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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. This weekend, I was up at Middlebury College where I did my undergrad. I spent a lot of time on our divestment campaign which focused on student organizing, and a number of different efforts to do more clean energy work. I always wanted to write and tell the stories behind clean energy, and I got more and more interested in implementation. I spent a lot of time going to communities were fossil fuel were extraction: I went to Pennsylvania for fracked gas, to Alberta for tar sands, and to communities fought various pipeline expansions in the Northeast, particularly Vermont and Massachusetts.

It was through all that that I became interested in trying to create solutions; to tell more stories and to bring our community’s money and politics towards the rapid transition that's underway.

I spent my first two years out of undergrad working with a Massachusetts-based organization called Co-op Power. Resonant Energy’s current co-founder Ben Underwood and I were on the team that pioneered the energy cooperative community solar program. This included everything from finding sites to organizing community forums and meetings to finance training. The barriers to democratizing energy are financial - 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.

The vast majority of my early work went into learning how to do all the complexities of solar financing and development and working with particularly investors who would fill that gap where banks would not. Eventually we would like to see 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. We found enough financing partners, like Co-op Power, who were willing to finance high-impact projects for nonprofits and low-income communities, where the biggest problem to solve was really on the organizing and development side. I have spent the last four years in the heart of energy democracy, working to build a development platform on which community-based projects can happen.

How do you define energy democracy?

We define energy democracy as expanding access, particularly in under-invested communities - this means you haven't had access to the tools and resources to plan, develop, and benefit from clean energy projects. It means 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 full cooperatively, owned and developed by the community. We're excited about 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.

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 and use.

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 for that long.

From a political economy standpoint, when we think about wealth inequality and employment access. For me, this is what we’re fighting for. It's about our money and 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 energy generation in cities and towns. People having control of their energy, and financially benefiting from it. 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, 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 with whom were working, our communication tools vary.

Our energy is 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 organizers and educators to tell them a story first, capturing the imagination why it's important that we're doing clean energy.

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, 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?

One of solar's biggest, thorniest challenges right now, is that solar is both very popular but still very poorly understood. It's that 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 the 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, 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, including many volunteers from the city, to do outreach events, to bring people who are board members of nonprofits, who run small businesses in the city, and 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 solar project on that roof. It 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 are a few ways. First, there's the off the grid, what we call, "micro development," happening in rural areas like those in Sub-Saharan Africa or Central Asia, where there is no grid and clean energy is allowing entire communities to leapfrog the enormous expense of building out all these poles and wires directly to locally controlled power source. They can build enough solar to power a town, use enough wires to bring power to communities, and add some batteries that, as you noted, so that you can store power so you can use power at night. That's the localized version.

It's helpful to think about that through an American lens, where we are doing the enormous retrofit of our utilities. We have all this existing infrastructure, we are figuring out how to retrofit it into something really different.

Regarding retrofitting, it is only now starting to creep forward. Post Hurricane Sandy, a lot of money starts to free up to let people get more creative at the policy level about how to incentivize a utility retrofitting

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 Wall Street is still lit up. Wall Street is so full of backup generators that it is effectively an entirely localized grid system that can be islanded when and if the public utility grid fails. That part of the city is fully lit up, and still operational, and the rest of the city is in total darkness. Why? 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 is the will to create policies and incentives. We have solar, wind, and a lot of other forms of clean energy as well as batteries that are storing all of that clean energy, located all across our modern grid in an interconnected way.

The work we're doing today, on a path towards resiliency. 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. 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, figuring out how to get solar and the savings associated with it into communities not already 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. We've passed the tipping point where we're heading towards clean energy. Just the basic economics of utility-scale clean energy has gotten so cheap that giant solar arrays and offshore wind farms are outcompeting coal and gas and selling for unbelievably low price points. 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, and other fossil fuel cites. I think that part of it is inevitable.

The part that's not inevitable is that we'll require enormous political will to keep fighting.

Not only is clean energy inevitable, but electrification is also inevitable. We're going to move most if not all of our transportation to run off of electricity, if not all of it in the next 50 years. We are going to heat our homes with electricity instead of coal, oil, and gas. Our society needs to be because if we're going to hit our climate goals, we’ll run almost entirely on electricity. And said electricity needs to be almost entirely renewable, especially in the 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 develop projects in the 25 kilowatts, for a church. Or, 500 kilowatts for a community, for examples. At a macro-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 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. That kilowatt hour is very, very valuable. Because we're producing it at a time of highest need that kilowatt hour means one of the diesel generators waiting somewhere in Upstate New York to create and sell power at an enormous expense.

But the equation of how valuable it is, is the equation for now, and forever. What is said kilowatt hour 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 both benefits distributed generation recognize 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 solar energy from getting powering in effect, a large majority of the buildings. 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 adoption and clean energy in under-invested communities, as well as 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. When we went to develop a whole portfolio of low-income households, we found the majority of them hadn't had either their electrical rooms nor metering setups updated in the last 60 years. They were 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'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. One sells their home to a richer 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 is 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 significantly more 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 hard to maintain. For instance, in Boston, we have some of the oldest buildings 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 that people would like for it to be updated, but we haven't had the political will to pay for repairs. 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 community based solar developer, you think about us like an affordable housing developer.

We are building one of the first organizations that is 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 that black communities, 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. 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. 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 allows them to invest in clean energy. We are working to bring that chain benefit, to the equivalent markets at both sizes.

Instead of the Amazons, we want to bring free and clean energy to the YMCA, to the temple, synagogue, the church, and small businesses in our community.

We want to be bringing clean energy to everyone. 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 we 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. When we think about who's working in the industry, the big numbers the Solar Foundation put out is that it is still 70% white and male, of which I 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 ensure we have a diverse stakeholder group, deciding what's the next community that gets a big, community-wide marketing campaign.

What's the next big effort around clean energy? In a market-based context, the energy sector decides where and how clean energy goes. The industry needs to reflect the we 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 directly train 30 residents experiencing joblessness to find employment in clean energy. That's a larger initiative. At the local level, we do work with grassroots groups who want to do more clean energy. We also want to inspire young people with clean energy. We are working with high schools in the neighborhoods like Dorchester. We do a lot of work in schools. We're starting talks with faculty and staff to include building clean energy in the curriculum. How do we tell the story about that school having gone solar? That instills a sense of pride, and that makes people want to get more involved with that.

That is a very 360 approach.

I certainly appreciate your saying that, and I think from our perspective, we are both community-based as well as a developer, right? We're trying to build a replicable model that allow clean energy to expand. 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.

This clean energy transition needs to happen quickly, so 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 by telling a powerful story, that we’re 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 public.  Governor Cuomo of New York 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. We're starting to see a version of climate work, that is much more grounded in community benefit. It’s 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 just carbon in the atmosphere. The language is changing, and the focus is coming back to include marginalized communities. 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 and 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 and continue to build a coalition.