True Sustainability Leadership Focuses on Common Interests

“Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.”
-- Samuel Johnson

As Fellows of the Leadership Institute, and as people who are engaged in sustainability efforts, you have a great opportunity to bring together your specialized expertise with broad trends that are happening regionally, statewide, and nationally. Indeed, bringing Fellows together is both the greatest asset of and contribution made by the Leadership Institute – I still feel connected to the Fellows from my class. 

Less than a year ago, I made a significant change from serving my community through government to supporting communities statewide through a benefit corporation, California Clean Power. For me, working with small towns, rural counties, and bustling cities has underscored how critical local leaders are to our collective efforts for environmental, economic, and equitable communities.

Turbine Behind

To provide a little context, let me tell you about the company I founded. California Clean Power exists to give communities their power back. The founding members and I wanted to help communities overcome the hurdles that made it so difficult to establish a Community Choice (CCA) program.

Community Choice is a rare triple-win, with the potential of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by providing communities greater control over their energy supply, lowering electricity rates, and keeping substantial money local for investment in community priorities. Community Choice can also jump-start economic growth by increasing demand from clean energy generators and create local jobs to power a sustainable economy. As Fellows, getting engaged to advance Community Choice statewide is one of the more powerful things you can do to address environmental and economic resiliency.

But, more than 10 years out from the legislation that gave communities the right to Community Choice, only a few bold jurisdictions have implemented programs. The biggest hurdle, by far, is economic. To establish a program, a city or county must produce substantial funds to pay for development and operational costs. Additionally, municipalities have many competing priorities, with limited resources and expertise in this area. Further, communities under approximately 100,000 in population are generally not large enough to create the millions of dollars needed in program revenue to support the staff and infrastructure needed to run the day-to-day operations of the program.

San Francisco

To clear these hurdles, our company directly pays for all of the start up and initial operating costs, and then provides all of the staff and infrastructure needed to operate the program. The best part is, our fee for this service is less than what it would cost for the community to hire staff and secure contractors on its own. This leaves more program revenue for local investment, renewable energy, and rate savings. What is more, all operational decisions and policy making is completely public.

I founded California Clean Power as a Benefit Corporation, and we voluntarily sought B Corp Certification; our mission, values, and beliefs as a company are all supportive of community resilience and control. Governments have been extremely welcoming of our proposals – yet we have run into push-back from individuals and grassroots organizations.

As we developed our services, we have made several positive changes to reflect community feedback and interests, emphasizing transparency and local control. While difficult to do, these changes happened because of honest conversations around common interests. Unfortunately, I’m seeing arguments bubbling up now that are more concerned with particular positions rather than common interests, and that may, unintentionally, slow the progress of Community Choice.

There are strongly held positions on whether it is better to establish Community Choice through large multi-jurisdictional agencies, or at a more localized individual city level; to carry out daily operations through a mix of government staff and contractors, or to have daily operations handled through a public-private partnership (like what my company offers). This has had the effect of creating entrenched “camps,” with passionate voices on each side, trying to advance the “right” approach. 

Family

The way I see it, the more Community Choice programs that stand up and start taking action to invest in local jobs and priorities, reduce GHG emissions, and give the public a voice in their energy choices, the better off we are as a State. Accomplishing that intent will necessarily happen in different ways for different communities. 

Leadership in sustainability depends on people who are willing to advance common interests rather than win arguments over positions. This is easier said than done. You will find more allies and support amongst people who share your position, and it is easier to express concern and anger than to engage with people who have conflicting positions.

The test of your leadership is one of contribution and engagement rather than delay and prevention. Through the former, you have the opportunity to find solutions in shared intent; through the later, you will always argue a position without real hope of solution or meaningful progress. You must advance issues in sustainability now. Waiting for “all possible objections [to] be overcome” will only create more time for continued environmental degradation and a widening equity gap.

I’m not asking you to do an easy thing – ships are safe at port and protected from angry seas. People who are most comfortable with the protected port will say you are wrong for setting sail. But since our earliest cultures, we have built ships to endure the fierce winds beyond the horizon for the benefit of our families and communities. 

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Peter Rumble is the Chief Executive Officer of California Clean Power. Prior to that, he served as Deputy County Administrator overseeing Community and Government Affairs and as Director of Health Policy for Sonoma County. Peter, a 2012 Fellow, is currently serving as Chair of the Board of the Leadership Institute. Click here for a full bio.

This blog was produced as informational material for the Leadership for a Sustainable Future course.  It has been provided to the public to promote community wide education on issues of sustainability. You can support the education efforts of the Leadership Institute, 501 (c)3 non-profit, by donating here.