by Kit Stolz
About five years ago, Michelle Ellison, a young mother living with her family in bucolic Ojai, experienced what she calls “a climate awakening.” This was not a joyous, uplifting experience. A story she encountered about the existential threat of climate change turned into a staredown with an apocalypse. Looking into the void of ecological breakdown, she realized that all that mattered to her — the love of her family, the beauty and wonder of the natural world, her hopes for a bright future — stood in grave peril.
All this came a year before the Thomas Fire surrounded Ojai with flame in late 2017, further spurring her into action.
“My wake-up moment came when I had a two-year-old and a three-month-old at home,” she says now, looking back. “The severity of the climate crisis knocked me down. I wasn’t expecting it: I had never felt this amount of despair in my entire life. I felt like I was on the Titanic and everyone was out dancing on the deck having a merry old time. But once I caught a glimpse of the iceberg I could no longer return to blissful ignorance.”
“One person at a time
is not enough”
For about a week after “the awakening” she felt paralyzed by disillusionment and despair.
“I had assumed that there were higher-ups, people who were taking care of these issues, and then when I realized that no, the crisis is not getting taken care of, I thought, ‘okay, I have to do something,’” she says now, looking back. “We don’t know if we have passed the tipping points [to runaway global warming], but if we don’t act certainly it will be too late. We have to mobilize and act as if our lives depend on it.”
Ellison had worked diligently with her husband, Andrew, to reduce their personal carbon footprint, by installing solar panels on their home, driving an electric car and exchanging gas appliances and heating for electric appliances. But from her research into climate change, Ellison knows that individual efforts cannot possibly bring down dangerously high levels of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.
“It is important that individuals take action; it’s not to say that we should do nothing. But the scale and speed of the climate crisis necessitates policy-level change,” she declares. “We need systemic change, at all levels of government. One person at a time is not enough.”
Ellison dived into local environmental activism, and in 2017 learned about a recently-created community choice energy organization called Clean Power Alliance (CPA). This not-for-profit public agency, originally formed in Los Angeles County in 2017 and backed by a $10 million loan from the county government, sources renewable energy primarily from wind and solar operations in Southern California. Using a legal infrastructure created in the wake of the state’s 2002 energy crisis, intended to empower in-state energy markets, CPA offers three different levels of renewable energy to businesses and homeowners in 32 member cities and counties in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
Ellison made many allies along the way. Before asking the Ojai City Council to approve joining Clean Power Alliance, Ellison and fellow advocates met with members of the city council to go over the opportunity, field questions and clarify details. Then-Mayor Johnny Johnston, a former Ojai city manager and chief administrative officer of the county, put his budgeting expertise to work analyzing the option to join. Today he speaks highly of Ellison and CPA’s ability to bring renewable energy to Ventura County.
“CPA is definitely on the up-and-up as an organization,” Johnston says. “It was created by Los Angeles County to advance power aggregation and actually influence the market by buying clean energy and making it available to customers at competitive rates.”
Cities and counties can choose a percentage for a default level of renewable energy from CPA for their communities, in which customers are enrolled but still retain the choice to select a different tier of renewable energy and so a different rate. Ellison launched a grassroots “green by default” campaign for 100% renewable energy, going city to city, making the case to elected officials and engaging local community members. The 100% Green Power product costs 7-9% more than SCE’s base rate, which is just 34% renewable. Qualified low-income customers receive the plan benefit at no bill premium. When CPA launched in 2019, there were 10 communities (five of which are in Ventura County) on 100% Green Power. Today, that number has grown to 14, and more are considering making the switch to emission-free electricity. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people have transitioned to clean energy, virtually overnight.
It’s been a huge amount of work for Ellison. “I’m not doing this because I inherently want to be spending all my time appearing before city councils, staying up until midnight or 2 or 4 a.m., working on messaging, building a website — which I’ve never done before — and getting up early in the morning to hammer away at these things,” says Ellison, a hint of frustration in her voice. “I’m doing this because it’s so important that local governments act with urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Ventura County Supervisor Carmen Ramirez, who served on Oxnard’s City Council when Ellison and cohorts brought forward the 100% renewable energy proposal to the city in 2018, admires Ellison’s work.
“Michelle is a great advocate, but she didn’t really have to persuade the Oxnard City Council too much as the majority of us supported the 100%,” says Ramirez. “Michelle’s strongest point comes when she asks officials to think about the future of your city, the air you breathe, and to think about your children and your grandchildren and their future. As a mother she never hesitates to talk about the future for our children. This resonates.”
To officials at Clean Power Alliance, Ellison’s advocacy has been a boon for their 100% renewable business.
“When CPA told cities that they could choose renewable energy, Michelle was one of the first people to recognize that this was an opportunity to put what we know from the academic literature into practice,” Ted Bardacke, the executive director of CPA, says. “She combines that knowledge with an activist mentality that urges local officials to take risks in their leadership position.”
Bardacke points out that CPA now has about a million accounts, and serves about three million people with renewable energy, meaning more of its customers utilize fully renewable energy than any other utility in the country. Ellison estimates that about 500,000 residents of Ventura County are getting 100% renewable energy through CPA.
“It was amazing for us to see check-in on a Tuesday night in 2018 and see three out of four city councils in Ventura County voting to opt-in with 100% renewable energy,” says Bardacke, executive director of CPA. “As the person responsible for making this all work, it was also a bit terrifying to me. I believed in and supported what the local officials were doing, but none of us knew how the customers would react. It’s already a risky business, but it turned out my fears were unfounded. Michelle encouraged people to take a risk. And she made it understandable and okay to see that it was an acceptable risk. It turned out that she was right.”
“Green by default”
Part of Ellison’s confidence in fact comes from her research into the concept of governments “nudging” people to make good choices for the sake of all, an idea pioneered by law professor and former Obama Administration official Cass Sunstein, who has published extensively on the “architecture of choice.” Sunstein recently wrote about this concept of “green by default” for Bloomberg, specifically highlighting the impact in CPA cities, and citing that, “In municipalities in California, hundreds of thousands of people are now receiving 100% renewable energy, and that means dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.”
Sunstein’s point about emissions was echoed by John Capoccia, former mayor of Sierra Madre, who with his city council approved a move to 100% renewable energy through CPA in 2019. He was initially skeptical of the idea of the “green by default,” fearing customers would not understand, but after researching the CPA concept and seeing Ellison advocate at a meeting he became convinced.
“There is just nothing else that any one person can do that could have such a tremendous impact of removing thousands of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere,” he says. He adds that after CPA and the city — as contracted — sent out mailers to all customers explaining the change and offering the opportunity to opt out of 100% renewable energy, very few have.
“There was a lot of chatter on Facebook, but I got zero calls or emails,” he says. “I asked the city manager about it, and he says that we haven’t gotten a single call of complaint after we explained how easy it is to opt out if you wish. I’ve become a big advocate myself. The science of climate change is there — we just have to do something about it.”
For Ellison’s climate efforts, she was named in December 2020 “Activist of the Year” by the Los Padres Chapter of the Sierra Club. Katie Davis, the group chair of the chapter, sees Ellison as inspirational, both in her work and in her personal life.
“So many of us talk and worry about the climate and ask: What can one individual do? Michelle illustrates what we can do if we just act — even a busy individual with young kids! My own activism dates back to when I had little kids,” Davis says. “As a parent of young children, you are used to multi-tasking, to getting things done quickly and effectively. It’s a secret super-power, and as a parent, you really do see what is at stake.”
Ellison admits to being pleasantly surprised at her own effectiveness. “It’s surprising in some ways — I don’t have any special titles or authority. I just recognized an opportunity to dramatically reduce emissions for entire communities. I think of the friendships and bonds that have been made in this struggle, working for a common purpose. And the work itself has made me feel more hopeful. I feel I’m part of the progress that is happening. It’s reassuring that solutions are available and to see an increasing willingness to take action to deal with climate change.”