Featured, Roddenberry Fellowship

When The Lights Go Off During Fire Season, The People Can Turn them Back on

Crystal Huang
People Power Solar Cooperative
2020 Fellow

In the wake of one of the most devastating wildfire seasons in California’s history, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and other California utilities carried out widespread “Public Safety Power Shutoffs” (PSPS) across urban and rural areas  The PSPS program, which purported to protect against wildfires during especially dry and windy days, was shoddily and suspiciously rolled out in the midst of a highly political moment for PG&E. Hundreds of thousands of PG&E customers, many of them low-income and working class, were held hostage by the utility company, left without necessary amenities and without any recourse, highlighting the urgent need for a rapid re-design of our energy system around people instead of profit. 

As we go through the hottest summer in 70 years and the fall wildfire season arrives, utility companies in California will once more be shutting off power and have no plan to ensure power security for the vulnerable communities who rely on power to live during the pandemic. Most programs designed to address the disproportionate impact of PSPS on marginalized communities and those with Medical Baseline needs have been focusing on putting batteries in a portion of individual homes and public spaces for communities to gather in. The coronavirus pandemic adds an additional layer of challenges as it becomes impractical for people to gather indoors or have equitable access to these benefits due to the digital divide that came with the pandemic.

How can communities stay connected and stay alive
when they need power to live? 

California needs solutions that enable everyone to participate in our energy system as more than just consumers. Add to this the evident consensus that collective action is needed to fight climate change, and it is clear that models that leverage community control and distributed forms of financing and organizing should play a crucial part in our transition.

People Power Solar Cooperative is a member-owned, subscriber-owned, and worker-owned renewable energy cooperative that provides a unique model for community ownership and control of energy in California. We are a movement cooperative that enables our 100 and growing member-owners to participate in the energy transition and realize the powerful benefits of energy ownership, financially as community investors, socially for community resilience, and environmentally for collective climate action. What’s more, many of our members are renters or low-income homeowners who could not otherwise participate in solar ownership in California. Our ownership model opens up the opportunity for solar to be more than just clean power on buildings: we are an organizing tool that helps build the power, both figuratively and literally, for an ecosystem of all sorts of other changes (housing! food! water! jobs! & more!) that communities have been fighting for. 

As Cooperative member-owners, we have a unique ability to respond to PG&E’s shutoffs. In January 2020, the Cooperative launched a two-year plan to activate member-owners who come from communities most disproportionately impacted by PSPS and the fossil fuel economy in order to build and steward community-controlled energy projects that will foster local energy resilience. Our goal is to build a prototype “resilience hub” project by the fall of 2020 and lay the foundation for building community-led, community-financed solar + battery storage projects at scale. We will also be launching a Mutual Aid network of shared battery packs to be ready for the fire season.

Clean energy is about more than decarbonization. Through this cooperative organizing model, we aim to dramatically change the face of energy ownership in America for the grassroots empowerment of communities. At stake is the exigent need to pull humanity back from the edge of climate catastrophe while ensuring the equitable distribution of benefits made possible by this transition: wealth, health, resilience, and more. 

In this time of darkness, from community organization to foundations, you are invited to partner with us and cooperatively turn the lights back on at scale. Get involved here


Meet the Author

Crystal Huang

People Power Solar Cooperative

Crystal Huang is a grassroots community-builder and the leader of People Power Solar Cooperative. On her free time that she manages to find, she is also running a startup project called CrossPollinators to foster collaboration between grassroots solutions that build community power. She has more than 10 years of experience in climate solutions technology—from resource recovery, to energy management, to solar. After serving as the Chief Operations Officer for a solar startup incubator, Powerhouse, she took on the role of Associate Producer of the climate film, “Time to Choose” (2016). Nationally, Crystal works with more than 30 local organizations to set up a mutual aid structure that serves as a collaborative resource and strategy center for organizations working to democratize energy.

Project Description

People Power Solar Cooperative is a movement cooperative designed to enable all of our Owners to start their own solar cooperatives to realize the powerful benefit of energy ownership, financially as investors, socially for community resilience, and environmentally for collective climate action.

We activate our communities to see energy as a tool to build community power and solve at least two problems: 1) Most people can’t own solar, and 2) Peoples’ lack of understanding of energy has stymied collective climate action.

In 2020, we will replicate our innovative “Commons Model” to allow community members to finance, develop, and own solar projects on offsite properties in order to build wealth and collective empowerment, despite the lack of policy support in California.