for underrepresented community members and underfunded organizations is critical to ensure the right groups can dedicate the time and effort to provide input, and ultimately ensure successful implementation.

For example, Portland General Electric (PGE) developed a comprehensive compensation plan for community-based organizations to help recruit for and convene community workshops and develop educational materials. The support functions include not only compensation but also childcare and food for in-person events. Such restitution signals the importance of community engagement, allowing communities to lean in and co-create materials, events, and strategies.

3) Create a linguistically and culturally accessible engagement strategy

The complexity of utility operations and regulations have historically kept many stakeholders out of the conversation. For more effective community engagement, processes must be available in communities’ preferred languages, and should take into account their backgrounds, availability, and communication styles.

Linguistically Accessible Engagement. Linguistically conscious processes enable diverse communities to come to the table and engage in the conversation. For example, PacifiCorp (doing business as Pacific Power) in Washington State serves Yakima and Walla Walla counties, which have 50 percent and 21 percent Hispanic/Latinx populations, respectively. PacifiCorp hosted three public meetings with live Spanish interpretation and distributed a Spanish “Public Participation Survey” to targeted populations. The opinions gathered in this survey informed priority benefits that the utility committed to tracking and delivering (through customer benefit indicators, or CBIs) in the PacifiCorp Clean Energy Implementation Plan (CEIP). Hearing the need for this support function from its equity advisory group, the utility designed a CBI focused on “culturally and linguistically responsive outreach and program communication.”

Culturally Accessible Engagement. Outreach and communications must break down other cultural barriers as well. To begin working toward more culturally relevant outreach, PacifiCorp pursued a “trusted community messenger” model by hiring a diversity and community outreach coordinator based in its service territory with decades of experience interfacing with the communities the utility serves. Trusted community messengers can help create two-way dialogue and effective communications between the utility and their community.

4) Partner with communities to design and deliver programs

A more equitable clean energy future means not only bringing communities to the planning table, but also partnering with community members to design and implement programs that build wealth and distribute benefits to those communities. Many community-based organizations (CBOs) track their own metrics, deliver household services, and conduct community outreach, all of which can be opportunities for promising partnerships that benefit both the utility and the community financially.

For example, Xcel Energy in Colorado plans to work alongside International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 111 to create worker retraining and retirement packages as the utility works to retire many of its coal resources by 2030, including Hayden Generating Station. The utility has stated it will also work with the community and other stakeholders to scope new uses of the Hayden site that will promote clean energy.

Another example comes in the form of supplier diversity commitments, which help build wealth in minority communities and support historically marginalized communities in the journey toward clean energy. Portland General Electric (PGE) spent over $100 million, or 11.8 percent of its total supplier spending, on diverse suppliers as of the end of 2020 and plans to increase this number to 15 percent by the end of 2022. PGE’s example provides measurable and achievable targets for including minority-owned and local businesses in the company’s transition.

5) Track and document progress

Utilities are often required to track their progress for regulators or in public documents. Engaging the community to co-create the metrics that quantify this progress will help utilities evaluate their investments, operations, and offerings in a way that satisfies community priorities.

The Initiative for Energy Justice’s Justice in 100 Metrics report provides a suite of options for utility actions that can drive equitable decarbonization and associated indicators to track progress. While each community will have its distinct needs and challenges, the report can provide a starting point for conversation between utilities and their communities.

The goals utilities set may create new data tracking responsibilities. This introduces another opportunity to create partnerships with advocates, community-based organizations, federal and state agencies, and other actors who track data at the community level.

For example, as ComEd seeks to integrate its equity goals into its business practices, the utility is partnering with organizations to provide data that the utility does not have on its own. For instance, ComEd shared at its 2022 Grid Planning Workshop that it lacks hyper-local air quality data to track the effects of air pollution within neighborhoods, so the utility is exploring plans to partner with Aclima, whose technology enables block-by-block air quality data collection. Many communities also have their own air monitoring networks, which can be valuable sources of data to utilities, especially if they partner with data custodians to transparently bolster access to and analysis of it.

Deliver Amazing Programs!

These five steps will help utilities develop programs that build trust with their communities and open the opportunity for a more collaborative clean energy transition. With more and more states passing legislation requiring better stakeholder engagement, utilities can use these processes to design better, more responsive programs for their customers. While expanded engagement comes with challenges, the examples shown above highlight ways utilities across the country are already making headway in building relationships with their communities to co-create a cleaner energy future.

See our checklist for helpful hints and discussion prompts to help you successfully navigate each of these five steps!