Guest Blogger: Sydney Forrester, MS (Sustainable Systems), MSE (Mechanical Engineering) ’18 (Summer Associate at Rocky Mountain Institute)
Greetings from Boulder, Colorado!
This summer, I am continuing to work in the area of urban energy justice for Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). RMI is a nonprofit “think and do” tank that includes my group, Leap– a newer electricity program that specifically focuses on energy equity. Thus far,
Leap has focused primarily on thought leadership and creating new business models serving low income- tackling issues such as energy burden, access to distributed energy resources, and alternative financing. Larger questions have come up that have led important conversations on how to get third parties interested in this market without an opening for predatory behavior, and central thoughts on “what is community ownership?”
For the first two weeks of my twelve, we were gearing up towards Forge- a three-day long accelerator of four different business models in New York that addressed low income community-owned solar, financing for projects such as these, and education/awareness. The teams consisted of many different groups of experts- from solar developers to community groups, utilities, regulators, lawyers, financiers, etc. (products from this will soon be available on the RMI website). Speaking for myself- it was super inspiring to be immersed in such a passionate group. While all were focused on these new low income business models- most were drawing on knowledge from their day jobs, and doing this on their own time. Everyone seemed aligned on the overall goal, but differed in thinking how to get there. It made me understand that, while people generally believe in energy equity, we do not have any standard language to define what that means or what the best practices may be. For example- “low income” has many proxies: “Low income” can mean living within a census block that has specific characteristics. “Low income” can also mean having a certain credit score. “Low income” can represent an individual? household? within xyz percent of the federal poverty level. Or even that of the state median- area median?…. It starts to make your head spin before you even get to the topics such as ownership or deciding if it is better to put more money toward a few to make a bigger difference- or spread it over more families for smaller changes. We are at the fore of this ever-important issue and have a lot to discuss among many different groups. I’m glad to have been witness to some of these discussions at Forge.
Since Forge, I have primarily been doing research on how utilities serve low income. My focus lies both in where the money comes from as well as where it goes. While my research includes some of the more traditional (low-cost energy efficiency, direct bill assistance, etc.), it also focuses on what utilities are doing in terms of financing and distributed energy resources. Utilities have specific advantages from their large customer base and access to cheap capital. They also have a motive to serve low income whereas the private market does not due to their obligation to serve all. Consequently, they want to reduce delinquencies, defaults, and shut-offs. While utility ownership of distributed energy resources is much-debated, there are laws in place that allow them to collect tax benefits such as the ITC and own these resources within underserved markets (e.g. NY PSC’s REV). In order to serve low income well, solutions must be flexible and offer instant discounted energy prices. For many of these new technologies that hover near parity (e.g. solar, storage), utilities may have the capacity to aggregate benefits and drive costs down- passing through benefits straight to these communities. I’ve got a lot to say on the policies, economics, and projects that are out there- so ask me when you see me! I love to engage on both sides of the debate.