Guide to Community Energy Strategic Planning

This guide introduces the Community Energy Strategic Plan (CESP) approach, a step-by-step process for creating a robust strategic energy plan for your government and community that can help save money, create local jobs, and improve our national security.

The guide offers tools and tips to complete each step and highlights examples from successful planning efforts around the country. Local governments and community stakeholders can use the CESP framework to build on initial energy successes by moving from single projects and programs to a comprehensive, long-term energy strategy that delivers benefits for years to come.

Download the complete Guide to Community Energy Strategic Planning.


Introduction to Community Energy Strategic Planning

A strategic energy plan is not a static document but rather a long-term blueprint to focus and guide efforts and actions toward a defined energy vision. Such a plan articulates goals, develops strategies and actions to meet the goals, and identifies and allocates resources to assure effective completion of these strategies.

Instead of undertaking decisions on a single-year, as-needed basis, a strategic plan can be:

  • Proactive—outlines deliberate actions based on clearly articulated government and community priorities

  • Comprehensive—encompasses a broad scope, based on community priorities, that identifies and pursues high payoff opportunities through coordinated planning and sustained effort

  • Structured—provides defined and thoughtfully organized guidance through a specific plan for action

  • Long-term—allows decisions that require multi-year investments or planning; can stage a series of projects to undertake as funds become available

  • Enduring—establishes a path forward that will maintain relevancy beyond a current administration.

Step 1: Establish and Charge a Leadership Team

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WHAT: The first critical step is putting in place a strong Leadership Team once the development of a community energy strategic plan (CESP) has been officially authorized (see Introduction).

WHY: To drive the process to successful completion, it is necessary to establish a committee that includes leaders who will:

  • Maintain continued focus on the CESP process
  • Connect the government offices necessary for success
  • Motivate key stakeholders to contribute to the plan
  • Inspire completion of an effective plan
  • Ensure its implementation over time.

WHO: The local government office or group that is initially authorized to do the planning activities will usually do the up-front work to put the Leadership Team in place.

HOW: During this phase of the planning process, the CESP initiators will need to:

  • Identify effective leaders
  • Charter and direct the Leadership Team.

WHEN: The Leadership Team should be established as quickly as possible, but no later than 1-2 months after development of the plan is authorized. Putting the team together quickly and early in the process will get momentum for the process going, demonstrate early progress to the official(s) that authorized the CESP, and assure that leadership is in place to help identify and engage the appropriate stakeholders (see Step 2).

Step 2: Identify and Engage Stakeholders

WHAT: Engaging members of the community in the energy planning process will help your plan succeed, because creating a viable, transformative energy future rests in the hands of the entire local government or community. When identifying who to include, remember some individuals will already have an understanding of and a vested interest in the effort of defining a sustainable energy future; others, however, may have not yet been engaged in the conversation or moved to action.

WHY: Involving a wide range of stakeholders across local government and community is important because:

  • Broad-based stakeholder engagement helps to lay the foundation for broad-based support.
  • The plan needs the support of department heads and elected officials who are interested in their constituents' and stakeholders' points of view.
  • Stakeholders have valuable insight to offer and provide real local context for ideas.
  • Input from stakeholders helps prioritize recommendations based on the community's aspirations and priorities.

WHO: The Leadership Team will guide the identification of stakeholders and plan the stakeholder engagement effort, with the Plan Manager facilitating and managing the logistics. The Project Manager may want to team up with his/her government's public affairs and/or communications staff for this step, and consultants, interns, and/or local voluneteers can also provide valuable help.

HOW: During this phase of the planning process, the Leadership Team will need to:

  • Identify stakeholders to include
  • Engage stakeholders
  • Plan to maximize stakeholder value throughout the planning process.

WHEN: Developing a stakeholder outreach strategy is typically the first item of business for the Leadership Team. Stakeholder input is important throughout the planning steps; therefore, identifying the right people and organizations to engage and developing approaches to recruit their help are priority tasks. The Plan Manager and Leadership Team will want to allow four to six weeks to create and launch a stakeholder engagement strategy. The engagement itself will continue throughout the energy planning process.

Step 3: Develop an Energy Vision

WHAT: An effective energy vision statement offers a representation of what the community wants to look like 10–20 years into the future.

WHY: This "future best self" provides a focus for the rest of the work that will go into the CESP. A clearly articulated, transparent, and shared vision of the community's energy future sets the direction for subsequent decisions about goals, strategies, and actions.

WHO: This step will be initiated and guided by the Leadership Team, with input from key stakeholders.

HOW: During this phase of the planning process, the Leadership Team will need to:

  • Identify guiding principles and priorities to use as a basis for the vision
  • Create a focused vision statement
  • Share the final vision with the broader community.

WHEN: The development of a new energy vision statement will take four to six weeks and should start after the Leadership Team is in place, because they will be driving this step. As stakeholder input and buy-in will also be important, key stakeholders should be identified and engaged, though the full engagement plan need not be finalized. Some communities will already have a broader vision mandated for them, or find that a vision of energy use fits within the scope of an existing community vision statement. Re-articulating a broader, established community goal is acceptable and may be advantageous in some circumstances, as it reduces the time taken for this step. However, do consider the value of developing a vision with a specific emphasis on what the energy future will look like, to use as the motivation and focus for subsequent energy planning work.

Step 4: Assess the Current Energy Profile

WHAT: An energy profile maps out a jurisdiction's present energy landscape, including:

  • Current and projected future energy use and supply data
  • An inventory of existing energy-related activities, projects, programs, and policies
  • Information on available human and organizational resources to help implement a CESP.

A summary of findings and conclusions from this assessment, along with sections on the outcomes from previous steps, will be published as an energy profile.

WHY: In order to develop a CESP that will achieve the energy vision articulated during Step 3, you need to know where you are. The goals, strategies, and actions to be identified in later steps will be most effective if they are informed by and built on current energy use data and the existing organizational and policy framework. This will ensure that the plan is focused on true gaps and/or needs and that the actions identified are attainable. The current situation will also serve as the baseline for measuring future progress.

WHO: This step will be led by the Plan Manager and Leadership Team. Unless the planning effort is very small, the Leadership Team will likely need to identify and recruit additional internal or external expertise to help gather and analyze the necessary data.

HOW: To describe the energy framework, the Leadership Team will need to:

  • Develop the scope and recruit expertise for the energy profile work
  • Assess current energy use and supply
  • Identify potential future energy supply
  • Inventory current local, state, regional, and utility policies, plans, projects, and programs
  • Identify available human and organizational resources
  • Organize and communicate findings.

WHEN: Develop the energy profile at the beginning of the CESP process, before setting goals and identifying strategies and actions. This step can be accomplished in as little as a few weeks or take up to several months, depending on the scope of the plan and profile and size of the jurisdiction. To avoid a major time lag for this step, the Plan Manager and Leadership Team can start identifying resources and gathering information for the profile early on, in parallel with Steps 1–3.

Step 5: Develop Energy Goals and Strategies

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WHAT: Informed by the results of the energy profile, tangible long-term goals and nearer-term strategies provide a pathway from the conceptual energy vision to concrete, cost-effective actions.

WHY: Clearly defined goals and strategies will form the framework for the rest of the plan's design and guide decisions about what actions (including policies, programs, and projects) will be proposed. Goals and strategies also help communicate the specific value of efforts to key audiences and provide a basis for tracking and measuring progress.

WHO: This part of the CESP effort will be led by the Leadership Team, who will develop draft goals and strategies based on the vision, earlier stakeholder input, and results of the energy profile. Preliminary proposals will be shared with stakeholders for comment and discussion, the Leadership Team will revise, and the Champion will approve the final goals and strategies.

HOW: During this phase of the planning process, the Leadership Team will need to:

  • Choose effective goal language
  • Develop clear and measurable goals
  • Identify strategies for achieving goals
  • Integrate input from stakeholders
  • Publicize goals and strategies.

WHEN: Plan to establish goals and strategies as soon as the energy profile is completed. The energy profile will help identify areas for improvements and efforts to build on, so goals and strategies should flow from those. This is a big step—if extensive stakeholder involvement is needed, it can take considerable management to collect and synthesize input—but try to keep it to 4-6 weeks. Accelerate the process by providing drafts for parties to react to, rather than starting from scratch.

Step 6: Identify and Prioritize Actions

WHAT: After finalizing energy goals and strategies, a list of potential actions to achieve them must be developed and ranked.

WHY: Goals and strategies will only be accomplished with concrete actions, but there are a wide range of policy, program, and project options a jurisdiction can chose from, so they must be broadly considered and then prioritized. Deliberately identifying and articulating the criteria and rationale for ranking these choices will:

  • Assure a focus on relevant activities that will be effective in contributing toward goals
  • Provide guidance to those implementing the plan if future resources are constrained
  • Help garner support from others.

WHO: The Leadership Team will drive this step, including establishing a ranking system and drafting a proposed list of actions, with the Plan Manager managing logistics. Stakeholders will provide input along the way to help expand the list of potential energy actions designed to meet goals and to help prioritize these ideas. Including stakeholder input allows for the identification of a broader range of potential energy actions, provides stakeholders with a sense of ownership in the plan, and begins the necessary step of identifying responsible parties for implementing prioritized actions (addressed in Step 8).

HOW: To identify and prioritize effective actions for the CESP, the Leadership Team will need to:

  • Establish a system to rank ideas
  • Identify policies, programs, and projects to consider
  • Rank and evaluate options against goals and strategies.

WHEN: This step can be done in conjunction with goals and strategies development, as well as the research and interview stage of developing a financing strategy. As with Step 5, try to keep this to 4–6 weeks.

Step 7: Put Together a Financing Strategy

WHAT: Taking the time to identify opportunities to pay for actions within the plan will increase the likelihood that they will actually be implemented. Financing options vary in terms of risk profile and time horizon, and there are ways to structure these transactions and projects to minimize risk and align savings with repayment schedules. Funding sources vary over time and among communities and states, so each jurisdiction will need to develop a strategy specific to their local conditions and needs.

WHY: Developing an overarching funding and financing strategy as part of the CESP allows for:

  • Identification of appropriate financing for different activities
  • Staging of short- and long-term financing
  • Effective use of portfolios of financing
  • Greater support and likelihood of CESP adoption.

WHO: The Leadership Team will work with local government financial officials on this task. Stakeholders with financial interests should also be involved, such as:

  • Regional/state officials, utilities, or other energy efficiency finance program administrators
  • Representatives from local financial institutions, including banks, credit unions, foundations, and bonding authorities.

HOW: To find appropriate financial support for the CESP, the Leadership Team will need to:

  • Understand financial requirements for different types of energy actions
  • Identify potential financing and funding sources
  • Design a suite of mechanisms for proposed CESP actions.

Engage these experts as part of a finance-focused stakeholder task force or with individual interviews. The Champion will also provide feedback during this step.

WHEN: Because designing a cohesive financing strategy is complicated and can take several months, it is important to begin financing research and interviews early in the CESP process. Initial conversations can inform the energy assessment (see Step 4), so you may want to start your outreach then, and preliminary findings can help in the identification and prioritization of actions (see Step 6). The finance strategy will be finalized as a part of the implementation blueprint (see Step 8).

Step 8: Develop a Blueprint for Implementation

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WHAT: An implementation blueprint sets out detailed information to put the final CESP actions in place, including who will be responsible for each action, what the specific deliverables will be, and when they will be accomplished. It also incorporates conclusions from the finance strategy (see Step 7) and the plan to do ongoing monitoring and evaluation (see Step 9). The implementation blueprint will be integrated in the final CESP report and can also be used as a standalone document in the implementation phase.

WHY: Establishing a formal implementation blueprint is the key to realizing the vision, goals, and strategies, and turning the overall CESP into reality, as it:

  • Articulates the resources, staff, and budget needed to sustain the CESP activities
  • Communicates expectations to local staff and to the community
  • Provides a reference point for all parties to use in the implementation phase to ensure that activities are moving in the right direction and achieving targets identified.

WHO: The Leadership Team will lead this activity, with facilitation by the Plan Manager, but implementation planning often requires additional data and support to be most effective. Input from stakeholders is important here so that responsibilities for plan actions are assigned to the appropriate departments and/or community groups and reasonable timelines are established. The Champion should sign off on the implementation blueprint, including the final prioritized actions, finance strategy (see Step 7), and the plan to monitor and report on progress (see Step 9).

HOW: To assure effective implementation of the CESP, the Leadership Team will need to:

  • Develop a blueprint
  • Establish operational responsibilities
  • Incorporate the CESP into other planning and budgeting efforts.

Engage these experts as part of a finance-focused stakeholder task force or with individual interviews. The Champion will also provide feedback during this step.

WHEN: Once actions and funding sources have been identified, this step should take about 4–6 weeks for a more modest CESP, and 6–8 weeks for an extensive one. The most time-intensive part will be getting buy-in from relevant parties on implementation responsibilities, but stakeholder engagement throughout the earlier steps of the process can help ease this. The blueprint should be developed in parallel with the procedures for monitoring, evaluating, and reporting on progress (see Step 9).

Step 9: Plan to Elevate

WHAT: While it may seem early to think about evaluating the outcomes of CESP actions, setting out a clear process for periodic assessment and evaluation up front means that responsibility for these important steps is clear and intentional. In concert with developing an implementation blueprint, identify the process and resources now for monitoring and evaluating progress, as well as providing that information to the public and making necessary adjustments.

WHY: Monitoring and evaluation is vital to the ultimate success of the CESP, as it allows:

  • Informed management of activities
  • Adjustment of strategies to correct for or make up for deviations or shortfalls
  • Validation of progress toward goals
  • Progress reports to public and authorities to sustain interest
  • Celebration of successes.

WHO: Identify someone to develop and oversee the activities involved in monitoring, evaluating, and reporting on the CESP progress. While the responsibility for carrying out tracking of individual actions will be held by the lead for each item, the Plan Manager is a good candidate for the ongoing responsibility of aggregating and synthesizing this information for the whole plan. Be sure to allocate the necessary funding and time resources to the ongoing tracking, evaluation, and reporting functions. This activity should be authorized by the Champion, as a part of the approval of the implementation blueprint (see Step 8).

HOW: To maximize the chance of success for the plan, the Leadership Team will need to:

  • Establish a plan for performance measurement and reporting
  • Evaluate and report on the effectiveness of the full CESP and its components on a regular basis
  • Update the CESP when necessary to ensure the best results.

WHEN: The procedures for monitoring, evaluation, reporting, and updating should be an integral part of the implementation blueprint and should be developed in parallel with Step 8. As with the blueprint, this effort may take 4–8 weeks, depending upon the complexity and breadth of the CESP. Once implemented, the information gathered through these periodic assessments should become a regular component of CESP reporting and public outreach activities (see Step 10).

Step 10: Develop, Adopt, and Publicize the CESP

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WHAT: The last phase of the planning process is to prepare a final CESP, present it for formal adoption, and publicize it to the broader community. The final plan is a roadmap for the local government/community's energy future, laying out where things stand today, the long-term vision, and the goals, strategies, and actions for achieving that vision. It also incorporates the implementation blueprint, including responsible parties, timelines, financing strategy, and process for tracking progress.

WHY: The final CESP captures the results of the process in one comprehensive document to effectively communicate to decision makers and the public the outcomes of the planning phase and the importance of providing support to see the implementation of the plan through. Once completed, it is critical for the CESP to be formally adopted, so that there is an official commitment to its implementation and it has the weight of authority in future budgeting and other planning efforts. After adoption and throughout implementation, the CESP should be celebrated publicly to engage and build support in the community.

WHO: Development of the final CESP will be managed by the Plan Manager or other designee, under guidance from the Leadership Team. The Leadership Team, led by the Champion, will then present the plan to the city council, county commissioners, or other appropriate government body, and recommend adoption. Once adopted, the Leadership Team and Plan Manager, in coordination with the government's public relations specialists, will lead the efforts to publicize the CESP and perform ongoing public outreach.

HOW: To finalize and successfully launch the CESP, the Leadership Team will need to:

  • Prepare a final CESP
  • Have the CESP officially adopted
  • Publicize the adoption and kick off of the CESP
  • Plan to use effective communication and public relations strategies to keep the CESP visible.

WHEN: Compiling the final CESP can take several months, but to avoid a lengthy time lag between completing the planning and assembling the results, the Leadership Team should discuss how and in what form the plan will be developed early on (e.g., in parallel with Step 5 or 6). Then build a content outline and skeleton of the plan while completing the later steps, so that materials can be inserted as completed. Once the plan has been finalized, the Champion and Leadership Team will want to work for swift adoption and kick off of the CESP to keep momentum going through to implementation. The related public engagement strategy can be developed as the later planning steps are being wrapped up and as the final CESP is coming together.