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Al Weinrub

Energy Democracy: Inside Californians' Game-Changing Plan for Community-Owned Power

Al Weinrub - Yes! Magazine, November 12, 2015

On September 21, Pa Dwe, a 16-year-old student at Oakland’s Street Academy, spoke out against the export of coal through the Port of Oakland to City Council members: “I’m opposed to this coal export because it will make my community in West Oakland sick. I support jobs, but not the kind of jobs that make us sick. There are clean job alternatives, like Community Choice energy, and this will be good for the health of my community. This is my generation; I want to have a healthy life.” 

Pa’s comments exemplify a growing awareness that the people of California can only successfully address climate change by breaking with fossil fuels and the state’s investor-owned utility companies.

These utilities, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), control about 75 percent of the electricity market in California, with the other 25 percent being supplied by public (municipal) utilities.

By creating slick, misleading ad campaigns about how green they are, the monopoly utilities have done their best to fight renewable energy programs. This often happens behind the scenes, and with the willing assistance of the scandal-ridden California Public Utilities Commission—the agency that is supposed to regulate these behemoth energy enterprises.

Back in 2002, in the wake of the Enron-induced crash of California's electricity system—which to this day has left rate-payers bailing out the utility companies— California passed AB 117, the Community Choice Aggregation law. This law allows a city, county, or any grouping of cities and counties, to “aggregate” electricity customers in their jurisdictions for the purpose of procuring electricity on their behalf. Under this arrangement, a public agency—the newly formed Community Choice program—decides where electricity will come from, while the incumbent utility delivers the electricity, maintains the electric lines, and bills customers.

The new program is a hybrid between a public agency and a private utility. The utility owns the distribution infrastructure, but the public is in the driver’s seat regarding energy decisions.

“It puts our community in control of the most important part of our electricity system,” explains Woody Hastings of the Center for Climate Protection in Sonoma County, one of the jurisdictions that has opted for a Community Choice energy program. “That means we can purchase more renewable and greenhouse-gas-free energy on the market than PG&E offered us. But more importantly, we can build renewable energy assets right here in the County. We not only get the benefits of low carbon electricity, but we get the economic benefits—the business opportunities and clean energy jobs—that come from investing in our own community.”

Sonoma County’s Community Choice customers get power that is 30 percent lower in greenhouse gases than PG&E. They also pay up to 9 percent less on average than PG&E customers. In addition, electricity net revenues go back into the community rather than into the pockets of PG&E shareholders and overpaid executives.

Labor’s Stake in Decentralized Energy: A Strategic Perspective

By Al Weinrub - Local Clean Energy Alliance, September 20, 2012

This paper sketches some of the implications of the world’s economic and climate crisis for the future of the international labor movement.

It contends that resolving this crisis requires a transition from the globalized capitalist economy based on fossil energy to local sustainable economic development made possible by decentralized renewable energy systems.

Furthermore, it posits that the labor movement, as the most organized expression of the working class around the world, can play a crucial role in this transition. Labor’s challenge is to represent the interests of the world’s working people in averting the economic and ecological collapse now underway and in developing the new economic models needed for our survival.

This is a new role for organized labor. It means breaking with old patterns. It means looking beyond labor’s traditional job-protection focus to join with other sectors within the 99% majority to actively participate in the creation of economic development models—based on decentralized renewable energy systems—that can help assure our survival.

Read the report (PDF).

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