Oakland aims for clean energy fix to health, jobs gap

Oakland port air pollution cities climate action
FlickrIan Kennedy
A view of the port of Oakland — a major contributor to air pollution in the East Bay city.

What does the way a city gets its power have to do with the local job market and the health of its citizen?

If you ask Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, a lot.

As part of the Bay Area city's goal to phase out fossil fuel energy and develop renewable power capacity, Schaaf on Friday detailed her hopes to outpace state and federal renewable energy goals by prioritizing community solar installations, seeking more state funding for transit-aligned development and building a new base of energy employment.

Her goal? To diminish the health impacts of carbon emissions and create job opportunities for low-income and minority residents.

“There are two opportunities,” Schaaf said at a forum hosted by the Atlantic magazine at Mills College in Oakland. “One is jobs, and one is health and recognizing that low-income communities of color have been unduly impacted by the poor choices that have been made in the past.”

In her quest, Schaaf is likely to run into obstacles from power utilities reluctant to finance renewable energy projects and economic trends that threaten middle-class manufacturing and technical jobs offered by clean energy companies. Still, the mayor framed the efforts as part of a necessary shift toward local governments devising their own climate change mitigation plans in the face of lagging federal action.

“We have tremendous power,” Schaaf said. “The world is not going to achieve the climate change goals it has set for itself without cities.”

East and West Oakland are home to some of the most polluted areas in the state of California. A 2015 report from the Alameda County Public Health Department noted that the city is home to several zip codes that rank in the top 5-10 percent of those areas most burdened by pollution from chemical facilities, shipping emissions and air quality issues stemming from heavy industry.

Earlier this year, those issues were at the fore when the city decided against opening a new coal shipping terminal at the city’s sprawling port.

“The coal industry is a dying industry,” Schaaf said at the event on Friday. “The number of jobs in coal is just a fraction of even the solar energy jobs in California.”

In 2015 alone, 35,000 solar jobs were added nationwide while oil and gas companies confronting steep commodity price declines slashed a combined 17,000 jobs, according to a report by the nonprofit Solar Foundation. California employs roughly 75,000 of the more than 200,000 solar industry workers nationwide.

Dan Rosen, co-founder and president of Oakland-based solar financing company Mosaic, said that solar companies are primarily looking to fill installation, manufacturing and technical jobs that pay an average $23 an hour.

“These are the jobs we’ve been exporting to Mexico and China,” Rosen said. “These are blue-collar jobs that tend to have high retention.”

At the heart of Schaaff’s strategy to capitalize on those employment headwinds is so-called “community choice aggregation,” or building large renewable energy projects that supply power to multiple residences or businesses in a community, rather than individual rooftop solar arrays or one-off wind turbines.

Panelists at the event questioned whether energy incumbents like Northern California utility Pacific Gas & Electric, a publicly-traded company that supplies power to some 5 million homes, have enough financial incentive to invest in unconventional renewable energy projects.

“Utilities in California decide what programs they invest in by cost effectiveness,” said Vien Truong, director of Oakland environmental justice nonprofit Green For All. “Literally, that’s the term.”

Schaaf praised nonprofit and other third party groups, like Oakland-based solar provider Grid Alternatives and solar job training outfit Rising Sun, for forging new business models. She added that capturing state cap-and-trade funds for development aligned with public transportation will be another key to meeting ambitious goals to change the city’s energy mix.

While the California Public Utilities Commission aims to generate one-third of the state’s energy from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2020, Schaaf expressed confidence that her city of some 405,000 people can do better — and reap economic benefits in the process.

“We believe we could get to 50 percent renewable energy by 2020,” Schaaf said. “Community choice aggregation in Oakland would create about 1,800 well-paying jobs.”

One crucial question is to whom these so-called “green collar” jobs might go if the Mayor’s gambit is successful. Just 4.8 percent of the national solar workforce is African America, and 12.9 percent is Latino — both proportionally low numbers when compared to how many workers in each group are in the workforce overall.

Alana Mathews, public adviser to the California Energy Commission, said that meeting Schaaf’s clean energy goals while also diversifying the renewable energy workforce will require a sharp focus on target populations.

“We can’t just bring a bunch of proscriptive programs,” Mathews said. “To the extent we engage (minority groups), I think we will get to 50 percent.”