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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.

Plagued by Daily Blackouts, Puerto Ricans Are Calling for an Energy Revolution. Will the Biden Administration Listen?

By Kristoffer Tigue - Inside Climate Newses, October 25, 2021

Many residents say a record amount of incoming federal aid provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transition the island to clean energy. So far, the funds are mostly going to natural gas.

Eddie Ramirez has never understood why his government doesn’t more aggressively pursue renewable energy.

When Hurricane Maria swept across Puerto Rico in September 2017, shredding the energy grid and knocking out power for nearly all the island’s 3.4 million residents for months on end, Casa Sol—Ramirez’s five-bedroom bed and breakfast—was one of the only buildings in San Juan with working electricity, with 30 solar panels bolted to its roof.

When a large fire this June at an electrical substation in San Juan plunged more than 800,000 Puerto Rican homes into darkness and knocked out power to another 330,000 the following week, Casa Sol’s lights stayed on, even as its neighbors lost power.

And when a series of equipment failures and poor maintenance led to cascading power outages across the island in August, September and October, leaving hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans without electricity for days at a time and prompting calls for Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi to resign, Ramirez and his solar-powered hotel carried on, business as usual.

“We don’t even know when it happens,” Ramirez said of the blackouts, which have become a daily part of life for many Puerto Ricans since June, when the private company LUMA Energy took over the island’s electricity transmission system.

With Puerto Rico’s grid still in shambles four years after Maria’s landfall, and $12.4 billion in federal aid earmarked to help repair the territory’s electrical systems and jumpstart its economy, many Puerto Ricans, like Ramirez, see a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine the island’s tattered power system as a modern grid powered by clean energy and far better at withstanding the worsening threats of the climate crisis.

But many Puerto Ricans worry their political leaders are squandering that opportunity by planning to rebuild the electricity grid with natural gas power plants that continue to emit greenhouse gases and feed lengthy transmission lines that are vulnerable to natural disasters.

People's Utility Justice Playbook​

By Yesenia Rivera and Johanna Bozuwa - Energy Democracy Project, October 2021

Have you ever wondered who is in charge of your electricity? And why?

The People’s Utility Justice Playbook has two components:

  1. a “History of Utilities” report to summarize the history of utilities for everyone to understand how our current energy system originated.
  2. a “People’s Utility Justice Playbook” to expose the tactics from electric utilities that are undermining community’s efforts, so we can build our organizing strength—to not only fight back but also to build the democratic energy system for climate justice.

This is the basic information we need to fight back against energy utilities attempting to slow or stop progress toward economic and climate justice.

History of Utilities​

Electric utilities have expanded into almost every aspect of our lives to become one of the most powerful and concentrated industries on Earth. To have a better understanding of what we’re fighting against, we first need to learn about the history of energy utilities! This PDF summarizes the entire timeline and how the rise of energy democracy came about.

People's Utility Justice Playbook

In order to fight the industry-owned utilities’ tactics, we need our own strategies for combat!

We have our very own playbook sourced from energy justice activists on the ground. They suggest strategies and tactics they employ when fighting against utilities that anyone fighting against utilities could use!

Read the History (PDF).

Read the Playbook (PDF).

Energy Justice Statement on Rooftop Solar and Distributed Generation in California

By Alexis Sutterman, et. al. - CAUSE, Environmental Health California, APEN, CEJA, the Greenlining Institutem and Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, September 2021

Communities are being bombarded by cumulative and intersecting energy pressures: an affordability crisis, rising rates, major utility debt, economic insecurity, and ongoing power outages. In the face of intensifying climate impacts and the need for rapid decarbonization, Net Energy Metering (NEM) policies have supported tremendous growth of distributed solar resources, making California a national leader and helping to dramatically improve the economics of distributed generation and rooftop solar. Due to the intersectional impacts of redlining, California’s inequitable energy policies, and ongoing oppression, however, environmental justice (EJ) communities have experienced structural barriers in accessing and benefiting from NEM. Data shows that NEM disproportionately benefits wealthier, white, single-family homeowners. By its very design, NEM has not enabled rooftop solar to adequately penetrate EJ communities. Despite representing 25% of the State’s population, only 11-12% of households living in disadvantaged communities (DACs) in California are on NEM rates.

Read the text (PDF).

Opinion: Public Utility Campaigns Have A Labor Problem

By C.M. Lewis - The Strike Wave, July 28, 2021

Maine Governor Janet Mills’ labor-backed veto of LD 1708—which would have consolidated two private utility corporations into a statewide consumer cooperative, Pine Tree Power—is a sober warning to those fighting for public utilities: neglect unions at your peril.

Mills is no friend to labor. She previously vetoed pro-worker labor reforms and pledged to veto the right to strike for public workers. But her veto, sustained by the legislature, still accomplished the goal of concerned unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 567, who were alarmed at a potential change in legal jurisdiction.

Union resistance to progressive proposals can often cause consternation. Culinary 226’s opposition to Medicare for All notably caused a stir during the Nevada caucuses, raising the ire of many progressives. However, an immediate assumption that IBEW was wrong to oppose the bill buries the complicated reality: the bill would’ve tangibly harmed union workers. 

IBEW’s opposition was driven by concern that the bill would move workers from jurisdiction under the National Labor Relations Board to the Maine Labor Relations Board, bringing them into the public sector. Although that superficially sounds like a minor administrative change, and no reason for opposition, it would’ve had severe consequences for their workers—notably losing the statutory right to strike, and the imposition of the open shop through the Janus vs. AFSCME ruling

Viewed through that lens, IBEW’s opposition—while frustrating—is not unreasonable, and it speaks to a difficult problem faced by advocates for public utilities: that under present law, there is little to no way to bring private utilities under public control without stripping union rights from workers.

A Lifeline for a Coal Plant Gives Hope to a North Dakota Town. Others See It as a Boondoggle

By Dan Gearino - Inside Climate News, July 17, 2021

The politics and economics of the clean energy transition are playing out in a place desperate to retain fossil fuel jobs.

In a town with fewer than 1,000 people, losing an employer tied to about 700 jobs is a kind of death, and that’s what Underwood, North Dakota, was facing until two weeks ago.

Great River Energy, the owner of the giant Coal Creek Station power plant south of the city, said last year that it was going to close the plant in 2022 following years of financial losses. Local and state leaders vowed to find a way to keep it open.

Now those leaders are celebrating. On June 30, after months of rumors, Rainbow Energy Marketing revealed that it had agreed to buy the plant, with plans to retrofit it using carbon capture systems and also help to develop a wind farm. The company, based in Bismarck, North Dakota, said the project might help to write a playbook for how to save other coal-fired power plants.

But what feels like a godsend to people in Underwood looks like a financial and environmental fiasco to energy analysts and clean energy advocates, who view the plan to use carbon capture technology to keep the plant running as an expensive distraction from the urgent need to embrace cleaner options to help address climate change. The differing views underscore the challenge of building a consensus on clean energy in a place where many people blame wind and solar power for killing coal jobs.

“For the people I deal with, it was sort of like a weight was lifted,” said Steve Cottingham of Underwood, chairman of the McLean County Board of Commissioners, about the announcement of the sale.

Coal Creek Station is the largest power plant in North Dakota, with capacity of about 1,150 megawatts. The plant has about 240 employees and the Falkirk Mine has about 450 employees. The mine, located a few miles from the plant, sells nearly all of its output to the plant.

Underwood is a city with no stop lights. An antique store is called The Coal Bin. The economy is built on agriculture and coal.

Utility Workers Union and UCS estimate costs to transition U.S. coal miners and power plant workers in joint report

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 12, 2021

Hard on the heels of the April statement by the United Mine Workers Union, Preserving Coal Country: Keeping America’s coal miners, families and communities whole in an era of global energy transition, the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) jointly released a report with the Union of Concerned Scientists on May 4: Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape. This report is described as “a call to action for thoughtful and intentional planning and comprehensive support for coal-dependent workers and communities across the nation.” The report estimates that in 2019, there were 52,804 workers in coal mining and 37,071 people employed at coal-fired power plants – and that eventually all will lose their jobs as coal gives way to cleaner energy sources. Like the United Mine Workers, the report acknowledges that the energy shift is already underway, and “rather than offer false hope for reinvigorated coal markets, we must acknowledge that thoughtful and intentional planning and comprehensive support are critical to honoring the workers and communities that have sacrificed so much to build this country.”

Specifically, the report calls for a minimum level of support for workers of five years of wage replacement, health coverage, continued employer contributions to retirement funds or pension plans, and tuition and job placement assistance. The cost estimates of such supports are pegged at $33 billion over 25 years and $83 billion over 15 years —and do not factor in additional costs such as health benefits for workers suffering black lung disease, or mine clean-up costs. The report states: “we must ensure that coal companies and utilities are held liable for the costs to the greatest extent possible before saddling taxpayers with the bill.” Neither do the cost estimates include the recognized needs for community supports such as programs to diversify the economies, or support to ensure that essential services such as fire, police and education are supported, despite the diminished tax base. 

The report points to the precedents set by Canada’s Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities ( 2018), the German Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment (2019), as well as the New Mexico Energy Transition Act 2019 and the Colorado Just Transition Action Plan in 2020. The 12-page report, Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape was accompanied by a Technical Report, and summarized in a UCS Blog which highlights the situation in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota. A 2018 report from UCS Soot to Solar also examined Illinois.

Public energy companies necessary for a fair transition

By Dries Goedertier - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, April 19, 2021

The debacle with the reversing electricity meter [also called “net-metering” in many contexts — a billing mechanism that credits solar capacity owners for electricity they feed into the grid] shows the limits of Flemish energy policy, which places the responsibility for the much-needed energy transition in the hands of the individual as consumer, investor and entrepreneur. For a socially just and democratic energy transition, the necessary efforts of energy cooperatives will not be sufficient. Only the state can regain control of the energy sector on behalf of, and for the benefit of, society as a whole.

Flemish energy policy has recently suffered from a severe heat stroke. The Constitutional Court has put an end to the reversing electricity meter. The decision dealt a heavy blow to those families who, after the (apparently worthless) guarantees of a bunch of liberal energy ministers about the legality of this particular support scheme, decided to install solar panels on their roofs before the deadline of January 1, 2021. Many of them feel cheated and that is certainly understandable. However, a critical inquiry should not stop there. The whole debacle shows the limits of an energy policy that places the responsibility for the much-needed energy transition in the hands of the individual as a consumer, investor and entrepreneur. 

“The sun has become a neoliberal investment product,” stated Dirk Holemans (Oikos). Holemans, together with Dirk Vansintjan (Ecopower & REScoop.EU), is arguing for a shift to a collective model in which citizens pool their resources and capacities in energy cooperatives. There is indeed a lot to be said for that. After all, energy cooperatives have a lot to offer in terms of democratic, social and ecological benefits. 

If we really want to democratize the energy sector in function of social and environmental objectives, then public energy companies will have to play a major part

In my opinion, however, the admirable self-organization of thousands of citizens will not be enough to break the dominance of the current for-profit energy model. The market power of the established players is simply too great for that. Only the state has the capacities, resources and potentially democratic legitimacy to regain control of the energy sector on behalf of and for the benefit of society as a whole. 

If we really want to democratize the energy sector in the service of social and ecological objectives, then public energy companies will have to play a major part. This does not have to be at the expense of energy cooperatives, as is sometimes incorrectly claimed. I am convinced that energy cooperatives in a public-driven model of energy democracy will actually have more opportunities to unleash their potential. But in order for that to happen, we must dare to question the liberalization of the energy sector. 

Political deregulation of Texan grid to blame for near total collapse & bills of $15,000+

By Andy Rowell - Oil Change International, February 25, 2021

If shivering with cold dark for days in sub-zero temperatures was not enough for many Texans, those lucky enough to still have electricity during the recent freezing weather have been hit with exorbitant electricity bills.

In some cases unlucky customers have been charged a whopping USD $15,000 for one month’s power, or put another way over 70 times the normal cost people pay for all their utilities.

One customer Susan Hosford of Denison told the AP that normally she pays around $2.50 for power per day, but got charged $1,346.17 for the first two weeks of February. “This whole thing has been a nightmare,” she said.

Another customer, Karen Knox, a teacher in Bedford, not only lost power but now owes $7,000 to Griddy, an electricity provider located in Houston. She told the Texas Tribune there was no way she could pay.

Such is the outcry that Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican who is heavily funded by Big Oil, had to hold an emergency meeting with legislators to discuss the outrageous bills.

Abbott and others are now promising relief for those hit by sky-high bills, although how people are compensated is yet to be worked out.

As the anger has grown, so too has the political fall-out and finger pointing and as to what has gone wrong and who is to blame.

The reason the grid failed is simple: political deregulation. Along with sixteen other states Texas had deregulated its power market. The market was deregulated in 2002, under the then Governor Rick Perry, who would later become President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Energy.

Perry established the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (known as ERCOT), with roughly 70 providers. And then the politicians cut Texas off from the rest of the country, the only state in the contiguous U.S. that was operating its own electric grid.

And because the Texas grid was then disconnected from the rest of the country, no reserves could be imported when the grid got into trouble.

“As someone who has spent the past two decades studying electricity deregulation, I know that extreme power bills in Texas result partly from the state’s market-driven approach to running the power grid,” wrote Seth Blumsack, Professor of Energy and Environmental Economics and International Affairs, at Penn State in the Conversation yesterday.

Blumsack continued: “the sky-high electric bills in Texas are partly due to a deregulated electricity system that allowed volatile wholesale costs to be passed directly to some consumers.”

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