How I Made It: When PG&E filed for bankruptcy, Shalini Swaroop kept fighting for energy justice
Shalini Swaroop is general counsel for Marin Clean Energy, the first of a new breed of electricity providers in California known as community choice aggregators, or CCAs. When Marin Clean Energy launched in 2010, it gave San Francisco Bay Area residents a government-run alternative to Pacific Gas & Electric, the monopoly utility that recently filed for bankruptcy protection amid huge wildfire liabilities.
Swaroop is no typical power company executive. Before getting involved in energy, she volunteered for a humanitarian group in Nepal during the final months of a civil war, clerked for the High Court of American Samoa in the South Pacific, and worked for the international criminal tribunal prosecuting war crimes committed in Yugoslavia.
I don’t think I could be in the energy industry if I wasn’t working for the public.
A love for learning
Swaroop grew up in the Denver suburbs, a child of Indian immigrants. She worked four part-time jobs while majoring in women’s studies and psychology and minoring in peace and conflict studies at University of Colorado Boulder.
Swaroop was interning for the Human Rights Law Network in Delhi, India, when she learned she’d been accepted to study law at UC Berkeley. She says she left her office and ran down the street, dodging street vendors and rickshaws, to reach a long-distance phone to call her dad.
Tragedy and empathy
Swaroop started on her path toward social justice in 1999, when 12 students and a teacher were killed in a mass shooting at Columbine High School, 20 minutes from where Swaroop lived. Her own high school held a discussion about the pressures that could lead young people to violence. She listened to what her classmates had to say.
“I realized I had no idea what their lived experiences were,” Swaroop says. “Through that conversation, my understanding and empathy for them grew.”
During her law school internship at the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Swaroop interviewed an investigator who had hunted Nazis in Canada. He told her if she hoped to make a career in international humanitarian law, she would need atrocities to keep happening to sustain her livelihood. She started asking herself: “Am I focused on moving society forward, or am I trying to address past wrongs?”
She decided to look forward. After graduating from Berkeley Law, she interviewed to be a senior staff attorney at the National Asian American Coalition. Her interviewer was Robert Gnaizda, who had co-founded California Rural Legal Assistance and worked alongside Cesar Chavez. To Swaroop’s surprise, the job wasn’t focused on civil rights. Instead, she would be advocating for disadvantaged areas and communities of color in energy rate proceedings before the California Public Utilities Commission.
“It was the recession. I applied to 85 jobs before I got one,” she says. “I took the job.”
On a Thursday last month, Swaroop woke up at 2 a.m. because she was worried about all the work she had to do. As general counsel for Marin Clean Energy, she oversees the legal and policy teams for California’s first and most influential CCA, which is reshaping an energy landscape long dominated by Pacific Gas & Electric and other investor-owned utilities. Wildfires that may have been sparked by PG&E’s infrastructure have added a complex layer to Swaroop’s job, forcing her to get up to speed on bankruptcy law.
One of Swaroop’s first priorities after PG&E’s bankruptcy filing was to make sure the utility would keep passing along the energy payments it collects from Marin Clean Energy’s customers on behalf of the CCA. Longer term, Swaroop says the fire threat heightens the urgency of helping customers reduce their energy use and get more of their power from local solar arrays and batteries, which can reduce the need for the massive transmission lines that have ignited some of the state’s biggest blazes.
The fallout from PG&E’s bankruptcy is “part and parcel of combating the climate crisis,” Swaroop says. “We can’t talk about creating more renewable energy without understanding the impact that our current electrical system is having on California.”
Working for the public
The day she woke up at 2 a.m., Swaroop worked into the evening before attending a Marin Clean Energy board meeting at 7 p.m. A few hours into the meeting, Swaroop says, she was starting to crash. But then the board heard from representatives of three organizations being honored for their work to advance Marin Clean Energy’s goal of making clean energy available at affordable rates, including to low-income families.
“I was exhausted. But being able to hear and see those stories, that’s what’s most uplifting to me,” Swaroop says. “I’m not an energy wonk, I’m passionate about people. I don’t think I could be in the energy industry if I wasn’t working for the public.”
Swaroop keeps busy: Outside her day job, she serves on the boards of nonprofit groups including the ACLU of Northern California, Youth Celebrate Diversity, JustPeace Labs and the Conference of California Public Utility Counsel. “I don’t procrastinate because I’ve lived in too many places where tomorrow is not taken for granted,” she says.
Swaroop’s experiences in conflict zones and humanitarian situations inform her work at Marin Clean Energy. She says she sees her life as “a consistent struggle for justice, whether it’s civil rights or human rights or energy rights.” It’s a unique perspective for a lawyer at the forefront of sweeping changes in California’s energy industry.
“My work has focused on representing the public in figurative systems of power — ensuring justice for victims of war crimes, or highlighting the voices of survivors of sexual assault,” Swaroop says. “In this case, I am representing the public in the literal power system — communities that are taking on the energy future to combat climate change.”
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