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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:

(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.

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.

Energy transition or energy expansion?

By Sean Sweeney, John Treat, and Daniel Chavez - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy and Trans National Institute, October 22, 2021

From politicians to corporate executives, media commentators to environmental campaigners, narratives evoking the “unstoppable” progress of a global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy have grown increasingly commonplace.

However, in reality, the global shifts in energy production, energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions we urgently need are not happening:

  • In 2019, over 80% of global primary energy demand came from fossil fuels, with global greenhouse gas emissions at record levels.
  • In 2020, wind and solar accounted for just 10% of global electricity generated.
  • Despite stories of its decline, coal-fired power generation continues to rise globally. In 2020, global efforts to decommission coal power plants were offset by the new coal plants commissioned in China alone, resulting in an overall increase in the global coal fleet of 12.5 GW.

Recently, some have argued that the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent contraction in economic activity signal a turning point. Indeed, global energy demand fell by nearly 4% in 2020, while global energy-related CO2 emissions fell by 5.8% — the sharpest annual decline since the second world war.

Despite these short-term shifts, the pandemic has failed to result in any significant long-term changes for the energy sector or associated emissions:

  • Global energy-related CO2 emissions are projected to grow by 4.8% in 2021, the second highest annual rise on record.
  • Demand for all fossil fuels is set to rise in 2021.6 A 4.6% increase in global energy demand is forecast for 2021, leaving demand 0.5% higher than 2019 levels.
  • By the end of 2020 electricity demand had already returned to a level higher than in December 2019, with global emissions from electricity higher than in 2015.
  • By the end of 2020, global coal demand was 3.5% higher than in the same period in 2019. A 4.5% rise in coal demand is forecast for 2021, with coal demand increasing 60% more than all renewables growth combined and undoing 80% of the 2020 decline.
  • Oil demand is forecast to rebound by 6% in 2021, the steepest rise since 1976. By 2026, global oil consumption is projected to reach 104.1 million barrels per day (mb/d), an increase of 4.4 mb/d from 2019 levels.

As such, an energy transition with the depth and speed necessary for meeting the 2015 Paris Agreement shows no sign of materializing. Indeed, most of the world’s major economies are not on track to reach their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) on emissions reductions.

These facts point to a clear conclusion: the dominant, neoliberal climate policy paradigm, which deploys a “sticks and carrots” approach that attempts to disincentivize fossil fuels through carbon pricing, while promoting low-carbon investment through subsidies and preferential contractual arrangements has been completely ineffective. This policy paradigm positions governments as guardians and guarantors of the profitability of private actors, thus preventing them from addressing social or environmental challenges head-on.

Read the text (PDF).

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