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(Working Paper #10) Preparing a Public Pathway: Confronting the Investment Crisis in Renewable Energy

By By Sean Sweeney and John Treat - Trade Unions For Energy Democracy, November 2017

Inadequate levels of investment in renewable energy are a major obstacle standing in the way of the transition to a new, renewables-based energy system. TUED Working Paper 9, Energy Transition: Are We Winning? raised this investment deficit in passing and in a very broad context: Fossil-based energy use is rising globally, and renewables have so far failed to seriously alter the overall direction of global energy systems. “Modern renewables” like wind and solar remain on the margins of the global energy system. At the end of 2015, wind and solar PV together generated just 4.6% of global electricity.

By using the term “investment deficit” we aim to draw attention to the discrepancy between the levels of investment in renewable energy that are currently being seen around the world and those levels that are widely considered necessary to meet the science-based emissions targets and temperature thresholds articulated in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord: “well below two degrees Celsius” and “net zero emissions.”

It is also necessary to stress at the outset that the investment deficit in renewable energy is part of a much larger investment shortfall in what are often referred to as “low-carbon solutions” or “green technologies” (including, for example, storage and conservation). We touch briefly on this below but focus mainly on generation— principally wind and solar power.

Echoing a string of recent reports, a 2017 study by the International Energy Agency and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IEA-IRENA), Perspectives for the Energy Transition: Investment Needs for a Low-Carbon Energy System, estimated that investment in renewable energy needs to be more than double 2016 levels by 2030, reaching roughly $600 billion per year, in order to be consistent with the effort to keep global temperatures below the warming threshold of two degrees Celsius. This means approximately $14 trillion of investment in wind and solar generation, combined, by 2030.

Like many similar studies, however, the IEA-IRENA study fails to explain why, in a world awash with “idle capital,” the investment deficit in renewables exists at all. The present paper attempts to address this crucial issue. We believe that an honest review of the data and the policy history leave no doubt that the dominant policy paradigm—justified (and perhaps blinded) by a constant insistence on the need to “mobilize private sector investment”—has failed, even on its own terms, either to generate the kind of momentum needed to drive a full-on energy transition or to seriously impede the rise in fossil fuel use. We believe such a review also shows that the prospects for the dominant policy paradigm to produce results consistent with any serious effort to reduce emissions—let alone meet the Paris targets—are extremely poor.

We will attempt to show that any effort to address the investment deficit must deal with its systemic and institutional roots. These roots trace back to the privatization and liberalization of electricity markets that began in the UK in the 1980s, became EU policy in the 1990s, and have since come to define the dominant policy approach in many parts of the world. Even where energy systems have remained publicly owned, the policy approach to renewables is oriented toward private corporations and investors.

Download (PDF).

Will Public Banking Bring More Clean Energy Programs to California?

By Nithin Coca - Sharable, September 28, 2017

At a recent forum at Oakland City Hall, experts from the public banking and community energy sectors explored how the creation of a public bank could help communities transition to clean energy while creating economic opportunities.

"We need to build a more sustainable world, we need to be using energy that is positive for the environment and community, and we need to do it a way that support local jobs," said Rebecca Kaplan, Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan who is leading the public bank creation efforts.

The forum took place in Oakland, California, just days after the approval of a resolution to fund a feasibility study by the City Council, with support from neighboring cities. The first and only public bank in the U.S. is the Bank of North Dakota.

"A public bank can really create community wealth in ways other institutions are not capable off," said Gregory Rosen, the founder of High Noon Advisors, a local consulting firm with experience in clean energy investing. "It can help people of different backgrounds and income levels come together, for the good of the community."

California’s Clean Energy Revolution: More Than Just Jobs; Study finds Renewables Portfolio Standard brings worker training, living wages, good benefits

By Betony Jones, Dr. Carol Zabin, and Jeremy Smith - UC Labor Center, July 12, 2016

California’s leadership on climate policy solutions has brought much attention to the quantity of jobs created in the state’s renewable energy industry. Yet the quality of those jobs has largely remained a mystery, and clean energy jobs aren’t automatically good jobs. A new UC Berkeley report released this morning at a press conference at the IBEW-NECA Sacramento Area Electrical Training Center finds that California’s principal climate policy, the Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS), has created good jobs with a career path for non-college bound workers. This is a virtuous cycle: the renewable projects create paid training for workers through state-certified apprenticeship programs, and they help fund the training of future workers through joint employer and employee contributions made for every hour worked.

The report finds that the RPS has created a “high road” renewable energy industry, which contrasts markedly with “low road” strategies of states such as Texas in which job training is rare, wages are low and benefits often nonexistent.

What’s more, the high-quality jobs resulting from California’s RPS largely have been created in regions of the state where they are most needed, with high unemployment and low income.

The report, “The Link Between Good Jobs and a Low Carbon Future,” was published by the Donald Vial Center for Employment in the Green Economy, part of the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

“What’s unique about California is that the boom in renewables has created quality jobs that lead to real careers,” said Betony Jones, Associate Chair of the Donald Vial Center and a co-author of the report. “These are not just jobs to get by. Workers on these projects are getting health care, pension contributions, and paid comprehensive training that leads to career stability,” she said.

“This benefit package helps maintain a skilled workforce that benefits not only the construction industry but also the state’s broader economy,” said Dr. Carol Zabin, co-author of the report.

Senator Kevin de León remarked, “This research offers powerful new evidence of the positive economic impact California’s climate policies are having for blue-collar working families across our state, especially in our most disadvantaged communities. California is poised to build on this success over the coming years with even more ambitious goals for clean energy generation established under Senate Bill 350.”

Jose Muñoz, a journeyman electrician and father of three from Calexico, has worked on several commercial-scale solar projects, wind farms and energy storage projects in San Diego and Imperial Counties since 2006. “The benefits and training that come with these jobs are the most important things,” he said. “One job site can have about 600 electricians and lot of those are local guys who come from fast food jobs or working in the fields,” said Muñoz. “They have never had benefits for themselves and their families before.”

Key Findings:
The report calculated the following effects of California’s RPS from 2002-2015:

  • Creation of 25,500 blue-collar job-years (about 53 million hours of blue-collar construction work), with greatest job gains in counties such as Kern, San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial, where unemployment rates are far above the state average and income is far below average.
  • California’s Inland Empire and San Joaquin Valley together have seen 65% of these jobs.
  • Almost all the large-scale renewable projects are built under project labor agreements, which provide union pay rates, health insurance and pension programs for all workers, whether or not their employers are union.
  • Utility-scale photovoltaic construction projects have funded 1,700 apprentices, providing them with earn-while-you learn classroom and on-the-job training, and putting them on a pathway to mastery of their trade and a middle-class career.
  • This high-road construction industry not only provides full family health care and retirement benefits, but also is the primary funder of the apprenticeship training system, with the state paying only a portion of the classroom training.
  • In contrast, the renewable energy construction industries in other states such as Texas or Arizona are more commonly non-union, provide lower wages, do not participate in apprenticeships, and lack health care and retirement benefits.

Just Transition: Joint Proposal of PG&E, Friends of the Earth, NRDC, IBEW Local 1245, et. al. to Retire Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant

By Various - June 20, 2016

This document is an example of an actual "Just Transition" agreement hammered out through negotiations after years of organizing by environmental organizations and dialog with unions. While it's no doubt far from perfect, it still represents a starting point for similar campaigns elsewhere, and like a union contract, it's the product of negotiations following struggle. To secure better deals, the unions and ecological movements need to keep organizing and building their collective power.

Read the report (PDF).

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.

Transitions towards New Economies? A Transformative Social Innovation Perspective

By Flor Avelino, et. al. - Transformative Social Innovation (TRANSIT), September 2015

There are numerous social innovation networks and initiatives worldwide with the ambition to contribute to transformative change towards more sustainable, resilient and just societies. Many of these have a specific vision on the economy and relate to alternative visions of a ‘New Economy’. This paper highlights four prominent strands of new economy thinking in state-of-the-art discussions: degrowth, collaborative economy, solidarity economy, and social entrepreneurship.

Taking a perspective of transformative social innovation, the paper draws on case studies of 12 social innovation initiatives to analyse how these relate to new economies and to transitions toward new economic arrangements. The 12 cases are analysed in terms of a) how they relate to narratives of change on new economies, b) how they renew social relations, and c) how their new economy arrangements hold potential to challenge established institutional constellations in the existing economy.

Read the text (PDF).

(Working Paper #3) Energy Democracy in Greece: SYRIZA’s Program and the Transition to Renewable Power

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions For Energy Democracy, February 4, 2015

Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent “Great Recession,” governments have mostly scaled back or deemphasized their climate protection and “green” commitments. Lack of public funds and concerns about growth, competitiveness, and unemployment are frequently cited as explanations for this apparent loss of both ambition and urgency. The “green growth” narrative that colored various countercyclical “stimulus” spending packages from 2009-10 has been largely abandoned.

This has in turn slowed the deployment of renewable energy and thrown the UN climate negotiations into paralysis. During the recent talks in Lima (COP 20) it became clear that a global climate agreement seems very unlikely to emerge from the “deadline COP” in Paris in late 2015.

The goal of this paper is to show how economic crisis and austerity, which today serves as the perfect cover for inaction and reversals on climate protection and ecological sustainability, could actually spur a radical departure from the slow and stuttering progress of the recent past. The paper looks at the opportunities for such a departure in Greece, a country mired in debt, high unemployment, and on the receiving end of a full-blown austerity program. But Greece is also a country where the radical Left could soon be in power led by a party, SYRIZA, that’s committed to nothing less than the “ecological transformation of the economy.”

But how can such a transformation be carried out? How can a country like Greece—facing enormous challenges—be an ecological leader and perhaps an exemplar for a new course? Can a SYRIZA or SYRIZA-led government break new ground in terms of fusing a viable leftgreen project in the face of crushing odds?

Download (PDF).

(Working Paper #2) Climate Change and the Great Inaction: New Trade Union Perspectives

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions For Energy Democracy, September 2014

This paper has been written for unions and unionists who are perhaps in the early stages of their engagement with climate change and who feel they might benefit from knowing “the story so far” in terms of trade union involvement.

But it is also being written with an eye to the future, to generate discussion that may help unions develop the kind of compelling ideas and proposals that can lead to an increase in membership engagement and climate activism. A global movement demanding immediate and effective action on climate change is urgently needed, and unions can play an important and potentially decisive role. However, part of the process of building such a movement will require taking stock, in broad terms, of what has been learned with regard to past efforts both practically and at the level of ideas and core theoretical assumptions.

This paper focuses mainly on the UN level, where the level of union activity has been very significant and worthy of examination. It will be clear from what follows that the climate politics of the international trade union movement has reached an impasse–the same is also true of other movements who have fought for a global climate agreement and have seen their hopes shattered. But this is more than a problem of barking up the wrong tree, or of the wrong set of persons sitting in the seats of power at the wrong time. The “green economy” framework that has informed trade union policy on climate change and sustainability has also reached a political dead end. This is obvious at the UN level and increasingly obvious at the level of the nation state, one or two exceptions notwithstanding. Once regarded as inevitable, the green economic transition as imagined by the more far—sighted wing of the political and corporate establishment now borders on the impossible.

In following how unions have engaged the UN’s climate process, it is also possible to observe and reflect on how the trade union discussion has shifted from the days of the “triumph of the market” neoliberal globalist moment in the early 1990s to the present time, when the impacts of the Great Recession (and the need for jobs) are still all too evident in many parts of the world. In the early 1990s neoliberal capitalism was wiping the floor with unions. Unions of course remain under attack and very much on the defensive. But, in common with other social movements, unions have in recent years begun to engage in a deeper questioning of the political economy of capitalism from both a climate and environmental standpoint and from a socioeconomic perspective. Can politics significantly alter the systemic and profoundly unsustainable features of capitalism, particularly unlimited growth, accumulation, and consumption? In the light of the world leaders’ “great inaction” on climate change, this has to be the key question that lies at the heart of the trade union debate in the period ahead.

Download (PDF).

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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