Here at Greenlining, we often say that if our community members aren’t at the decision-making table, we’re on the menu – and so often that is true. We find ourselves in rooms all the time in which decision-makers, industry folks, and even advocates like us are all talking about this community or that community, and what people there need and want, but no one is actually talking with community members to ask those critical questions. To begin to solve this problem, Greenlining and Southern California Edison (yes, the electric company) have kicked off a working group that we hope will change that dynamic and, in turn, change the way SCE operates as a company and a community partner.

The working group consists of community leaders, environmental and social justice advocates, and energy policy thought leaders, and we will work together to develop and pilot community-driven ways to increase clean energy solutions like community solar and electric vehicles in environmental justice communities across Southern California. What’s new about this effort is who’s in the driver’s seat – it’s not the utility and it’s not even the energy thought leaders. Instead, it’s the community leaders who will set the direction for the working group. Community leaders will identify opportunities for change and barriers to progress, and then it’s up to us policy wonks and engineers to go back and figure out how to make those opportunities real.

What’s exciting about this effort isn’t just the possibility of creative new models for positive community impact that can be tested, tweaked, and hopefully scaled through this process. I’m also very excited about what this effort says about what it means to be an expert when it comes to equity and energy policy. I’ve been in too many rooms where an economist, engineer, or career policy professional will speak at length from their “expertise” about communities they’ve never lived in, worked in, or even thought about in any sense other than what’s reflected in their spreadsheets.

This working group will be different. For example, at our first meeting earlier this month, we took a deep dive into community solar, and started by asking our community experts “what benefits do you want community solar to deliver?” Of the ideas that floated to the top of the list – including community ownership/assets, lower bills, job creation, and energy education – we identified shared priorities, and talked about the tradeoffs that might result from our priorities. It’s now up to Greenlining, SCE, and our partners to figure out how to turn those priorities into models we can pilot and policies we can implement. In this group, the community leaders have the real expertise, and we policy folks take our cues from them.

We live in a time of significant transition on our electric grid – in the way we use and think about power in our homes and businesses, and more broadly in the fuels we use to power our society and economy. We know what the end state needs to look like – clean, equitable, and prosperous – but the transition process from today’s technology to tomorrow’s is almost always highly inequitable, with wealthier customers and communities benefitting first and our communities years later, if at all. Yet at the same time, we know that the impacts of climate change and air pollution – the direct result of our fossil-fueled economy – hit our communities first and worst. An equitable transition, therefore, will put our communities at the heart of the solution and first in line to benefit. This working group aims to do just that.

SCE is demonstrating real leadership in stepping outside its comfort zone like this. It’s not every day you hear an electric company say (and actually mean), “Tell me how we should be doing things better.” I give SCE a heartfelt high five for going out on this limb, and I hope to see other utilities, policymakers, and clean energy players start to do the same.

Stephanie Chen is Greenlining’s Energy and Telecommunications Director. Follow her on Twitter.