Utilities including those in California are reacting to a newfound national focus on racial justice by making public statements in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement, but are also following up with actions to support racial equity.
Research by E Source, a research and energy-efficiency consulting firm serving utilities in the U.S. and Canada, revealed that 21 utilities including Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and Xcel Energy have made social media posts in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Others, including Southern California Gas Co. and Sacramento Municipal Utility District, have since followed suit, Jessica Bailis, senior analyst for customer engagement solutions at E Source, said in a telephone interview. Elsewhere, utilities have posted statements on their websites decrying racism and expressing solidarity with varying degrees of specificity.
SDG&E on June 11 added $500,000 to the San Diego Foundation's COVID-19 Community Response Fund to support "communities in need, civic engagement and social justice." The donation, exclusively from shareholder funds, includes $50,000 for RISE San Diego, an organization that aims to "elevate and advance urban leadership," the company said in a news release. The utility plans to host community dialogues with RISE as well as a series of internal conversations to discuss the impacts of race and racism at the company.
Sempra Energy, SDG&E's parent company, pledged to as much as triple funds raised by employees to support organizations dedicated to fighting racism, discrimination and other social injustices, SDG&E spokeswoman Helen Gao said in an email.
Bill Smith, who began his role as Pacific Gas & Electric interim CEO July 1, told employees in a June 25 message that the company's senior leadership team speaks with "one, clear voice" in affirming that "Black Lives Matter," and supports the goals and desire for change the movement represents.
Pedro Pizarro, CEO of SCE parent Edison International, told employees on a June 5 companywide livestream that he viewed the reaction to the recent deaths of George Floyd—who died in May while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota—and others as a response to a "very justified rage."
"I don't think anyone can watch what's happened to these individuals . . . and just not feel outraged," Pizarro said. "I'm outraged." He expressed appreciation for "protestors exercising their First Amendment rights" in response to recent killings and to "longstanding racism and a history of inequities . . . That's one of the things I love about our country and our Constitution," he said.
"We can't forget the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and, just to be blunt about it, the role the color of their skin played in their deaths," Pizarro said.
SCE spokesperson Sally Jeun in a telephone interview said the discussion has continued during the company's subsequent employee livestream events, including one specifically centered on diversity and inclusion. Senior leadership sets the tone, but there is also a great deal of employee engagement on the topic, she said.
The Networkers, an employee and business resource group comprised of SCE volunteers, focuses on support, recruitment, retention and advancement of the company's Black employees. Its strong presence influences business decisions through regular conversations with management, Jeun said. Keisha McNeil, board president of the Networkers, led the recent livestream on diversity and inclusion along with SCE Senior Vice President for Strategy and Regulatory Affairs Carla Peterman. The group is working with company leadership to partner with historically Black colleges and universities to improve recruiting, and also on training efforts to help leaders acknowledge and mitigate unconscious bias.
California utilities claimed a corporate commitment to diversity and inclusion, and spokespeople said they had seen a noticeable shift around internal discussions on race, equality and justice in the weeks since Floyd's death. Erin Garvey of PG&E in a telephone interview pointed out that it was a "transformative time" for the utility with emergence from bankruptcy, a criminal indictment in 2018's Camp Fire, new leadership and its planned move from San Francisco to Oakland. "This has been one aspect of our culture that we're addressing," she said, adding that there is deep employee engagement on the subject. PG&E plans to assess its hiring practices, improve leadership selection and provide open forums to discuss race, equality and justice issues, she said.
Eva Lubyich of the University of California, Berkeley's Energy Institute at the Haas School of Business in a June 21 working paper wrote that Black communities pay on average $200 to $310 more per year for energy than white communities. People of color also suffer disproportionately from pollution caused by energy infrastructure and other industry (see CEM No. 1596).
"The long history of discriminatory housing policy, lending practices, and racial segregation" is a possible explanation for the gap, Lubyich wrote. In continued research, she will observe price differences, late fees, low-income assistance program participation and racist policies such as redlining to estimate the long-term impact on the energy burden for Black communities. Her work may inform policy design going forward.
"We know we have to do more than say, 'Black Lives Matter,'" SCE's Jeun said.