Giving Power to the People
An activist advocating for a community's energy rights turns entrepreneur reconceiving a city's power...
An activist advocating for a community's energy rights turns entrepreneur reconceiving a city's power structure.What if you could choose between brewing your morning coffee by burning coal or harnessing solar power? For the past 15 years, Paul Fenn has worked to divert control of the energy supply away from the utility companies and into consumers' hands. His core concept: Community Choice Aggregation, which gives residents in certain districts the legal authority to amass their individual buying power to purchase energy for their households from alternative sources instead of buying individually from the power company's coal plants.In 1994, as the 28-year-old director of the Massachusetts Senate Committee on Energy, Fenn-influenced by Nobel Prize-winning economist Ronald Coase's ideas of incorporating economics into environmentalism-penned statewide legislation that would become CCA. His bill passed, and Cape Cod was the first region to enact CCA. Today, more than 1 million Americans receive energy through CCA, from Martha's Vineyard to northeast Ohio.California passed CCA legislation seven years ago. And while cities like San Francisco are still working on alternative energy–provider logistics, the 2002 California bill Fenn authored incorporated unprecedented addendums, such as opening up access to utility meter data. That information allows potential energy distributors to cost-effectively identify and court customers by consumption habits.San Francisco called in Fenn and his energy consultancy firm Local Power to implement its first CCA. The company set an impressive target: to provide 51 percent renewable energy to the city's residences and businesses by 2017. "We set this schedule as our standard because of the severity of the climate crisis," Fenn says. A recently confirmed solar public works project, which combines energy generated largely from San Francisco rooftops with power from heat capture, wind, and batteries, should help in reaching that goal and ensuring that San Franciscans will soon decide where their energy comes from. Says Fenn: "We want to connect people to what they want."Photos by Mike Linksvayer (via Flickr)Return to the interactive site