Washington State enacted the Clean Energy Transformation Act in 2019, calling for our electrical system to be free of greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. It also called for programs that ensure utilities are responsive to all of their customers—and Puget Sound Energy has created its Equity Advisory Group to do just that. I spoke with Strategic Engagement Lead Diann Strom and Senior Community Engagement Representative Elizabeth Purdy to learn more about how PSE is moving forward.

Originally from Texas, Diann Strom has called the Pacific Northwest home for 15 years. Photo courtesy Puget Sound Energy

“Two years ago, CETA was passed by the legislature, which set some landmark clean electricity standards, and PSE supported that effort,” says Strom. “The standards relate to utilities being coal free by the end of 2025, carbon neutral by 2030, and providing 100% clean electricity by 2045.”

The goals of the Equity Advisory Group are also very clear. “What’s important to us is hearing a diverse mix of voices,” Strom continues. Energy planning is not something that most people think about, but it’s really important, so our goal is to bring new voices—especially from communities who have historically not had a seat at the table, due to costs, awareness, or systematic inequality.”

Right now, Strom and the rest of the team are hard at work on a four-year clean electricity plan. “It has a really compressed timeline—our final plan is due out in October, so we spent May and June working to engage our customers, in addition to meeting with our Equity Group,” Strom says. “We have 13 members, most of whom represent community-based organizations, bringing diverse experiences and viewpoints as well as geographic diversity to the table.”

Public utilities do not need to be an eyesore to their neighbors, as PSE’s “Fountain ARTility” proves. Photo courtesy Puget Sound Energy

Some of these partnerships are well established, but others are brand new. “When we meet with them, we’re excited to be able to better understand perspectives from low-income customers, and frontline communities like Black, Indigenous and people of color. We’re happy to have them make sure we’re framing this plan with community interests in mind,” says Strom. “Sustainable Connections is in the group, and they’re helping bring small businesses in. We also have Teresa Taylor from the Lummi Indian Business Council’s Office of Economic Policy participating and providing her lived experiences related to tribal interests. We met with the Institute for Energy Studies at Western Washington University; they did a focus group session with students to get their thoughts on green electricity and the benefits they see from it. And we’re working with other Skagit Valley and Island County groups, as well.”

In addition to mailers and meetings, PSE has also opened an online portal that can be accessed by customers on their own schedule. “Go to our website, sign up for our mailing list, take a look at what we’re doing. We most recently asked people for input on their clean electricity values, and what they see as a benefit, to help us develop a list of customer benefits to shape our plan and monitor into the future,” Strom says. “I would also note that our Equity Advisory Group meetings are open for observation—anyone can come watch. They’re streamed on YouTube, and we hold time to listen to public comments at the end of meetings.”

Elizabeth Purdy is a western Washington native who has lived in Whatcom County since 2018. “I’m very happy to have landed here, and I plan to stay forever.” Photo courtesy Puget Sound Energy

PSE also remains committed to helping in other ways. “The COVID Bill Assistance Program has given out about $725,000 since April to customers here in Whatcom County, and the program is continuing. We’re working with a lot of our community partners like the Opportunity Council, ensuring that agencies and nonprofit providers doing direct service for lower income individuals are helping spread the word about that opportunity,” says Elizabeth Purdy. “We also had the Small Business Energy Makeover that James Place Child Development Center received. They were able to get $45,000 in energy efficiency upgrades, including a better-quality air filter and energy efficient windows—all the things that ensure that childcare operators are able to continue safely operating during COVID.”

PSE’s outreach goes beyond what you might expect from an electrical utility. “We just helped Whatcom Community College Foundation establish a scholarship for a first-generation or under-represented student going into engineering, cyber-security or business, and hopefully we’ll have more things like that to pursue,” Purdy says. “We also gave $30,000 in contributions to food banks here in Whatcom County at the beginning of the year. Knowing that food security was of utmost importance, and something that people are experiencing in a new way with COVID, that was a contribution that we were really happy to work with community partners on.”

Well known for the good works it does in the community, Lydia Place is one organization that’s taken advantage of PSE’s Green Power Solar Grant. Photo courtesy Puget Sound Energy

Local residents can also keep an eye out for infrastructure projects that are in the works. “The City of Bellingham is a partner for community solar sites, and things like these will be taking shape in the next year. A public charging station is coming to Whatcom County, and you’ll be seeing more things like this,” says Purdy. “Safe, reliable, affordable is what PSE provides in terms of being a customer’s clean energy partner of choice.”

Strom echoes those values, and the vision for the future. “We’re on a path to 100% clean electricity, and our mission is ensuring that the transformation is equitable, that the benefits are equitable, that all customer voices are heard. Over the next couple of years, you’re going to see some different programs. Some are going to be solar; some might have batteries. I know that those sorts of things are coming—a cleaner electric future,” she says. “Clean, safe, affordable, reliable—that’s the bottom line.”

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