Getting Apollo off the Ground -- A Guest Commentary
September 23, 2005 — By Steven J. Moss, San Francisco Community Power
Energy and labor are intimately related. After all, energy is by and
large a replacement for labor – most energy-using devices save time.
Washing machines replaced stone-slapping methods of clothes cleaning;
cars substitute for slower modes of manual transport. This historical
relationship has recently formed the basis for a counter-movement lead
by labor unions and environmental groups – the Apollo Alliance. Apollo
seeks to change the energy-labor relationship into one in which cleaner
energy sources create jobs, rather than eliminates them.
So far Apollo has been closer to a delayed space shuttle launch than a
successful trip to the moon. While energy efficiency, solar power, and
“demand-response” have made steady gains in state and federal energy
policies, the linkage between energy and economic development hasn’t.
Still, despite the lack of policy reform, there’s ample evidence that
well-crafted community-based energy management programs can provide
multiple benefits, including reduced polluting air emissions, job
creation, and economic development.
San Francisco Community Power is one example of how energy and
employment can be successfully linked, as well as the challenges of
doing so. SF Power was originally funded by power plant mitigation
monies. The organization trained unemployed residents of San Francisco
neighborhoods where aging power plants are located to install energy
saving equipment at low income households and small businesses. The
work itself was not particularly complicated – literally screwing in
compact fluorescent light bulbs or installing motion sensors – but it
required patience, care, and “handyman” level competence.
Virtually every worker hired by SF Power had “issues,” before and after
their training. The training itself was the first time some of them had
been in an adult classroom setting, and many did not have study skills,
or even know how to behave respectfully towards the teachers or one
another. Most of them, including the women, had their wages garnished
for back child care liabilities, reducing their incentive to work. And
throughout their employment work-disrupting situations emerged for all
of them. Girlfriends or family members got sick, and had to be taken
care of; cars broke down or were stolen entirely; addictions
re-emerged, with individuals simply disappearing for days, weeks, or
Still, and without the full-range of social support resources typical
of many back-to-work programs, the job got done. Thousands of
households or businesses were provided with devices that tangibly
reduced their energy bills, as well as lessened reliance on the locally
polluting power plants. Less money for utility bills meant more dollars
in consumers and businesses pockets, with concomitant benefits to the
local economy, including, undoubtedly, more job creation. And every
person employed in the program expressed pride in their work to help
improve their community’s environment. The outcome was precisely what
the Apollo Alliance wants to achieve.
When the mitigation monies, which were administrated by the City and
County of San Francisco, ran out, SF Power successfully turned to the
local utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, for funding support. A
version of the program continued, including relying on community
residents to do the work. But PG&E, as governed by the California
Public Utility Commission, did not have the same interest in bundling
energy saving efforts with job creation and economic development. The
utility’s direction from its regulators was to obtain cost-effective
energy savings as soon as possible. As a result, it had less patience
for the slower work pace caused by newly refurbished workers, and no
funding for the extra staff time required to make community residents
workforce-ready. It was difficult to get the resources necessary, or
even obtain access, to support training opportunities.
Still again, the PG&E-funded program has proved successful, employing
two-dozen community members and cumulatively serving close to fifteen
thousand homes and businesses cost-effectively. But the need to wage a
“permanent war” to attract, train, manage, and replace low income
workers has taken its toil on SF Power. It’s not clear, four years
after its launch that this type of effort can effectively compete
against private sector companies whose only motivation is the bottom
line, and who are willing to hire fewer individuals from outside the
community being served to do more work at lower pay.
And that’s why Apollo needs to get off the ground. While utility
ratepayers may not have an interest in job creation, environmental
justice, or even economic development, society does. And it just so
happens that society members and ratepayers are one and the same.
Energy regulators -- as well as other one-issue government agencies,
for that matter – should abandon their single-minded focus on achieving
a solitary goal. Instead we should use our scarce resources to get as
many “two-fers” as possible. A dollar spent buying someone a light bulb
will get some energy savings. Spending a dollar and a “bit” having that
same bulb screwed in by a rehabilitated worker who lives in the
neighborhood will not only save energy, it will create it as well:
previously under-utilized human energy.
Steven Moss is the publisher of the Neighborhood Environmental
Newswire. He serves as Executive Director of San Francisco Community