For more than 20 years, Citizen Power's thrown weight behind renewable energy projects in its community. It only makes sense that the Pennsylvania nonprofit recently turned this momentum toward another important goal as well: accessible healthcare for all.

David Hughes, the company's founder and president, has been at the forefront of the organization's expansion into the healthcare field. The group's worked to fund free health clinics for the uninsured in the Pittsburgh area and to promote single-payer healthcare to make sure every one can access the care they need. At the same time, they've continued funding renewable energy programs, like renewable energy credits to people who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford them, and teacher-training workshops.

Groundswell writer Emily Zak sat down for a phone interview with Hughes to talk about how environmental concerns don't exist in a vacuum.

Citizen Power founder and president David Hughes, at the podium. | Photo courtesy Citizen Power.

Groundswell: Can you tell me a little about how your company started?

David Hughes: I was working on a volunteer basis for many years as an anti-nuclear activist, and [the advocacy] just had a natural outgrowth into Citizen Power. It was a perfect dovetail from working as a grassroots organizer to formalizing that work, basically.

Citizen Power has a long list of accomplishments. What projects were most important?

Main ones in terms of renewable energy are getting bills passed in the Pennsylvania legislature, especially Act 129. That has a lot of good environmental clauses that require companies to have more of their [energy] generation come from renewable and clean sources.

Secondarily, we worked on settlement negotiations with utilities to get them to do more to help customers reduce their bills by energy-saving measures. It killed two birds with one stone. It helped customers who were financially strapped, and [the companies] also conserved energy.

Why does empowering low-income consumers matter?

I guess it comes from how I first started as a volunteer back in the mid-70s. My regular work was in social work, and the families I was working with, which were poor, primarily African American families in the inner city, started to complain about their electric bills going up. When I started to look into it, I found out that these increases were occurring because the local utility was investing in nuclear power. So, right from the get-go, there was this combination of environmental [and] economic concerns.

Participants in a workshop hold parts of a wind turbine. | Photo courtesy Citizen Power.

That concern for low-income people persisted when you started healthcare advocacy as well.

About 10 years ago in Western Pennsylvania, health insurance premiums were increasing at ridiculous rates—20, 30 percent a year—and no one seemed to be doing anything about it. I always wanted to look into it, but I was too consumed with the energy side of our work.

Finally, I was able to put one staff person to researching why this was happening. Our experience on the energy side involved a lot of litigation, and we thought that our experience could be useful in looking at the Pennsylvania Insurance Department.

How do you juggle two priorities as a company?

We have just four full-time and three part-time staff. As head of the company, I work with all staff on all programs. For example, we have an in-house counsel that splits his time between energy and healthcare. He and I work together on both of those issues.

How do you think you've been so effective?

There's environmental groups that might try to pressure the legislature to pass legislation. We don't do that. We actually become official party in cases that are going to make concrete decisions that affect consumers. Even if you're a small nonprofit, you have the ability to make the company deal with you and to reach a compromise.

You advocate for people of low-incomes. How does that tie into helping the environment?

You can help low-income customers; you can deal with environmental issues all in the same case. The FirstEnergy case is a perfect example. The request that the company has made is totally illegal: to try to force rate-payers to pay for plants that are dirty, dangerous and noncompetitive. Fighting in that case, we're affecting not only low-income consumers but all consumers.

What makes your company so unique in Pennsylvania?

As far as we know, we're the only nonprofit that's litigating at the Public Utility Commission on environmental issues. And we're the only one on the healthcare side that is deeply involved in monitoring and commenting at the Pennsylvania Insurance Department because we've written a book on healthcare and the Affordable Care Act.

You also educate folks through programs like teacher training.

We don't go around speaking against nuclear power, per say, or dirty coal. We actually promote alternative technologies. We run workshops every few weeks to help teachers get hands-on experience. So, they actually build wind turbines and solar panels. They learn about energy efficiency, and how it's the cheapest, fastest, cleanest way to reduce pollution, climate change, [and] gas emissions. We're approaching about 1,500 teachers that we've trained.

What are future projects you hope to start working on?

If we're able to secure funding, we would like to get around to organizations to bring them up to speed on how [health] insurance regulation works at the state and national level.

For example, if an insurance company [in Pennsylvania] wants to raise rates, if they request a 9 percent rate increase, there's no oversight at all; they get it automatically. But if they request 10 percent or more, then there's a process where the Insurance Department looks into it. But the public's not involved in that process. And just the Insurance Commission, one person appointed by the governor, makes a decision on behalf of millions of consumers.

Do you have any advice for groups who want to pursue a more holistic goal in their work?

It depends, first of all, on your passion and commitment, and what change you want to work on. But then the deal is whether you can get the funding to work on those issues. So, the trick is to find funders who do the kind of work you propose to do. That's not easy, but if you do find them, then you've got to be really good about selling your proposal. The project really has to be unique, you know; it can't be duplicating what other people are doing.

Workshop attendees participate in an educational program about wind. | Photo courtesy Citizen Power.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.