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South Africa's Coal Miners’ Union Calls for a Public Pathway Approach to Energy Transition

By staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, April 5, 2022

At its recent 17th National Congress, South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) adopted a bold position in favor of keeping the country’s electrical power utility Eskom fully public.

Attended by roughly 750 delegates, the three-day congress — held in Boksburg, South Africa, from March 30th to April 1st, 2022 — adopted a report titled “Just Transition and the Energy Sector.” The report declares:

As a union with a long history of internationalism, NUM is today part of a global trade union-led effort to secure a Just Transition to a low carbon future. Once championed by unions, the term just transition has been hijacked by capital and its original meaning has been distorted. It is now being used to advance a global “green structural adjustment” agenda, one that is using the climate emergency as cover to advance privatisation and to dismantle public companies and assets.

In recent years, NUM has worked alongside the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), TUED, AIDC and the Transnational Institute to repel government-led efforts to break up and privatize the national utility Eskom.

Co-ops, Climate, and Capital

By RK Upadhya - Science for the People, March 2022

Cooperatives are generally seen as a radical and upstart form of organization, and a way for progressives and leftists to immediately implement democratic and egalitarian ideas on how the economy ought to be run. Thus, at first glance, rural electric cooperatives (RECs) seem to be one of the most promising institutions in the modern United States. Over 900 of these localized, nonprofit, democratically-governed, and consumer-owned utilities exist across virtually the entirety of the American countryside. These RECs control nearly half of the country’s power distribution system, which delivers electricity to their roughly 40 million members.1 Such a vast network should be well positioned to become the backbone of a society that has moved beyond capitalism and its compulsions for ever-greater profits, ever-increasing concentrations of wealth, and ever-deepening social and economic inequalities.

Furthermore, in contrast to most other types of co-ops, RECs are natural monopolies; due to the prohibitive costs of building independent power lines, as well as government regulations, the rights of power distribution in any given area are generally held by a single utility. In most cases, anybody who wants electricity in the service territory of a REC must become a member of the co-op. Insulated from capitalist competition, and with guaranteed yearly revenues in the millions, RECs are thus in a substantially more stable situation than the typical small metropolitan co-op.2 Indeed, with their stability and scope, RECs resemble local governments more than anything else, further underscoring their potential as a vehicle of radically democratic and collective practices around technology and local economic development—a potential that is ever more urgent today, given the role of electricity in the climate crisis.3

And yet, as thoroughly analyzed in Abby Spinak’s 2014 PhD dissertation, RECs have largely not lived up to this vast promise. Most RECs are indistinguishable in their day-to-day operations and guiding visions from their for-profit counterparts: they see themselves as single-issue businesses run by competent managers and specialized workers, whose sole purpose is to provide electricity.4 Democracy figures little in this vision, and broader socioeconomic and political ambitions even less so—a fact reflected in abysmally low voting rates, and in how RECs not only depend disproportionately on fossil fuels, but have actively lobbied against climate action and clean power regulations.5

Part of the reason for why RECs act as technocracies rather than as community institutions lies in their history, where they were developed and shaped by the US government more as forces of capitalist entrenchment, rather than as proper cooperatives built by and for local communities. Furthermore, as the dynamics of recent campaigns around RECs show, the forces of capitalism tend to exclude ordinary working-class people from social movements and democratic and cooperative institutions. For RECs and similar organizations to truly flourish and unlock their radical potential, it is necessary for them to actively push back against capital and its anti-democratic and anti-cooperative impulses.

Texas’s Power Woes Are Just the Latest Reminder of the Danger of Privatization

By Donald Cohen - Truthout, February 17, 2022

Texas dodged a bullet earlier this month when its statewide power grid, operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), held up during a drop in temperatures. But that’s not because state leaders, particularly Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, learned anything from last year’s horrific storm.

As Truthout’s Candice Bernd reported last week, not only did 70,000 Texans still experience power and utility services outages during the recent cold snap, but fracked gas production also saw its biggest dip in production since the February 2021 grid failure, revealing the industry’s continued vulnerability to extreme weather.

Last year, Winter Storm Uri blanketed the entire state with freezing temperatures and snow for several days, causing record energy demand. This forced ERCOT to tell energy providers to cut power as they tried to avoid a total collapse of the energy system. Nearly 5 million people lost power and at least 246 died as a result of the storm.

The latest freeze was a more typical Texas cold front. Local power outages were caused mainly by downed power lines due to trees and ice. Still, Abbott is claiming that the system is more reliable and resilient than it’s ever been.

Experts disagree. “The thing about [this month’s freeze] is, we passed the test, but it was also a really easy test, and we didn’t pass it with perfect scores,” Michael Webber, Josey Centennial Professor in Energy Resources at the University of Texas, told Truthout’s Bernd. “There’s a lot of people who had problems with their power, and there was still the gas production drop, so I think we shouldn’t take away too much false confidence that we’re all good now.”

Texas’s energy system is controlled by a complex mix of public and private actors, including the nonprofit ERCOT, oil and gas companies, the Texas Railroad Commission, and others. The details don’t matter as much as what makes the state’s system unique: It’s independent; not connected to the country’s two other national grids, the Western Interconnection and the Eastern Interconnection; and not subject to federal oversight.

This has allowed it to become one of the country’s most marketized systems, according to Johanna Bozuwa, director of the Climate and Community Project. It’s heavily deregulated, designed to allow for intense competition in the retail sale of electricity. As one portfolio manager at a financial firm put it, it’s a “Wild West market design based only on short-run prices.”

The Great Texas Freeze: Lessons One Year Later

By Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, Gopal Dayaneni, and Mateo Nube - Movement Generation, February 9, 2022

The visibility of ecological crisis is increasing every day. Last year’s cold snap in Texas, and the corollary collapse of its energy infrastructure, was but one example of this fact. Humanity is up against the limits of nature’s ability to tolerate globalized industrial production.

What actions would better position Texans to navigate the next superstorm in a favorable manner? Furthermore, how can we reimagine and reconstruct energy systems around the country, so that these dance in a regenerative rhythm with our planet’s life support systems?

The clock is ticking, and we need to make new meaning out of this pivotal moment in planetary history. We can no longer tinker around the edges of an ever-expanding crisis: Tackling this reality with clarity may be the biggest and boldest challenge our species has ever faced.

Here are some important strategic frameworks, formulated by Movement Generation, that we think will help us meet the challenge:

Is the California Coalition Fighting Subsidies For Rooftop Solar a Fake Grassroots Group?

By Anne Marshall-Chalmers and Dan Gearino - Inside Climate News, February 8, 2022

Over 70 member organizations in the coalition received charitable contributions in 2020 worth $1.67 million from big California utilities that see solar as the competition.

In the fight over California’s rooftop solar policy, a coalition that claims to represent low-income, senior and environmental leaders is running ads warning about a cost shift that forces consumers to subsidize solar for people who live in mansions.

This message, by Affordable Clean Energy for All, is trying to influence the debate as California regulators consider rules that would sharply reduce the financial benefits of owning rooftop systems.

But Affordable Clean Energy for All is not a grassroots movement. It is a public relations campaign sponsored by big utility companies that stand to benefit from policies that hurt rooftop solar. Many of the 100-plus groups that make up the coalition have received charitable donations or other financial support from the utilities. Few of them wanted to talk about the campaign when contacted by Inside Climate News.

The utilities’ campaign is using what watchdog groups say is a familiar playbook from across the country, with community groups providing a relatable face for advocacy messages that align with those of the utilities. If the result is a policy that hurts rooftop solar, that could be a big setback for California’s push to get to net-zero emissions, an effort that is counting on a continued expansion of solar and other customer-owned energy systems.

High Equity Stakes in California’s Solar Fight

By Crystal Huang - Organizing Upgrade, February 1, 2022

A struggle is underway in California that might well determine if low-income communities across the country—especially frontline and BIPOC communities—will be able to reap the benefits of the clean energy revolution or if they will be further disempowered by it.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which regulates the state’s three big private energy utilities, is poised to stifle rooftop solar development in California—the state with the largest solar investment in the country! The policy being considered by the CPUC, and pushed by the utilities, would eliminate the economic benefits of rooftop solar in California.

This is not about fossil fuels versus renewables: the private utilities are fine with renewables as long as they control and profit from them. The revised CPUC policy would foreclose on the possibility of expanding rooftop solar into low-income communities. That includes the building of local, community-controlled “microgrids” to bolster energy security in communities most vulnerable to crisis-related power shutoffs. It’s a direct power grab, an attack on our communities’ ability to achieve self-determination in the face of climate disaster—and it’s being done in the name of “equity.”

“Communities like mine have been systematically shut out of the clean energy economy,” says Jessica Tovar, Energy Democracy Organizer at the Local Clean Energy Alliance. “And just as we are rising to demand clean energy, rooftop solar, microgrids, resilience hubs, and the benefits they bring, the private utilities and the CPUC slam us with attacks on local solar.”

Boiling Point: Unions Clash with Solar Industry

By Gary Coronado - Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2021

Until recently, I had never heard of the Contractors State License Board, or CSLB. It’s a California agency that regulates the construction industry, with a goal of protecting public health and safety. Most of its 15 members are appointed by the governor.

Why am I telling you this? Because CSLB sent shock waves through the solar industry this summer when it ruled that rooftop solar companies would no longer be allowed to install batteries — an increasingly popular tool for keeping the lights on during blackouts — without getting a new license that might require them to overhaul their workforce. Solar industry leaders were apoplectic, saying the new requirement would be impossible to meet and would crash the market. They filed a lawsuit to block it.

The groups pushing the rule change framed it as a safety issue. By requiring solar companies to use certified electricians to handle battery installations, they’ve argued, state officials can limit the risk of lithium-ion battery fires, explosions and other hazards.

So on the surface, at least, this is a technical dispute over battery safety and workforce training requirements. But just below the surface lurks a long-simmering conflict between the rooftop solar industry and organized labor.

If that sounds familiar, well, you probably read my latest story (which I still hope you’ll subscribe to The Times to access, if you haven’t already), or last week’s edition of Boiling Point. In both pieces, I noted that most rooftop solar jobs are nonunion, unlike most jobs building large-scale solar farms. It’s a reality that has created constant tension in California, with politically powerful electrical and building trades unions pushing lawmakers to support big solar farms at the expense of rooftop installations.

(TUED Working Paper #14) Beyond Disruption: How Reclaimed Utilities Can Help Cities Meet Their Climate Goals

By Sean Sweeney and John Treat - Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, November 3, 2021

In TUED Working Paper 14, Beyond Disruption: How Reclaimed Utilities Can Help Cities Meet Their Climate Goals, Sean Sweeney and John Treat showcase how the energy transition that was promised has yet to come to fruition. They argue specifically the arguments around cities leading the transition have not been fully accurate and provide a sober analysis of where we stand.

As Sweeney and Treat argue, “the incumbent energy companies will not be dis­rupted out of existence; rather, they will remain dominant as market players and, under the current neoliberal framework, they will help perpetuate an energy for profit regime. If this is not changed, then cities will not be able to reach their energy and decarbonization targets. There is a need, therefore, to develop an alternative approach, one that goes beyond disruption (in a politi­cal sense).”

Through the piece they outline an “alternative approach that is offered shifts attention away from disruption of the incumbent companies toward the need to focus efforts on reclaiming these companies to public ownership.”

This Working Paper, released during COP 26 in Glasgow provides a clear-eyed analysis of the challenges ahead but also highlights an alternative public-goods approach to overcoming the worst of the crisis. Download the PDF here.

Read the text (PDF).

Clean Power to the People

By Al Weinrub - Organizing Upgrade, October 27, 2021

As predicted, the climate has been screaming out with intensified ferocity at the assault on the earth by the global fossil fuel economy. Extreme weather conditions are wreaking havoc on communities across the world, leading many climate activists in the U.S. and elsewhere to declare a climate emergency, requiring an urgent, intensified transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

But thinking of this transition as mainly a shift in energy technology, as de-carbonizing the economy, is to misunderstand the deep roots of the climate crisis in an extractive economic system based on racialized social and economic inequality.

Emphasizing de-carbonization of energy without broad institutional transformation—an approach called carbon fundamentalism—leaves us still at the mercy of the corporate energy establishment. That approach, as we shall see, is actually amplifying the already devastating impacts of the climate crisis. “It ignores the specific needs of people of color, it promotes programs that force low-income people to pay unfairly for carbon reduction, it exposes our communities to increased risks, and it sacrifices justice in the urgent rush to reduce carbon,” says Jessica Tovar of the Local Clean Energy Alliance. “Time and again, it ends up throwing people of color under the bus.”

We need more than clean energy to address the climate crisis. We need to move from a large, centralized private utility model to a locally based, decentralized energy model. We need an energy system centered on democracy and justice.

Puerto Rican Electrical Workers Union Fights Privatization of Island’s Grid

By Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo - Labor Notes, October 26, 2021

The people and workers of Puerto Rico are suffering the consequences of the privatization of our electricity system, which has been handed over to a new company, LUMA Energy, a subsidiary of Houston-based Quanta Services and Canadian firm ATCO.

Our union, UTIER—the Puerto Rico Electric and Irrigation Industry Workers Union—has been fighting for months against the disastrous contract that the Puerto Rican government signed with LUMA to operate our electricity grid for the next 15 years.

Privatization has dismembered the electrical system’s workforce in a transparent attempt to break up our union. LUMA was not required to hire employees of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA)—the public company whose assets were privatized. Nor did LUMA comply with the existing collective agreements between PREPA and its unions. Instead, LUMA offered reduced benefits and job protections.

LUMA began its contract on June 1 with only half the number of employees PREPA previously had, many of them are untrained and unfamiliar with our electrical system. The result has been ongoing outages and customer service debacles. If a major hurricane had hit Puerto Rico this summer, the outcome would have been much worse.

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