We say it here at CleanTechnica all the time — The Future is Now. We have all the solutions we really need to fix the climate crisis. The tech, the economics, the “curb appeal” … it’s all there. So why isn’t it happening everywhere, all the time? One of the key remaining obstacles is community involvement. Local people have local needs and local priorities that sometimes don’t cleanly line up with the broader problem of climate change. The tech needs explaining. Change is hard. And on top of that, there is a lot of financial interest out there to keep the status quo, with fossil-funded PR firms deliberately casting fear, uncertainty, and doubt on climate solutions just like big tobacco did about the health risks of smoking. It all slows down the change that is needed.
Working with local communities has, historically, often included asking them to take time out of their day to show up for a community meeting where we ask them for free advice on how to implement our technology in their community. Imagine a wind energy developer showing up, telling people that, yes, there’s some benefit to you in terms of potential jobs and cleaner air, and that your local coal plant (where someone’s sister might work) will be shut down, and that there will be some disruption for several years of construction, but that, in the long term, their kids might have a nicer planet to live on. Imagine that, in addition, that same community might’ve received anti-wind mailers, canvassers, leaflets, ads in the local paper, and even potentially a visit a year earlier from an anti-wind “nonprofit” spokesperson who showed up with gifts and food and a slide deck with really scary potential health risks of wind energy (regardless of whether true or not, most people don’t know the difference between fake news and real news, pseudoscience and real science). *Side note: This really happens. There are people who make a lot of money scaring local communities about the dangers of wind energy, penning op-eds about the dangers of electric vehicles, of rooftop solar … and on and on.
The results are easy to predict, and when you see local resistance to clean tech developments like wind farms, now you might understand why a little more.
A better way
The Elemental Excelerator, a Hawaii-based nonprofit with a mission to wean Hawaii and the world off fossil fuels, has pioneered a community engagement solution with some of its 100+ clean tech startups. It includes investing actual dollars in local communities (funding nonprofits and community groups to help build programs, rather than just asking them for free advice). It gets buy-in and shows that the local community’s time and energy is valued in a real way.
Elemental has now been spreading this community engagement model and believes that this is the missing piece in our transition to a clean future, and Elemental CEO Dawn Lippert recently did a TED Talk on the topic. She notes that while $500 billion was invested in clean tech last year, only ~$9B was invested in community partnerships to facilitate clean tech adoption, and that this gap is one of the biggest things we need to address, and fast.
From theory to practice
It’s a great concept, and a clear need. What does community engagement look like in practice? Our company, Pono Home, went through this with Elemental in 2018, the first year that Elemental ran this “Equity and Access” program track targeted at community engagement and equitable access to clean energy for all people. We won a grant from Elemental to do home energy efficiency work with low-income households in East Palo Alto, and hired a local nonprofit, Acterra, to help us implement the program. Acterra helped with recruiting local employees, logistics, and marketing, including hiring local translators to translate our marketing materials to a half dozen languages, helping to ensure we reached the “hard to reach” households where language, time, and money were significant barriers to the adoption of clean energy.
The results were on point for the goals of the program — we reached almost a hundred “hard to reach” households, implementing free efficiency measures including everything from weatherization to LEDs to water heater blankets to high-efficiency faucets. Each household we worked with we estimated would save, on average, $4,000 over a 10-year period, and reduce their carbon footprint along the way. It was not without its challenges, of course. From a business perspective, technology is “clean,” and working with people is “messy.” Our company lost money implementing the program, and one of our employees burned out and resigned from our company as a result of trying to manage a local worker who became aggravated by the inconsistent work (stemming from things in the community that were outside our control and that a smarter CEO than me might have better predicted). But the lessons learned, both for our company and for the greater ecosystem, were invaluable.
Just like the first solar panels that might not have worked perfectly, working with community in a new model of progress is bound to come with obstacles and pitfalls, but just like the solar panels, the programming and playbook will only continue to improve. And the bottom line is: it needs to happen. The Elemental way (engaging community) is the clear path forward, and Elemental just released a square partnership toolkit to help more companies work alongside community.
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