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(Working Paper #16) Beyond Recovery: The Global Green New Deal and Public Ownership of Energy

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, August 31, 2023

Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, calls for a GGND and a commitment to GPGs intensified. In July 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared, “The global political and economic system is not delivering on critical global public goods: public health, climate action, sustainable development, peace…we need a New Global Deal to ensure that power, wealth and opportunities are shared more broadly and fairly at the international level.” 

Authored by TUED Coordinator Sean Sweeney, the paper argues that a GGND of the left must distinguish itself from green “recovery economics.” Many North-based progressives are comfortable talking about the need for “more public investment,” and the need for “ambitious climate action” but many continue to be vague or agnostic on questions of public ownership and control. 

The paper argues that an undiscerning approach to public investment weakens the case for a GGND. It shows how the current emphasis on “de-risking” private investment means that public money is used to make profitable what would not otherwise be profitable. Obama’s stimulus package of 2008, to the more recent Green Deal for Europe, and the Biden Administration’s Inflation Recovery Act that commits $369 billion of public spending to secure long-term revenue streams and profits for mostly private investors and developers. The more recent “Just Energy Transition Partnerships” and the emphasis on “blended finance” are an extension of this approach. 

Taking a deep dive into the roots of neoliberal climate policy, Beyond Recovery shows how a “recovery” narrative has helped both conceal and perpetuate the failures of the current investor-focused approach to energy transition and climate protection. For more than three decades, this approach has shown itself to be ineffective in terms of reducing economy-wide emissions. Sweeney describes the policy as a resilient failure, the extent of which is not always fully grasped. 

Energy: The Means of Production

The paper argues that a left GGND must view public investment as a means to extend public ownership, with energy systems and critical supply chains being a priority target. 

Public ownership of energy gives governments the power to pivot away from the highly commodified “energy for profit” regime. More than any single policy option, control over energy will ensure that governments are better positioned to advance an economy-wide energy transition in ways that can control and then reduce emissions while also addressing joblessness, inequality, and other social problems. It can set the stage for the kind of sweeping interventions in the political economy that are needed to address climate change, confront the political power of fossil fuel interests, and intercept the dynamics of “endless growth” capitalism. 

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

The New (Renewable) Energy Tyranny

By Al Weinrub - Non Profit Quarterly, July 13, 2023

There are two very different (and antagonistic) renewable energy models: the utility-centered, centralized energy model—the existing dominant one—and the community-centered, decentralized energy model—what energy justice advocates have been pushing for. Although both models utilize the same technologies (solar generation, energy storage, and so on), they have very different physical characteristics (remote versus local energy resources, transmission lines or not). But the key difference is that they represent very different socioeconomic energy development models and very different impacts on our communities and living ecosystems.

Let me start by recounting some recent history in California—the state often regarded as a leader in the clean energy transition.

In recent years, California’s energy system has failed the state’s communities in almost too many ways to count: utility-caused wildfires, utility power shutoffs, and skyrocketing utility bills, for starters. Currently, state energy institutions are advancing an all-out effort to suppress local community ownership and control of energy resources—the decentralized energy model.

Instead, they are promoting and enforcing an outmoded, top-down, utility-centered, extractive, and unjust energy regime—the centralized energy model—which effectively eliminates local energy decision-making and local energy resource development. This model forces communities to pay the enormous costs of unneeded transmission line construction and bear the massive burden of transmission line failures.

Using the power of the state to enforce the centralized energy model is at the heart of California’s new renewable energy tyranny. And this tyranny has now spread to the federal level, as substantial public investment is now set to go toward large-scale renewable energy projects across the country. These projects will be controlled by and benefit an increasingly powerful renewable energy oligarchy. Being touted as a solution to what is popularly regarded as the “climate emergency,” this centralized energy model has actually failed to meet our communities’ energy needs, and at the same time has exacerbated systemic energy injustice.

BPRA: A Win in the Fight for a Green New Deal

How to Win a Green New Deal in Your State

By Ashley Dawson - The Nation, May 11, 2023

New York passed a publicly funded renewable energy program. This is how DSA did it—and how you can too.

New York just became the first US state to pass a major Green New Deal policy. After four years of organizing, the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA) is now in the New York state budget. Passage of the act is a massive challenge to fossil fuel hegemony and a major victory for public power.

The BPRA authorizes and directs the state’s public power provider—the New York Power Authority (NYPA)—to plan, build, and operate renewable energy projects across the state to meet the ambitious timetable to decarbonize the grid mandated by the Climate Act of 2019. The NYPA, the largest public utility in the country, provides the most affordable energy in the state, but until now, it has been prohibited from building and owning new utility-scale renewable generation projects because of lobbying by profit-seeking private energy companies.

How did we win passage of this plan to start a publicly funded renewable energy program?

The Public Power NY movement began in late 2019 with a campaign organized by the eco-socialist working group of the NYC Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) against a rate hike request from the private utility ConEd. According to a 2018 report from the US Energy Information Administration, ConEd was already charging the second-highest residential rates of any major utility in the country (nearly double the national average), and now they wanted to raise electricity rates an additional 6 percent and gas rates by 11 percent.

To thwart this request, the Public Power campaign did intensive research into the for-profit utility’s recent history and found that though ConEd was making a billion dollars per year in profits, it had threatened to shut off power for 2 million low-income New Yorkers in 2018. Moreover, ConEd had failed to carry out grid upgrades that it had received $350 million to perform, a failure that left the power grid in an increasingly unstable state.

'Big Win': New York to Build Publicly Owned Clean Energy, Electrify New Buildings

By Julia Conley - Common Dreams, May 2, 2023

"A better world is possible," said campaigners who pushed for the passage of the Build Public Renewables Act. "And we are building it."

Climate campaigners in New York were credited on Tuesday with pushing Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state Legislature to include in the state budget "historic" provisions that will build publicly owned renewable energy and end the use of fossil fuels in new buildings—without a loophole allowing municipalities to opt out of the requirement.

The budget, hammered out in recent days in talks between the governor and the leaders of the Legislature as advocates refused to back down from their demands for far-reaching climate measures within the deal, includes the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA), which was secured "through four years of organizing across the state by thousands of [Democratic Socialists of America members], the Public Power NY coalition, and more," said the NYC-DSA Ecosocialist Working Group.

"This text is the biggest Green New Deal win in U.S. history," said the group. "A better world is possible. And we are building it."

Whose Green Transition? Ours!

By Keith Brower Brown - Labor Notes, April 25, 2023

Huge changes are coming for our workplaces, quick as a heat wave. This month Joe Biden inked new rules to make all-electrics the majority of new cars sold in America within a decade.

o charge all those batteries, many of the largest states are pushing to power their grids with two-thirds clean energy by the same deadline.

These green shifts have put billion-dollar signs in the eyes of bosses. Public cash is pouring out to subsidize cleaner manufacturing and energy. Corporations aim to cash in double by cutting unions out.

Automakers like General Motors are setting up huge parts of the electric car supply chain in anti-union “joint venture” plants. Solar energy jobs, as of 2022, were 90 percent non-union across the country. Union-busting is even more disgusting in a green disguise.

But as the song goes, “Without our brains and muscle, not a single wheel can turn.” That goes for electric wheels, too.

The enormous sweat and smarts needed for any climate transition worth the name give workers huge potential leverage, from electricians in Arizona to auto workers in Tennessee.

And around these green boom-towns, childcare, education, health, and logistics workers could see their leverage grow, too.

Rosemary: Platform at XRTU Hub, The Big One

A Public, Renewable Power Future: Moving Beyond Monopoly, Fossil-Fueled Utilities

Defying U.S., Mexico's "second nationalisation" of electricity moves forward

By staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, April 8, 2023

On Tuesday, the Mexican Government signed an agreement to purchase 13 power generation plants from the Spanish multinational Iberdrola. Purchase turns the State Company into a majority owner in electric energy generation in Mexico.

Three weeks after hundreds of thousands mobilised to mark 85 years since the expropriation of oil by former Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas, the federal government announced it is purchasing 13 electric energy generation plants owned by the Iberdrola for nearly USD $6 billion. The 13 plants represent 8,539 MW of installed capacity, with 8,436 MW corresponding to combined cycle gas and 103 MW to wind. Altogether, the purchase represents 77% of Iberdrola’s installed capacity in the country, although the Spain-based multinational would remain the main private generator of renewable energy in Mexico.

While many details are yet to be made public around the financing structure, according to the finance ministry, a new trust fund managed by Mexico Infrastructure Partners (MIP) will own the power plants, with a majority of its capital sourced primarily by Fonadin, the public infrastructure fund of Mexico. The federal power utility, Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE), will operate the plants.

"This means, without exaggerating (...), the rescue of the CFE and is a new nationalisation of the electricity industry. Most important of all, in this way, we guarantee that electricity prices will not increase for consumers, as has been the case in the last four years,” said President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). “In other words, the CFE becomes the majority company. If we add to this that final plants are being built, hydroelectric plants are being rehabilitated with new turbines, all under the CFE, we can affirm that the Mexican state will maintain around 65 per cent of all energy generation at the end of the six-year term,” added AMLO in Tuesday’s televised announcement.

“The CFE is the only company with permission to commercialise electricity. The CFE had to buy electricity from these 13 Iberdrola plants in order to sell it. Today, we will no longer need this intermediation,” said Rocío Nahle, Secretary of the Energy Ministry (Sener). “The Mexican people are therefore favoured because we are able to sustain affordable electricity costs. In Mexico, we are the country with the lowest energy rates in the OECD because we have an energy policy that the President reviews daily, and with PEMEX, CFE, it allows us to have rates below inflation,” she said.

The IRA Is an Invitation to Organizers

By Kate Aronoff - Dissent, Spring 2023

The Inflation Reduction Act presupposes a private sector–led transition. But battles over its implementation could build the political constituencies and expertise needed to take on the fossil fuel industry.

The Inflation Reduction Act would not have happened without the movement for a Green New Deal, but it shouldn’t be confused for one. The climate left (broadly defined) now faces a novel problem: how to deal with having won something—and keep fighting for more.

It’s understandably hard for those who supported Green New Deal proposals for transformative investments in public goods to see the IRA—a bundle of tax credits whose benefits accrue largely to corporations—as a consolation prize. For the many climate hawks galvanized by Bernie Sanders’s bid for the Democratic nomination in 2020, it’s also a far cry from what, for a moment, looked to be within striking distance: governing power.

In some ways the IRA’s passage—and Republicans taking back the House a few months later—marks a return to normal for the climate left. But Democratic Party politics have changed. Top Democratic policymakers openly discuss the need for industrial policy (what one International Monetary Fund paper dubs “the policy that shall not be named”), and hundreds of billions of dollars will soon go out the door to build up domestic supply chains for things like battery storage and critical minerals. In practice, however, that means letting the public sector shoulder the risks of an energy transition while the private sector reaps the rewards. By all accounts the White House seems to imagine climate policy as the project of turning clean energy technologies into a more attractive asset class for investors.

None of this obviates the need for a Green New Deal. Every path to staving off runaway climate catastrophe runs through enormous investments to scale up zero-carbon energy and a simultaneous, brutal confrontation with the fossil fuel industry. Even given unlimited resources, the former simply won’t overpower the latter fast enough. Trillions of dollars in future revenue—coal, oil, and gas that has yet to be dug up and burned—need to be made worthless, even when the market disagrees. Only the state can keep a company from doing what is profitable.

The Green New Deal’s basic political calculus for making the state do that still holds, too: getting to zero emissions requires giving people a reason to be excited about the awe-inspiring project of decarbonization and to come to its defense at the ballot box and beyond. Decarbonization should make the kinds of changes in people’s lives that inspire them to name children after the president they deem responsible. No one will name their kid Biden because they got a $7,500 rebate on a Chevy Bolt.

If winning a Green New Deal is still necessary (it is), then the path to it will be a strange one. A product of the left having shifted the debate on climate and economic policy is that it’s also created a new organizing challenge for itself: how do you build durable democratic majorities for climate action as political elites align around a fundamentally undemocratic vision for what decarbonization should look like?

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