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Towards a Public Pathway Approach to Energy Transition

By various - Alternative Information Development Center, August 15, 2022

On Wednesday, July 27th, 2022, representatives of unions and social movements met in Johannesburg to discuss the country’s energy crisis. The representatives agreed to form a united front to resist privatisation of the power sector and to propose alternative ways to address both the immediate crisis and the longer-term challenges posed by the decarbonisation of South Africa’s energy system. What follows is a work-in-progress statement that captures the discussion and conclusions reached at the end of the meeting:

Statement of the United Front to Address Loadshedding:

We acknowledge the multiple economic and social problems associated with load-shedding (particularly for the working class and poor communities in both rural and urban areas). We agree with President Ramaphosa when he says government must take bold measures to address load-shedding as expeditiously and efficiently as possible. We agree that load-shedding is a national crisis that requires decisive action on the part of the government.

However, we believe that the proposals aimed at addressing load-shedding that have been put forward by government ministries, the private sector, consultancies and think tanks are unrealistic and are extremely unlikely to succeed. These proposals reflect the interests of the Independent Power Producer (IPPs) and their desire to secure subsidies as a means of securing guaranteed returns on investments and to grow their businesses at the expense of Eskom. Their needs also reflect the privatisation designs of the World Bank, the IMF, and the European Commission.

Equally important, the actions proposed by the government will impede South Africa’s transition to a low-carbon energy system and expose the country to a state of energy dependency. South Africa has no wind industry and its solar industry is negligible. There is currently no means to produce lithium-ion batteries. South Africa will surrender energy decision-making to multinational companies that produce these technologies.

We believe that it is foolish to entertain the idea that the private sector and market liberalisation can provide a workable alternative to load-shedding. The solution to load shedding and the achievement of a just energy transition in the coming decades depends on a well-resourced national public utility.

It’s Time for Public Power. New York State Could Lead the Way

By Ashley Dawson - Truthout, July 20, 2022

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling in West Virginia v. EPA dismantles one of the last regulatory tools remaining to cut carbon emissions on a federal scale in the U.S. With the failure of the Democrats to pass significant legislation and the specter of looming defeats in midterm elections, it’s now up to progressive cities and states to take the lead in fighting the climate crisis.

We got close to breaking ground on such an alternative state-level strategy this year in New York. In May, the State Senate passed the Build Public Renewables Act. The bill mandates the state’s New Deal-era public power provider — the New York Power Authority (NYPA) — to generate all of its electricity from clean energy by 2030. It also sets up a process that would allow the New York Power Authority to build and own renewables while shutting down polluting infrastructure. Although it is the largest publicly owned utility in the country, with a track record of providing the most affordable energy in the state, the New York Power Authority cannot legally own or build new utility-scale renewable generation projects at present because the state limits the public power utility to owning only six large utility-scale projects of 25 megawatts or more. This is because renewable energy developers wanted to limit competition from the New York Power Authority. The Build Public Renewables Act would remove this restriction and unleash the New York Power Authority’s game-changing power.

The Build Public Renewables Act had enough votes to pass in the Assembly and move to the governor’s desk to be signed, but Speaker Carl Heastie refused to bring the bill to a vote. Stung by criticism of this undemocratic move and over the tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations he has taken from fossil fuel interests, Speaker Heastie has called a special hearing on the Build Public Renewables Act for late July. The Public Power NY campaign is calling for Heastie and Gov. Kathy Hochul to call a special session so that the Build Public Renewables Act can be passed.

Three years ago, when the Public Power NY campaign began work, things looked a lot more hopeful on the federal level. Presidential hopefuls like Jay Inslee centered his plan for a clean energy economy on community-owned and community-led renewables while Bernie Sanders’s climate plan called for 100 percent public power. Sanders wanted to reach this goal quickly and efficiently by using public funding and infrastructure rather than leaving the transition up to corporate investors, who have failed the public miserably.

Leaping Backwards: Why is Energy Poverty Rising in Africa?

By Sean Sweeney - New Labor Forum, July 18, 2022

How can the world end energy poverty in the Global South and simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change? In 2021, 860 million people had no access to electricity. [1] Today, a third of all humanity lacks access to reliable power. Roughly 2.6 billion people heat their homes with polluting fuels and technologies, and using traditional stoves fueled by charcoal, coal, crop waste, dung, kerosene, and wood.2 The majority of families in the Global South are today able to turn on an electric light—and therefore have “access to electricity” for at least some hours in the day—but for many that is as far as it goes. For other basic needs, dirty and perhaps life-threatening energy continues to be the norm.

The urgency of providing energy to the great numbers of people in the Global South who lack it runs headlong into the necessity to divert climate disaster by reducing worldwide carbon emissions. It is this challenge that sits at he center of current debates on “sustainable development.” For some years, the standard answer from the climate policy world has been the following: the Global South is well positioned to “leapfrog” the phase of centralized energy and jump feet first into the transition to modern renewables, in the same way as mobile phones have proliferated in the developing world without first having to install traditional land-line infrastructure.3 Whereas large nuclear, coaland gas-fired power stations and hydroelectric dams take years to build, by comparison wind, solar, and battery technologies are small, easy to install, and, the argument goes, increasingly affordable. Rural communities without electricity can set up stand-alone “micro- grids,” so there is no need for traditional transmission and distribution grids which are expensive and inefficient. The Global South—which refers broadly to Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, and the developing countries in Asia—is blessed with so much sun and wind, there is no reason why energy poverty cannot be consigned to history relatively quickly.4

That is the good news. The bad news is that it is not happening, and there are few signs that it will.

Australia’s Recent Power Market Crisis and the Struggle for Public Ownership

By staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, July 8, 2022

This past June 15th, Australia’s Electricity Market Operator (AEMO) announced the suspension of wholesale electricity spot markets in all regions covered by the country’s National Electricity Market (NEM). The NEM typically provides 80% of Australia’s electricity, mainly in developed coastal areas around the eastern third of the country.

The market suspension came in response to soaring wholesale electricity prices and serious shortages in supply — a combination of factors that, according to AEMO, made it “impossible to continue operating the spot market while ensuring a secure and reliable supply of electricity for consumers” in line with national regulatory requirements.

Key unions in Australia have recognized for years that the NEM does not serve the interests of unions, working people, or the public in general. According to Michael Wright, acting national secretary of the country’s Electrical Trades Union (ETU):

The ETU has been sounding the alarm about the NEM for years. This vindicates our long-held concerns that the market is broken and beyond repair.

The experiment in synthetic markets, trying to deliver essential public services through profit-motivated, tax-avoiding multinational energy corporations, has failed shockingly.

Similarly, Colin Long, Just Transitions Organizer for Australia’s Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC), points out that such markets only function when they ensure profits for private owners and investors. As Long states in a background document he has written on the current crisis:

The NEM [like other market-based systems] is designed to deliver electricity in a way that is profitable to generators, mostly privately-owned, not in a way that maximises public or social benefit to Australians.

As Long further explains:

Privatisation was supposed to lead to lower prices for consumers. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Reinstating public ownership would eliminate rentier behaviour by transmission and distribution companies and the need to concede to the profit demands of big overseas investors. It would enable us to plan the energy system transformation, with a clear schedule for closure of fossil fuel generators to give certainty to workers, their communities and electricity grid managers. It would enable us to schedule fossil fuel generation replacement by renewables in a way that guaranteed supply, efficiency and reduced cost – and ensures we meet decarbonisation targets. It would enable us to ensure that workers are guaranteed a just transition to new opportunities and new industries.

Readers who would like a copy of Long’s background document can contact him at clong@vthc.org.au.

Both ETU and VTHC are part of the TUED network, and have played key roles in advancing the project.

The UK Government's Nuclear Scam

Amid Rolling Blackouts, Energy Workers Fight For Clean Public Power In South Africa

By Casey Williams - In These Times, March 31, 2022

Can South Africa transition from a reliance on coal to clean power while maintaining jobs? The energy workers fighting for a just transition think so.

The lights went out around Johannesburg on a Monday morning in November 2021, not to flicker back on until early that Friday in some areas. It marked the last rolling blackout of a year troubled by more outages than any in recent memory. The fate of Eskom, the beleaguered power utility behind the crisis, is now at the center of South Africa’s struggle for a just energy transition — a break from fossil fuels without leaving behind frontline communities or energy workers.

As a public company, Eskom has a constitutional mandate to guarantee electricity as a basic right. But the utility struggles to meet that mandate with its aging equipment, staggering debt, corruption and rules that require it to break even, which drive exorbitant rate hikes. Moreover, the electricity running through Eskom’s wires comes almost entirely from coal, smothering the country’s eastern coal belt in deadly pollution and adding planet-warming emissions to the atmosphere — and putting the utility at odds with South Africa’s decarbonization commitments and global calls for renewable energy. South Africa, the 26th-largest country by population, ranks 14th in carbon output worldwide and is responsible for 1% of global emissions, because of this reliance on coal.

Few believe Eskom will survive in its current state, and what comes next is the subject of a high-stakes debate — and is about more than the climate. The state-owned company employs 45,000 workers and supports 82,000 coal jobs in a country where more than a third of the population is out of work. Eskom is a union shop, as are South Africa’s biggest coal mines.

The government’s plan, already underway, is to invite private companies into the energy sector on the dubious grounds that clean energy is bound to win in a competitive market. The powerful miners and metalworkers unions oppose privatization, which they worry will hobble their organizations, if not eliminate the jobs they’re entrusted to protect. 

The unions have reason to worry. European multinationals have installed most of South Africa’s wind and solar capacity so far, importing technicians and hardware. The local jobs that come with them are often low-paid and temporary, vanishing once plants get up and running. Workers with permanent jobs, meanwhile, have struggled with for-profit energy companies over the right to strike.

While some union leaders and workers have responded to the threat of privatization by defending coal mines and the union jobs they offer, unions also say they support decarbonization efforts. There are currents within the labor movement organizing for a just transition to turn Eskom into a unionized, public and clean power utility, run by and for the South African people.

This tug-of-war holds lessons for workers everywhere: The South African labor movement has largely succeeded in making the public debate about ownership and power— about who owns energy resources and who decides how they’re used — rather than simply about renewables versus coal. Still, the temptation for labor to double down on coal jobs remains strong as the South African economy flags and unemployment spikes, emblematic of how hard it can be to fight for long-term goals if jobs are under threat.

Can a Just Energy Transition Occur Under Capitalism?

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:

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