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interviews

In The Heart of Energy Democracy

by Isaac Baker
February 6, 2019

This interview with Isaac Baker, the co-founder of Resonant Energy, a solar development platform expanding access to clean energy for nonprofit, small commercial and residential customers, was conducted and condensed by frank news.

How did you come to this work?

It's funny timing, thinking about my background actually. This weekend I was up at Middlebury College where I did my undergrad. I spent a lot of time on our divestment campaign, that was focused on student organizing, and a number of different efforts to do more clean energy work, to use Middlebury's work with Bill McKibben, 350, and its legacy of organizing to leverage it as a divestment tool, as part of the clean energy transition. 

I always wanted to do more writing and storytelling about clean energy, and got more and more interested in implementation. Spent a lot of time going to communities that were experiencing fossil fuel extraction, went to Pennsylvania for fracked gas, went to Alberta for tar sands. Spent some time with the communities that were fighting various pipeline expansions in the Northeast, particularly Vermont and Massachusetts.

It was through all that I became interested in solutions work, and feeling like there were many more people who needed to raise their hands and be a part of the hard work we had before us, in trying to create solutions. To tell more stories. To activate our community around moving our money, and our politics, towards the rapid transition that's underway.

My first two years out of undergrad were spent working with an organization called Co-op Power, based in Massachusetts. Myself, and my current co-founder, Ben Underwood, were on the team that pioneered that energy cooperative community solar program. This included everything from helping to find sites, to organizing community forums and meetings. And then, a lot of finance training. Which turned out to be the biggest factor. When we think about the barriers to democratizing energy, which is in our world, democratizing finance, a lot of energy projects are incredibly expensive, and they need capital upfront.

The more community-led they are, and the more community benefiting they are, the less likely it is that institutional capital is going to provide the nuts and bolts things you need.

Like construction loans, and equity and debt, in order to give you the money you need to go forth and build. A vast majority of my work went into learning how to do all the complexities of solar financing and development. Working with particularly high-net worth, or social impact investors, who were filling that gap, where banks were not willing to go. They said, "We're willing to put our cash up, as an investment." As an impact investment to see some of these high-impact projects move forward, and in a larger sense, to really seed the market. Eventually we want larger, institutional capital to be serving these projects. But for now, impact investors are raising their hand, and saying, "We're going to move this market out, ahead of the more conservative investing arms in our society."

Two and a half years ago we founded, Resonant Energy as a development company. We found enough financing partners, like Co-op Power, who were willing to finance high-impact projects, for nonprofits, for low-income communities, for community solar projects, that the biggest problem to solve was really on the organizing and development side. Putting more boots on the ground, and figuring out the marketing strategies for how we found, not just five pilot projects in a given year, but how we could do 100, and start to take this to scale, so that we were in five different cities, all across the Northeast. And then 10, and then further.

I have spent the last four years in the heart of energy democracy. Working to help build a development platform, on which community-based projects can happen.

How do you define energy democracy?

People go a few different directions on that, particularly on ownership, which is something we've struggled with for a long time. We define energy democracy as expanding access, particularly in under-invested communities, which means you haven't had access to the tools, and resources, to plan, develop, and benefit from clean energy projects. A sense of ownership, of our energy system, and the ability to benefit from it, financially, regardless of race, income, creed, or other qualifiers, is what's important.

Our definition of energy democracy plus, meaning hitting all of those targets, and then some, would be 100% community controlled.

A fully, cooperatively owned and developed, participatory democracy version of all of that. Which I have been a part of, and have run into many, many challenges in figuring out how to implement and scale it. We're excited where we're able to do that, and to find funding that's excited about that.

In the short run, we're excited about bringing people into the movement, having them feel activated, having them understand their electricity bill. Having them understand what the fight is about energy, that's going on right now. Who the players are, and what are the steps we can take to give them better access to energy. Particularly folks who have not had a voice in our energy system to date.

Understanding is a critical component to this. Understanding how energy is manufactured and dispersed is a revelation for a lot of people. I think there's a large assumption that clean energy could be easily integrated into our lives. But, it's not that simple, really. What does that conversation look like with customers?

A  framing piece that's really important to energy democracy is recognizing that energy is our single, largest industry. From extracting the resources, to distilling them, to distributing them, and using them in our home.

It is the single largest industry in the world, and represents enormous wealth, and is among the most concentrated of any industry in the world. And it hasn't even existed that long.

From a political economy standpoint, when we think about wealth inequality, when we think about access to jobs, when we think about all of these things, it is, for me, the poster child of what we're fighting. Who's responsible for climate change that we're taking on, and it's political framing, in that sense as well. For us, more than anything else, it's about the money. If energy has been a vehicle, in particular, fossil fuel energy, by which we have collected and aggregated enormous wealth, to a very small subset of companies and individuals, over the last hundred years, energy democracy is, to some degree, about changing our infrastructure.

There's a scenario where we can change our infrastructure, without changing our balance of power, and our distribution of money. There is a version of the next 50 years, and in particular, the next 15 or 20, that is a corporate rollout of clean energy, at utility scale.

Then there's the energy democracy version, which is about distributed generation in cities, and towns and villages. People having control of their energy, and financially benefiting from it. We're not paying rent to global corporations, for the rest of our lives. We are working on a local basis, to take control of our energy system, and to own that energy system, where that makes sense, to have it be most cost-effective, and also most resilient, in the face of a changing climate. That's some of the high-level framing. For me, that's important for understanding how we communicate it. Depending on who we're working with, we communicate it in a way that says, "These are the parts”, our energy's extremely complex, especially in the United States. With every utility, every State incentive program, we have one of the most regulated industries in the world. It's our role as an organizer and educator to tell them a story first. Capturing the imagination. Why it's important that we're doing clean energy. As far as the mechanics go, we take them as deep as they're ready to go.

The stat I like to cite is that most people spend 7 minutes a year thinking about their electric bill.

When we talk about what that education is, it's explaining to them that if they install solar on their roof, that many kilowatt hours they produce in a given month, they no longer have to buy from the utility. And where are they going to see those savings? And how is their meter going to spin backwards. And what policies might get triggered? And what is the broader discussion, in effectively, the fight with the utility, that is well underway now, over how projects get compensated.

But, really, the money is what this all boils down to. If people make this transition, and make this switch to clean energy, how likely is it that they're going to get a good return on their investment? That they're going to save money on their energy bills, based on all the rules we have set up. That's where our education is focused. On telling a story to grab the heart. And on ensuring people, once they're ready to start thinking about clean energy, that it's a strong, sound financial choice that's well backed by a lot of good policy and rules that are in place, to protect them.

I understand how you would approach an individual, or a company, saying, "Let's put solar on your personal roof." But how do you define local? Do you work with cities or municipalities as local entities, and not just the individual?

That's a great question. One of solar's biggest, thorniest challenges right now, is that solar is both very popular, but still very poorly understood. It's customer acquisition costs are really high. It's not good at telling a story. It's very staff and labor intensive to find a person who wants to become a solar customer and get them to actually move forward. That's why a lot of our biggest companies, like SolarCity, have been going out of business. Or getting bought up by Tesla, and sold off for parts.

Figuring out how to cost-effectively educate people about clean energy, and to build that sense of trust, that it's a good thing to do, and it's time to move forward, is a really key piece of what we do. Partnering with groups like municipalities is one of the ways that we do that. We have a partnership with The City of Melrose, north of Boston, with a pilot campaign. We are partnering with them on a year-long campaign to do solar on some of their larger roofs, on their small businesses, and nonprofits. Through that process, we are working with their energy commission, which includes many volunteers from the city, to do outreach events, to bring forth people who are board members of nonprofits, who run small businesses in the city, and to educate them about the benefits of clean energy, and why they might want to do solar.

You're effectively using the city, that is a trusted brand, or a point of trust in an area, to accelerate the education process around clean energy, because they are lending their brand to that year-long endeavor.

Another version of working with public entities are the two projects underway in New York City. We're renting the roofs of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which is a large, publicly-owned building by the Economics Development Corporation in New York City, to develop a low-income community floor project, on that roof. That will be owned and operated to benefit low-income residents in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.

We’re also renting 40 rooftops of NYCHA, which is the public, affordable housing building entity, in New York City. We'll be bringing the benefits of clean energy to 350 households, who live in that public, affordable housing.

You mentioned resiliency – which is massively important considering the frequency of natural disasters around the world and in the US. But clean energy cannot be stored, and we are not in control of production, so how resilient is it?

When we think about energy democracy, there's basically two versions of work that are underway, globally. There's the off the grid, what we call, "Micro Development," happening in rural areas, in Africa, and beyond, where we have no grid and clean energy is allowing us to leapfrog the enormous expense of building out all these poles and wires. You can extend centralized energy across great spans of the continent. They can build enough solar to power a town, plop in enough wires to connect all that up to the village, and add some batteries, importantly, as you noted, so that you can store power. So you don't have to make all your hay when the sun is shining, and you can use power at night. That's the localized version.

It's helpful to think about that in the U.S. context, where we are doing an enormous retrofit project. We have all this existing infrastructure, that existed to do one thing really well, and we are figuring out how to retrofit it into something really different.

We don't really do any resiliency-focused projects, or projects that are sold, as they're explicitly resiliency benefiting. We also don't have policy, that really incentivizes resiliency, just yet. It's starting to come online. Post Hurricane Sandy, a lot of the money starts to free up, and thinkers start to get more creative at the policy level, about how to incentivize things, like storage. Which is the single biggest factor in our resiliency. Can we create a lot of clean energy and figure out how to store it, such that we can operate a system of distributed microgrids, that are all interconnected, within our broader great infrastructure?

We already have examples of microgrids, where we've cared about it, all over our society. A great example of a microgrid, that got put to the test during Hurricane Sandy, was in New York City. There are some very compelling photos that show the island of Manhattan, right in the immediate aftermath of that hurricane, and just Wall Street is still lit up. Because Wall Street is full of backup generators, and effectively an entirely localized grid system that can be islanded, when and if Con Ed, which is the local utility, ever loses broader power. That part of the city is fully lit up, and still operational, and the rest of the city is in total darkness. That costs a significant amount of money, for Wall Street to be able to do that. But, for them, it was worth it. Because being without power, for even a moment, costs our global economy an enormous amount of money.

We have the technology, the know-how. What we're building the will to do, is to create policies and incentives, that have us do basically that, but instead of diesel generators, and a basement, we have solar and wind, and lot of other forms of clean energy. And then, batteries that are storing all of that clean energy, located all across our modern grid, in an interconnected way.

When I think about the work we're doing today, on a path towards resiliency, it’s that we're building the justification, and laying the groundwork for that. Our work today is to install a lot of that clean energy, right now, and that's what we know how to do well. We have a lot of processes in place for the work that we will have to do in the coming years. We will have to figure out how to make our grid more like a sum of little, interconnected parts. So that each little piece of it can be islanded from the rest, and be interdependent, and interoperable. It won't need to be one, contiguous piece. That's going to take an enormous amount of investment. Then we're going to need to finance a ton of batteries, and other forms of energy storage. We're going to need a lot more control on all of our things that use electricity, such that they can ramp up and down. So we can have more, broader coordination.

There's all this stuff, on the technical side, that will be happening. Right now, investing as an organization, and figuring out how to get solar, and the savings associated with it, into communities that are not benefiting from solar, are not benefiting from clean energy, and have been left out of this rapidly-growing economy. Both in terms of consumer benefits, and in terms of jobs, on both sides of that equation.

Do you think a massive grid transition is inevitable? To microgrids, to sustainable and clean energy?

I do. I think we've passed the tipping point, where we're heading towards clean energy. We have capital working in favor of that. Just the basic economics of utility-scale clean energy has gotten so cheap, that in the fully unsubsidized world utility-scale clean energy projects, like offshore wind, which is now coming to Massachusetts, and New York in a big way, like giant, solar arrays that are outcompeting coal, and gas, in India right now, and selling for unbelievably low price points. Or, onsite wind, and all kinds of things. Clean energy, at the largest scale, is winning on a pure, economic basis, more and more, all across the globe. It's displacing new, natural gas systems, new coal, new things like that. I think that part of it is inevitable.

The part that's not inevitable is that we'll require enormous political will, and a decision figuring out who matters.

Not only is clean energy inevitable, but also electrification is inevitable. We're going to move most of our transportation to run off of electricity, if not all of it in the next 50 years. We're going to move a lot of our heating, that's currently using coal, and gas, and oil, to electricity. Our society is going to be, and needs to be, if we're going to hit our climate goals, run almost entirely on electricity. And that electricity needs to be almost entirely renewable, in the fairly-near future. Especially in developed countries, like the U.S.

What do you need to happen within policy to incentivize the work you do? On a micro sense, what does that language need to look like?

We develop small-scale, solar projects. We're developing projects in the 25 kilowatts, for a church. Or, 500 kilowatts for a community. At a high level, we need progressive policies that are not just basic. We benefit from policies that see the value of having localized generation. We're putting panels in our cities right at the point of use, where power is being used.

But there is a complicated equation that is the battle of the industry, which is, "What is the value of solar?" Or, "What is the value of local, clean energy?"

If we produce a kilowatt hour, in downtown Boston, and that kilowatt hour is produced in the middle of summer, when the total grid is most stressed, because we're entering the most power, that kilowatt hour is very, very valuable. Because we're producing it at a time of highest need, on this supply and demand perspective. That kilowatt hour means we don't have to turn on one of the diesel generators waiting in the wings somewhere in Upstate New York, to create and sell power at an enormous expense into the grid to meet the demand of all the cooling happening in Boston.

But the equation of how valuable is it, is the equation for now, and forever. What is it really and truly worth? That's the industry battle with the utilities, right now, to get what we feel is fair compensation for this local, distributed generation.

Policy that benefits distributed generation, and within that policy, recognizing the historical barriers our society has created to adoption.

Policy that says, when we create funding pots, and incentives for clean energy, we use that as an opportunity to also overcome the barriers that would prevent clean energy from getting into low, and moderate income communities.

That would prevent it from getting into businesses, and nonprofits, and in effect, a large majority of the buildings. On a fairness perspective, it's good policy because we fill our pots with money, in a public sense, equally, from everyone who pays into the system. When we distribute the pots of money through these clean energy projects, they should be evenly distributed. From our perspective that's a big part of the work we're doing. We are trying to be a part of the movement creating a more diverse and just transition to clean energy. With a more diverse workforce. A more diverse consumer base.

In a nutshell, we want policies that incentivize low-income adoption and clean energy, and adoption in under-invested communities, and recognize the significant barriers we have to overcome in doing that.

To give you an example, we solved a number of barriers to be able to get financing for projects in low-income households. We went to actually develop a whole portfolio of low-income households and found out that the majority of them hadn't had their electrical rooms, or metering setups, updated in the last 60 years. They were two policy eras out of date. Those are going to cost $10,000 a building, just to bring them up to code, before we even consider the intervention of solar. As a society, if we want things to be evenly distributed, we have to pay for the barriers our society has created.

That's insane. Who’s responsible for keeping everything up to date? There’s no government body monitoring this?

No. The government body's rule is if you're going to do construction on a home, you have to bring it up to code. Solar counts as construction. If it's not up to code, you have to bring it up to code, and the government doesn't create any progressive rules, that allow low-income homeowners to do that. Which is another interesting part of gentrification. You sell your home to the rich person, who can afford to make all those upgrades. But, the existing homeowner, without that sale, and new cash that comes into the building, doesn't have the means to make those updates.

Poverty becomes self-reinforcing. You have progressively more and more under-invested buildings, that become more and more expensive to live in, and only get updated when it gets sold to someone with significant resources who can afford to revamp the whole thing. In lieu of government intervention, and incentives that are allocated, on a progressive basis.

To be clear there is no policy that says, for any number of reasons, homes need to be maintained and updated? It doesn’t matter to anyone they’re so far behind?

In theory it matters. There are a lot of legacy setups that are complicated to maintain. For instance, in Boston we have some of the oldest building stock in the country. People's meters are in the basement. The new rule is meters have to be outside, on the side of the building, so that if the utility company wants to come by and service the building, they can actually get to it without having to call the homeowner, and be let into the basement.

That's like this big, electrical intervention, where you're going to pay electricians to move all that stuff around. The short answer is people would like for it to be updated, but we haven't had the policy will to pay for that fix, and match, for any kind of subsidy. It's basically just said, "Well, if you ever want to do a major construction project, you have to bring it up to code, and find a way to pay for good compliance." And that falls on you, as a homeowner, period.

What are you working on currently?

As a key base solar developer, you think about us like an affordable housing developer, ready to assign places to build solar, who puts together financing that makes it accessible. And educate the owners of those places, about the benefit of solar, and how to go about doing it.

We are building one of the first organizations that's doing that, explicitly, for nonprofits. The industry has been royalling with a new study that just came out recently. That study: racial and ethnic barriers to solar adoption, for rooftop solar, showed with a lot of accuracy, that black communities, particularly in the United States, even normalizing for income, have significantly, and statistically lower adoption rates of clean energy. When we think about the work we're doing, it's to address disparities. We have communities that are middle to upper income, often white neighborhoods, with massive modernization efforts underway, around clean energy, and other pieces. And then we have the Amazons, and all of these large corporations rolling out clean energy, in a big way. These people are saving a ton of money because it makes a lot of sense to do. It's not a vanity project. These are really cost-effective interventions that require the ability to leverage capital. They have the ability to borrow money, or to finance contracts in some way, that allow them to do this stuff. We are working to bring that chain benefit, to the equivalent markets at both sizes.

Instead of the Amazon, we want to bring free and clean energy to the YMCA, to the temple, synagogue, the church, which our office is in.

We want to be bringing it to those folks. At the household level, we want to bring it to the low-income household. And start that process of bringing in the financing, and the resources it's going to take to have their home be comfortable, powered by clean energy, and affordable to live in.

I talked a lot about access. We offer pay-as-you-go models, we offer loan options, and coach people through different ways of paying for this clean energy transition that's underway. That's a big part of our consumer side work. On the job side, when we think about who's working in industry, the big numbers the Solar Foundation put out, is that it is still 70% white, and male, of which I, myself, am included. I’m very dedicated to being a part of changing, and evolving that statistic, over time. That’s one of the key pieces of the work we have before us, to do energy democracy well. To ensure we have a diverse stakeholder group, who are making the decisions, deciding what's the next community that gets a big, community-wide marketing campaign.

What's the next community that gets the next, big efforts around clean energy? In a market-based context, industry decides where clean energy goes, and how it goes. The industry needs to be reflective of the people they want to serve. Some of our projects have direct, workforce training funds. Our work in the city will partner with a number of different folks, including Green City Force. That will actually directly train 30 residents experiencing joblessness, and help do matchmaking with them, after they're time in that workforce program, to actually assign a job in clean energy. That's a larger initiative. At the local level, we do work with grassroots groups, who want us to do more clean energy. But also want to see their young people getting activated, around clean energy. We are working with high schools, in the neighborhoods, like Dorchester. We do a lot of work in schools. We're starting to talk with faculty, and staff, in doing training. Not just like, "Hey, you got solar on your roof. Isn't that great?" But, how do we build some of that into curriculum. How do we tell the story about that school having gone solar? That instills a sense of pride, and that makes people say, "That's really cool. I want to get more involved with that. I want to have that be a part of my story, going forward."

That is a very 360 approach.

I certainly appreciate your saying that, and I think from our perspective, at once, we are community-based, but we're a developer, right? We're trying to build a replicable model, that allows us to expand clean energy. We have a revenue model. We are not registered, but we are on our way, to becoming a benefit corporation. You believe that business can be a force for good, in this modern context. We have that side of us.

But this clean energy transition needs to happen so quickly, it's not going to happen through traditional marketing.

It's not going to happen by robocalling people, by sending out mailers, by filling people's inboxes with newsletter updates. It's going to happen when we tell a powerful enough story, that it's going to build our movement, and actually drive systemic change. Like what we're seeing with the Green New Deal. On the policy level, we have to build that kind of love for the work we have before us, in a societal context.

Have you looked closely at the Green New Deal? It's a little vague still, but is it using any of the language you just mentioned? Is it the progressive policy you're looking for?

Yeah, absolutely. Obviously, at the national level, the principles of the Green New Deal are not set. They're pretty high-level, stretch goals. But I think they’re good for rallying the troops, as talking points while we build political will, to actually go out and do it. New York state, and Governor Cuomo just put out his version of a Green New Deal. Our job now, between the politicians putting out press releases, and things actually happening, is to work. That's where the utilities, and lobbyists water everything down – between press release and implementation. There’s up until the press release, and there's the work that happens after. At a high level the language is right. We're starting to see a version of climate work, that is much more grounded in community benefit. Is much more grounded in how it attracts people. We're not talking as much about carbon in the atmosphere. We're starting to talk more about community benefit, about low-income access, about jobs. Those are all the things that matter to people. Not carbon in the atmosphere. The language is changing, and the focus is coming back to including marginalized communities, and those who have been excluded. Putting our dollars behind that, saying that matters to us, that we will actually pay to transition jobs of fossil fuel workers, we will pay to do the massive employment efforts, that are needed before us, to make this more accessible.

The short version is, we're headed in a good direction, and the rubber will hit the road, as we go forth. But, having jobs in there, that teach us something, is really beneficial to it being successful, and being able to build a coalition behind it.