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Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy: an Organizing Proposal

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, April 29, 2017

The world faces a crises of enormous proportions. Global warming, caused by the continued burning of fossil fuels, threatens life on Earth as we know it, and yet, those most responsible for causing the crisis, the fossil fuel wing of the capitalist class, seems hell bent on doubling down on business as usual. In the United States of America, whose corporate overlords are among the worst offenders, they are led by the recently elected Donald Trump, whose cabinet is bursting at the seams with climate change denialists and fossil fuel capitalist industry representatives. Instead of transitioning to a clean energy economy and decarbonizing society as quickly as possible, as climate scientists overwhelmingly recommend, Trump and his inner circle would seemingly rather not just maintain the status quo; they’ve signaled that they intend to make the worst choices imaginable, putting all of the US’s energy eggs into the oil, natural gas, and coal basket.

Worse still, Trump claims to enjoy a good deal of support for such moves from the Voters who elected him, which includes a good portion of the "White working class" who have traditionally supported the Democratic Party, whose policies are just barely more favorable to addressing the problems of global warming (which is to say, still woefully inadequate). Meanwhile, the leadership of the AFL-CIO, pushed principally by the Building Trades unions, have doubled down on their efforts to continue to serve as capital’s junior partners, even as the latter continues to liquidate them in their ongoing campaign of systemic union busting.  Just recently, science teachers across the country began to find packets in their school mailboxes, containing a booklet entitled "Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming", a DVD, and a cover letter urging them to "read this remarkable book and view the video, and then use them in your classroom," courtesy of the climate change denialist Heartland Institute.

One might think, given all of these situations, that…well, to put it mildly…we’re doomed. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, in spite of the bleakness of these circumstances, a deeper look behind them reveals that fossil fuel capitalism is in terminal decline, that their hold over our lives hangs by a thread, so much that we the people, the workers and peasants of the world, have the ability to transform the human existence to one based not on plundering the Earth and exploiting the masses for the profit of a few, but one based on true grassroots democracy, free of suffering and want, and one that exists in harmony with the Earth. The key to making this transformation lies with clean energy, and the people who can make this transformation are the very people who helped elect Donald Trump themselves. One may justifiably ask, how is this even remotely possible?

This new organizing proposal, Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy, offers a potential solution and practical steps to achieve it which can not only break the reactionary tide, perhaps once and for all, but also can greatly accelerate the very necessary process of abolishing capitalism and building a new, ecological sustainable world in the shell of the ecocidal old by building an intersectional movement championing "Clean Energy Democracy". Such a movement has the potential to unite workers, rural and rustbelt communities, climate justice activists, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, and farmers of all backgrounds and revitalize a vibrant and grassroots democratic anti-capitalist left, and it offers goals that help address the intertwining crises of global warming, decadent capitalism, failing economies, and demoralized communities plagued by economic depression, racism, and reactionary nationalism.

While the burgeoning "resistance", loosely led by a coalition of groups and movements with a smorgasbord of goals and demands, many of which are reformist and defensive (though not undesirable if seen as steps along the way to more revolutionary and transformative demands) has so far successfully held back much of the worst intentions of Trump and the forces he represents, making the latter fight tooth and nail for every single inch (as well they should), such resistance still lacks the positive vision needed to truly meet the needs of most people, including especially the most oppressed and downtrodden. By contrast, Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy offers one piece of a revolutionary and transformative vision that can truly help build a new world within the shell of the old, thus putting an end to capitalist economic oppression as well as the ongoing systematic destruction of the Earth's ability to sustain life.

Download the Proposal (PDF File).

Should the left build an alternative energy commons?

By Patricia S. Mann - Climate and Capitalism, September 12, 2017

What could ignite a massive grassroots struggle to replace our fossil fueled capitalist system with a sustainable and just postcapitalist system? According to Marx and Engels historical materialist analysis in The German Ideology, a radical theory, and the revolutionary practices it supports must originate in the historical and material conditions of daily life, and specifically in the lived contradictions of daily life.[1] Such an analysis in the 19th Century supported their theory of a revolutionary proletariat and workplace struggles seeking to seize control of existing means of production.

However, a 21st Century application of historical materialist methodology supports a new theory of mass struggle, grounded in some very different lived contradictions in the daily lives of 21st Century fossil fuel users and abusers. As well as in new technologies capable of addressing these lived contradictions.

Contemporary Marxist theorists readily acknowledge some 21st C developments in capitalism. Sam Gindin suggests that contemporary capitalism rests on three legs: neoliberalism, financialization, globalization.[2] I would simply add that contemporary capitalism can only be comprehended if we recognize that it rests uneasily on a fourth leg, as well, catastrophic, fossil fuel-based climate change.

A Marx-inspired anticapitalist Left acknowledges climate change as the preeminent contradiction of capitalism today. (Capitalism will end, in either a catastrophic climactic 6th extinction, or in our last minute achievement of a sustainable post-capitalist society.) This Marx-inspired Left also embraces new technologies enabling a grass-roots politics of microproduction and sharing of renewable energy.

This microproduction and sharing of renewable energy should become the foundational dynamic of a global struggle for a post-capitalist commons, a sustainable energy-based post-capitalist commons.

Emphasizing the many sources of cheap renewable energy – not just sun and wind, but also hydro, geothermal heat, biomass, ocean waves and tides – Jeremy Rifkin maintains that with minimal capital investments in individual homes and local buildings, current technology could enable millions of people globally to become microproducers of renewable energy at “near zero marginal cost.”[3] Moreover, it will be a simple matter for microproducers of renewable energy to connect with others over an energy internet, creating local, regional, ultimately global networks of energy producers and consumers, sharing sustainable energy produced at minimal cost within the networks of energy producers and consumers.

Rifkin argues that these new technologies of renewable energy production, in combination with technologies of internet communication create the basis for a paradigm shift. Our contemporary system of capital-intensive, centralized, profit-generating fossil fuel energy production and distribution can be replaced by networks of individual microproducers and sharers of renewable energy. Rifkin’s analysis highlights democratizing, collaborative features of a decentralized, peer-to-peer, laterally scaled, renewable energy network of microproducers and consumers, supportive of a post-capitalist commons.

However, without a mass movement, without a Marx-inspired anticapitalist politics, seeking to develop a renewable energy commons off-the-capitalist-grid, these new technologies of renewable energy, and the internet grids for sharing it, will simply be absorbed by capitalism, commercially enclosed by capitalist energy grids. Transforming capitalism rather than displacing it.

Without a replacement strategy and a mass struggle to create and maintain an alternative grid, there is every reason to think the new technologies of green energy microproduction will simply contribute to a new form of what Jason Moore has called “cheap energy,” providing capitalism with a much-needed new source of surplus value.[4] And subsumed within a profit and growth based dynamics of global capitalism, these new technologies will not enable us to avoid catastrophic climate change. – Bechtel, typically the first in line for government subsidized corporate investments, has already made a huge investment in solar energy in the Mojave Dessert.[5]

There is no time to be lost. Capitalist commercial enclosure of this new sustainable energy commons will be rapid, at some not so distant point in time.

Full Report from an “International Meeting on the Energy Mix and the Commons” – Buenos Aires, Argentina (English)

By admin - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, September 27, 2017; English translation provided by Daniel Chavez of this original report.

The Energy Mix and the Commons

On 4-5 September 2017, an International Meeting on the Energy Mix and the Commons was held at the ATE National trade union’s main office, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The meeting was framed within a broader process of exchange of knowledge and experiences on climate and energy policies in Argentina, Latin America and the world. The Argentinian State Workers’ Association (Spanish acronym ATE; acronyms will be for Spanish names where applicable) and the Autonomous Argentinean Workers’ Congress (CTA-A) are engaged in international processes towards the construction of regional and global alternatives, in particular the Development Platform of the Americas (PLADA) and the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) initiative. The PLADA platform was conceived within the framework of the Trade Unions Confederation of the Americas (TUCA; CSA in Spanish) as a strategic political proposal centred around four dimensions—political, economic, social and environmental—aiming to contribute to the design and implementation of a regional model for sustainable development. PLADA proposes a gradual reduction in the use of fossil fuels, the universalisation of access to energy services, and the rationalization of those sectors of the economy that pollute the most. TUED, a global network composed of workers’ confederations and trade unions, focuses on democratizing generation, distribution and consumption of energy around the world.

The meeting was organised by ATE and CTA-A, with the support of the Transnational Institute (TNI, a worldwide network of scholar-activists based in the Netherlands) and the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of State Workers (CLATE).

(TUED Bulletin #68) The Invisible Crisis of Wind and Solar Energy–and the Urgent Need for a Public Approach

By Sean Sweeney and John Treat - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, December 5, 2017

Why, in a world awash with “idle capital” and in desperate need for a just energy transition to renewables-based energy systems, are global investment levels in renewable energy so obviously out of sync with climate targets?

According to a 2016 report released by the International Energy Agency, “Market-based, unsubsidised low-carbon investments have been negligable.” Without public money, the levels of modern renewable energy would be abysmally low. The tenth TUED Working Paper, Preparing a Public Pathway: Confronting the Investment Crisis in Renewable Energy describes how public money is papering over the fundamental failures of so-called “competitive” electricity markets. Public financing is increasingly being used to provide “certainties” for private companies and investors in the form of “power purchase agreements” or PPAs. PPAs make renewable energy expensive and vulnerable to the kind of political backlash we’ve seen across Europe and elsewhere. As a result, the entire energy sector becomes starved of investment and saturated in “political risk.”

“Preparing a Public Pathway” is available for download now (PDF)

From the Working Paper:

The dominant policy institutions have concluded that the market model that emerged from privatization and liberalization has proven to be an impediment to the kind of energy transition that is required. These same institutions instruct governments to increase their role as enablers of investment, by absorbing risk, providing support, and guaranteeing revenues and returns through P3s and PPAs.

The introduction of “capacity payments” speaks to the extent to which the “competitive market” is not only no longer competitive, it can no longer be usefully described as a market. Rather, we see governments, trying to ensure the energy-demand needs of the entire system are met, paying for unused electrical power—from both incumbent utilities and renewables companies—in order to ensure that all providers walk away with “returns on investment” that they (and the investors behind them) consider “satisfactory.”

One of the main goals of Preparing a Public Pathway is to provoke discussion among unions and their allies about the need to further cultivate a pro-public trade union counter-narrative that is clear, bold and persuasive, and—given the formidable nature of the challenge—offers some hope of decisively interceding in the global energy system’s worrying trajectories. Such a narrative must be able to assert, confidently and from an informed perspective, that only a planned, coordinated, publicly driven approach to investment has a credible chance of delivering the dramatically scaled up deployment of renewable power that we urgently need.

Climate message to transport unions: mobilize in Paris, build alliances back home

By Asbjørn Wahl - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, May 7, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Climate change is going on. Extreme weather conditions, storms, floodings, landslides, droughts and ice melting are reported ever more regularly from many parts of the world. Millions of people are losing their livelihood, their homes, their jobs – and many also their lives. The successive reports of the United Nation Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have increasingly called for urgent action in order to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. However, after having negotiated for 20 years, our political leaders have failed to take necessary action. The result is that emissions are increasing rather than decreasing (61 percent increase from 1990 to 2013). Temperature increase is on course for 4-6oC rather than maximum 1,5-2.0oC, something which will mean climate catastrophe.

In Peru last December, a climate summit (COP20) once more ended without showing any ability to do what is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. COP20 in Lima therefore became FAILURE20. However, COP20 was not expected by anybody to bring a breakthrough. It was seen as an intermezzo, while we have been told that it is at the next summit, COP21 in Paris at the end of this year, that we will have an ambitious and binding global agreement. Given the track record of more than 20 years of government negotiations, we should not so easily count on that. Time is therefore ripe for a massive mobilisation of social forces from below to put pressure on our political leaders. Trade unions will have to play a decisive role in such a mobilization. It is a question on what kind of society we want to develop. It is a question of having a just transition to a society based on clean and renewable energy.

Mobilise up to and in Paris

This mobilisation is now being prepared, and important parts of the trade union movement are already strongly involved. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has taken a leading role in this. General Secretary Sharan Burrow is urging trade unions to get involved at all levels – local, national and international. In France, a broad coalition of almost 100 organisations, including trade unions, have collectively founded the platform Coalition Climat 21 to mobilise and organise for COP21. Since the Mexico Congress of 2010, the ITF has followed up its strong climate change programme, organised seminars, taken part in global summits and mobilisations and developed educational tools, which can be found on our web site.

The ITF has also joined the global Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) network, which coordinates policy development, advocacy work and mobilisations – based on the understanding that in order to be able to carry out the necessary transitions, the energy sector, as well as other strategic sectors in our societies, have to be brought under democratic control. A number of national and international trade union organisations have already joined this network, and others, which support such policies, should do so as well. An important document, “RESIST, RECLAIM, RESTRUCTURE: Unions and the Struggle for Energy Democracy” has been developed, in addition to some interesting working papers and a short video.

TUC Congress 2017: UK Unions to Vote on Public Ownership of Energy, Climate Crisis

By staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, August 25, 2017

The annual conference of the 5.7 million member TUC will take place on September 10-13, 2017 in Brighton.  The Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union (BAFWU) has submitted a resolution that calls on the TUC to “work with the Labour Party and others that advocate for an end to the UK’s rigged energy system to bring it back into public ownership and democratic control.”  Amendments to the resolution have been submitted by the Communication Workers Union,  Fire Brigades Union, the train drivers union ASLEF, and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association. 

Resolution 10

Congress notes the irrefutable evidence that dangerous climate change is driving unprecedented changes to our environment such as the devastating flooding witnessed in the UK in 2004.

Congress further notes the risk to meeting the challenge of climate change with the announcement of Donald Trump to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. Similarly, Brexit negotiations and incoherent UK government policy risk undermining measures to achieve the UK carbon reduction targets.

Congress welcomes the report by the Transnational Institute Reclaiming Public Services: how cities and citizens are turning back privatization, which details the global trend to remunicipalise public services including energy.

Congress believes that to combat climate change effectively and move towards a low-carbon economy we cannot leave this to the markets and therefore need a strong role for the public sector in driving the measures needed to undertake this transition.

Third Memorandum or Grexit: What are the implications for the Future of Greece’s Energy System?

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, July 18, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Presentation, July 18, 2015, Democracy Rising conference, Athens, Greece

Third-Memorandum-or-Grexit-word document (full presentation)

It is understandable that this conference, Democracy Rising, should be deeply engaged in the intense political debates going on in Athens and all over the world about the decision by the Syriza government to sign the Third Memorandum and not walk down the Grexit road.

So the future of Greece’s energy system is not exactly the stuff of intense coffee-shop conversations going on right now. But energy will be at the heart of the struggles in Greece in the years ahead, Memorandum or Grexit. Energy poverty has grown with austerity and recession, and Syriza has taken measures to protect the poorest and most vulnerable from, for example, electricity disconnections.

But it is clear that the structure of Greece’s energy system also needs to change. The “Institutions”, through the Memorandum, have a clear sense of what restructuring energy means for them—full-on privatization. However, a left restructuring would seek to address two major challenges: firstly, Greece’s dependence on fossil fuel imports and, secondly, how to take advantage of its potential to generate large amounts of renewable energy. I will return to this later.

(Working Paper #4) Power to the People: Toward Democratic Control of Electricity Generation

Press Release - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, June 24, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

This is What Energy Democracy Looks Like

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, February 25, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

With climate change looming, we are facing an energy emergency. How can unions fight for change?

More to ‘pumped storage’ than meets the eye

By Lydia Graves - Appalachian Voices, February 7, 2018

Dominion Energy has been eyeing far Southwest Virginia for its latest project — a giant, hydroelectric battery, also called pumped storage. The facility would use cheap or excess power to pump water into an elevated reservoir during off-peak hours. By holding the water until peak demand hours and releasing it to run turbines when energy is needed the most, electricity is effectively captured and stored.

Although using energy to pump water uphill may sound counterintuitive, this project could be a way to make our power usage more efficient. Often, pumped storage facilities reduce energy waste by using excess energy from coal or nuclear facilities, so-called baseload plants that generate the same amount of power around the clock. The world’s largest pumped storage facility is in Bath County, Virginia, and is owned by Dominion.

Local solar is best

It is critical that any project Dominion constructs in Southwest Virginia benefits local people directly by generating the power onsite using cost-effective solar, drawing from the existing workforce and maximizing local economic impacts. The two potential projects Dominion is considering in the coalfield counties are forecasted to be roughly ten times smaller than the 3,003-megawatt Bath County site, so using small, onsite solar installations would be appropriate.

Solar is now the cheapest form energy generation worldwide and employs more people in the U.S. than coal, gas and oil electrical generation combined. Solar panels at the proposed pumped storage facility would capture and store the sun’s energy until the power is needed most by customers.

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