Adam, a student at Boston College and Rockville, Maryland native, is a Blog Fellow with Groundswell. This is his first post.
The dictionary defines “groundswell” as “a buildup of opinion or feeling in a large section of the population.” In seeking a better understanding of Groundswell’s goals and mission, I sat down with Felipe Witchger, the Lead Organizer for Energy and Partnerships at Groundswell, and also the point man for Groundswell’s first two Community Power Projects.
Throughout our interview, I was able to learn much more about Felipe as a professional in the energy industry, and also his goals for positive social and environmental impact through the energy industry.
What I would learn throughout the course of our conversation really opened my eyes to a different way of looking at the connection between economic and social power. I also learned that the dictionary definition of “groundswell” would very accurately describe what the organization is trying to do in D.C. and Maryland communities.
Q: So, Felipe, first of all, it’s great to meet you, and thank you for doing this as my first official blog post for Groundswell. My first question is, what really drew you to pursuing energy efficiency and sustainability as a career, and what would you say sparked your interest in the field in general?
A: I saw the injustices my parents were working on as organizers, trying to organize migrant farm workers, and that kind of instilled in me a deep realization that the world had a lot of injustices. Through college, I had an understanding that energy was important.
When I was studying engineering as a freshman, a teacher put up a slide for a presentation; it said, “what are the top ten challenges facing humanity for the next 50 years,” and number one was energy, because it’s interconnected to all the rest of the major problems we face.
A large part of my conversation with Felipe was focused on practicality and the nature of combined power in decision-making and bringing about real change in the energy sector.
Q: Why did you decide to dive into the market side of the energy industry, specifically the electricity markets?
A: I just see electricity as a place where we can make more tangible change quicker to reduce the carbon that we produce. Oil is going to be hard, because we need mobility, we need some kind of energy-dense fuel.
There’s so much potential for change and it’s beginning to move, but there’s all these very complex regulatory structures in these utilities that are kind of somewhat monopolistic in many areas and domains. So how do we begin to change some of that?
It feels like a job for somebody who has a political background, but also knows the economics of it, and the policy people to organize it all and build something to change.
Q: It’s definitely a huge area of difficulty that will take a while to solve. What’s the most important thing you think you’ve learned from your time working in the electricity industry?
A: I guess I’m learning more and more how complex it is, because there’s a big wave of deregulation that came over many parts of the country about a decade ago, and how it’s a very political thing, deregulation, less government regulation in markets, and so there’s that element of things in a lot of the sector today.
As a result, there’s more levels of the market. There’s not just the municipality or the state regulating it. It’s also this wholesale market which is multijurisdictional. It’s so complex that no one person or firm or organizing group can understand everything.
So it’s critical to find partners that understand more than you do, and trying to work together with other people to be able to exercise some leverage to begin to change things.
Q: What is one thing you wish every consumer knew about electricity? It’s clearly a very complex market, but if there’s one thing you could pick that every consumer could just have ingrained in their heads all the time?
A: I guess I wish every electricity consumer had a visual of a fossil fuel power plant very near them and the impact it’s having. I think if we all had that visual, like if every time we turned a switch on we had some connection to that, it would be incredibly powerful.
Not knowing much about the specific economic side of the electricity market and energy industry, I was eager to learn how the collective buying power model of Groundswell worked to give some advantage to people looking to lower their costs of electricity.
Q: Why don’t you think more cities have these deregulated electricity markets like we have here in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, and what’s the benefit/what are the benefits of working in one of these deregulated markets?
A: A lot of reasons. One is that deregulation didn’t bring the benefits that a lot of people thought it would. We want electricity to be a public service, and everyone should have access to electricity. So if there’s this market, is that blocking some people out of it? Low-income people? How does this all work?
And so I think that it’s a big question that many states continue to struggle with.
The benefits are that you actually can organize a buying group and a cooperative and choose a different supplier.
I think that’s, in some ways, compelling, because, if you can bring together a sizeable enough group, you can exercise some leverage in the market.
Q: How eager would you say the first institutions were to participate in the Community Power Project?
A: It was interesting. They were definitely eager to explore options of getting lower prices. As soon as the idea of “we can save by going together and having a group to save” they were excited.
It’s a big education thing. Understanding those things was definitely helpful. Once you kind of shared with them that part of things, and you realize that the standard offer service was much higher, the default rate was much higher than the market rate, and you tell them that they can switch to go to the market rate, they were very excited about their potential savings.
Q: The majority, if not all of the institutions you work with are mission-based or have some kind of active role in their local community and possibly in the greater community surrounding them. Was the idea of combining purchasing power among these institutions to really aid in community work a new idea for them? Did they think of it simply as “we’re saving money,” or “we’re saving money to reinvest in our institution, in our faith community?”
A: I think anytime they’re able to save money, they know that it’s more money they can dedicate to their mission, and all the pastors are always trying to figure out a way to do that. Most of these institutions are already the institutions that are so committed to doing justice and doing good work with low-income people and helping, by definition, people of faith are people who are trying to do good in the world. It’s also, for some people, a different way of economic stewardship and environmental stewardship.
Q: The idea of working with faith communities was definitely a huge selling point for me when I was applying to work here, and I thought that what Groundswell was doing to make things a little easier for those faith communities was great.
A: Exactly. There are so many other issues that are at work; but it’s going to affect everybody five generations from now. I mean we care about our children and our grandchildren, but thinking multiple generations down the road … the only institutions that do that are faith-based, like churches, etc. They’re thinking a thousand years down the road!
In discussing our own faith experiences and involvement in faith communities throughout our lives, it is easy to see that Felipe has great faith in these faith and mission-based organizations. In a way, it would seem the most practical course of action, getting these faith institutions involved in Community Power Projects. The amount of power and influence these institutions have in their communities is immense, and having them be involved in these projects seems to be a simple, yet remarkably effective way of promoting and aiding strong community work, as well as creating a positive environmental impact.
We discussed the feeling of long-term stewardship that faith institutions and people of faith have towards their communities allows them to explore all options when trying to help in their social sphere.
Q: Why do you think organizing communities and building power to shape energy markets is so crucial?
A: The critical part is building power. We have to be disciplined about building our capacity to act in the world. And to have the capacity to act, you have to have power. To have power, you have to be able to act. You have to be able to be in the negotiating room with the people that are making billion-dollar decisions about the future of this city or the future of this country. I think building relationships, identifying people’s interests and bringing those people together allows you to be able to exercise your values. I think people of faith have a lot of the values we need as a society.
Q: How do you think the variety of institutions that you bring into these Community Power Projects, churches, mosques, synagogues, labor organizations, plays into people’s decision-making about these issues and about these purchasing opportunities?
A: In some ways it’s a big part. And for me, it’s very practical. On some levels, we’re just trying to get institutions to the table. The more we get and selling them individually, the more they’re part of the group, the more effective we can be in our negotiating. But then, now trying to think about who guides the future of this initiative, and how do you have a steering committee that reflects the diversity of the group, and having representatives from different communities, that’s where it gets more challenging. So it’s about finding that critical common ground. They want to get to know each other. They realize they can all save money.
Q: How do you see the CPP, and more generally, the work that Groundswell does, bringing these kinds of communities and people together, how do you see that progressing in the coming years? There’s a bit of an economic question hovering above everyone’s head the entire time. Do you think that communities, faith communities, and organizations that are committed to serving their community, do you think they will look to these different ways of saving to really help their missions in the coming years?
A: Yeah, I think the difficult economic conditions make this a priority, because they all feel the economic strain. Finding ways to be better, lowering operating costs however they can is a critical thing. So, finding good collaborations that work that do lower operating costs and allow them to express values in a new way through their own, whether it’s environmental or others is exciting to them.
Part of the question is, will it be sustainable? We still don’t know right now. The longer-term is forming these partnerships and finding those people that have the interest in developing leaders. When it starts to work, is when we have these collectives. That’s when you build much more power much more quickly, in a way that one organizer, one organization, can’t do it on their own. As long as people are committed to communicating these benefits, this initiative should continue in a big way.
Through talking to Felipe for that half hour, it was clear that he has a very ambitious, yet practical vision to help not only the environment, but also the greater Maryland/Virginia/D.C. community. The combination of collective buying power and community work seems to be bearing fruit: Groundswell is preparing for another large collective energy bid soon. As to his concerns for the sustainability of the Community Power Project, from the response that the first two Projects got, it seems very likely that as long as mission-based institutions continue to look for different ways to better finance their community work and charitable projects, Groundswell will continue to help them find ways to save.