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energy democracy

Bringing Power to the People: The Unlikely Case for Utility Populism

By Kate Aronoff  - Dissent, Summer 2017

One glaring omission in the postmortem handwringing about the 2016 election is the fact that most poor people in America—of all races and genders—simply didn’t vote. They were prevented from doing so by a number of structural barriers—voting restrictions, second and third jobs, far-flung polling locations—as well as a lack of excitement about two parties they saw as having abandoned them.

Enter: twenty-first-century electric cooperatives, a perhaps unlikely player in the contest for power between progressives and conservatives in the heart of so-called Trump country in rural America.

If there’s one thing poor, rural communities tend to have in common, it’s where they get their power—not political power, but actual electricity. Over 900 rural electric cooperatives (RECs)—owned and operated by their members—stretch through forty-seven states, serving 42 million ratepayers and 11 percent of the country’s demand for electricity. They also serve 93 percent of the country’s “persistent poverty counties,” 85 percent of which lie in non-metropolitan areas. REC service areas encompass everything from isolated farm homes to mountain hollers to small cities, with the highest concentrations in the South, the Midwest, and the Great Plains. And they might just offer an opportunity to curb the right and the climate crisis alike.

Nominally democratic, RECs have the ability to transform a sizable chunk of America’s energy sector—one of the highest-polluting parts of our economy. Servicing ratepayers whose top agenda may not be climate change, the push to integrate renewables into RECs’ energy mix nonetheless grounds the transition away from carbon-intensive fuels in something more material: energy bills. Member-owner reformers dotting the map of red and rural America are already waging fights over their cooperatives on two fronts: for basic representation and for energy efficiency. Their work—combining a zeal for small-d democracy with one for bringing down emissions—could hold the key to making sure the transition away from fossil fuels includes some of the poorest places in the country on the ground floor. Crucially, it could also help extend our much heralded clean energy revolution beyond liberal enclaves like New York and California. If successful, reformed RECs could give progressives a much needed foothold in places the Democratic Party has long since abandoned. They might also help greens refocus fights onto pocketbook issues.

Understanding the RECs’ radical potential, however, means understanding their history. Rural electrification was intended to accomplish one goal: to serve people neglected by the private sector. At the start of the Great Depression, some 90 percent of rural homes lacked electricity. For private utilities (the only game in town at the time) extending power lines to customers spread out over tens or hundreds of miles simply wasn’t worth the cost—especially considering that the vast majority of those potential customers happened to be poor.

Our Best Shot at Meeting Paris Goals? Make Energy Public

By Sarah van Gelder - Yes! Magazine, July 9, 2017

Mayors across the country have vowed to deliver on the goals of the Paris climate accord in defiance of President Trump’s decision to back out. But how can they, realistically, when the national government is questioning climate science and promoting coal, fracking, and pipelines?

Simply put: Make energy public. Instead of privatizing city services, as some policymakers have long advocated, a new report shows that public ownership gives cities and towns the best shot at meeting renewable energy and efficiency targets.

Reclaiming Public Services: How Cities and Citizens are Turning Back Privatization,” a study by the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, challenges the ideas that governments are ineffective service providers, that private companies are more efficient, and that austerity budgeting and reductions in public service are inevitable.

Cities and towns that want well-run water and sanitation services, low-cost access to the internet, and affordable housing should keep those operations public or run by local nonprofits, the report found. If these services are now private, the institute recommends “re-municipalization.”

The report is based on research involving 1,600 cities in 45 countries that have chosen public ownership over corporate ownership, especially of their energy and water systems. “These (re)municipalisations generally succeeded in bringing down costs and tariffs, improving conditions for workers and boosting service quality, while ensuring greater transparency and accountability,” the report concludes.

Both Hamburg, Germany, and Boulder, Colorado, for example, are making their electric power enterprises public in order to shift to green and renewable energy sources.

In France, 106 cities and towns have taken over their local water systems in the past 15 years, in spite of the fact that France is home to some of the world’s largest private water companies. During that time, the report found that no French cities went the other direction and privatized their water system.

The report focuses on water and energy services, but there are many other services that benefit from local public ownership—some unexpected. The French towns of Mouans-Sartoux and Ungersheim bought farmland and hired local farmers to supply organic produce for school lunches. In India, the Tamil Nadu government opened dozens of public low-cost restaurants run by impoverished women to feed the poor. Argentina privatized postal services in 1997, but just six years later, renationalized the service in response to the private company’s poor service and high prices.

Privatization is tempting; it can provide local governments with short-term cash infusions. What politician doesn’t like to fill a budget hole without raising taxes? But the infusions don’t last. The private companies must pay large sums to their shareholders and executives, which they often do by cutting corners on upkeep, wages, and services, or jacking up customers’ rates. Instead of circulating locally, that money leaves a city’s economy.

According to the report, once a service is turned over to a private company, many cities found it was difficult to maintain accountability. They faced cost overruns, poor service, and violations of contracts. Many found they saved money and improved services when services went back into public hands.

Although family-owned or worker-owned businesses and consumer cooperatives are essential to local economies, some services—like water and sanitation—are best operated at a municipal or regional scale, and multiple providers may not make sense. In cases of these natural monopolies, local public ownership especially makes sense.

Like an ecosystem, a functioning local economy requires diversity. It needs many forms of ownership and types of entities. To thrive over years, each entity must both give and take; they must be in relationship with the people, institutions, and ecosystems that make up each community. When a local economy is dominated by enterprises that work to extract value for Wall Street banks or corporations controlled by absentee owners, communities are drained of their common wealth. It is that concern that drives much of the opposition to big international trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which critics say favor corporate rights over those of local government.

On the other hand, local entities, whether operated by worker-owners, families, nonprofit enterprises, or local governments, seek out multiple bottom lines—multiple benefits for employees, young people, vulnerable residents, and other local enterprises. They also take responsibility for their own human and natural communities. That is how We the People and the natural world can thrive for the long term.

Winning Clean Energy & Climate Justice for All

By Sean Sweeney - The Murphy Institute, June 20, 2017

Sean Sweeney, from Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), speaking at the 2017 People’s Summit, held on June 9-11th, on the three tasks to win energy democracy in front of the labor movement today.

Why Union Workers and Environmentalists Need to Work Together with Smart Protests

By Les Leopold - Alternet, June 21, 2017

As Trump slashes and burns his way through environmental regulations, including the Paris Accord, he continues to bet that political polarization will work in his favor. Not only are his anti-scientific, anti-environmentalist positions firing up some within his base, but those positions are driving a deep wedge within organized labor.  And unbeknownst to many environmental activists, they are being counted on to help drive that wedge even deeper.

Trump already has in his pocket most of the construction trades union leaders whose members are likely to benefit from infrastructure projects – whether fossil fuel pipelines or new airports or ...... paving over the Atlantic. His ballyhooed support of coal extraction  has considerable support from miners and many utility workers as well.

But the real coup will come if Trump can tear apart alliances between the more progressive unions and the environmental community. Trump hopes to neutralize the larger Democratic-leaning unions, including those representing oil refinery workers and other industrial workers.  That includes the United Steelworkers, a union that has supported environmental policies like the federal Clean Air Act and California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, and has a long history of fighting with the oil industry – not just over wages and benefits but also over health, safety and the environment.  

To get from here to there, Trump is hoping that environmental activists will play their part -- that they will become so frustrated by his Neanderthal policies, that activists will stage more and more protests at fossil fuel-related facilities, demanding that they be shut down in order to halt global climate crisis.  

Oil refineries present a target-rich arena for protest. On the West Coast they are near progressive enclaves and big media markets in California and Washington.  Yet many who live in fence line communities would like the refineries gone, fearing for their own health and safety. Most importantly, they are gigantic symbols of the oil plutocracy that has profiteered at the expense of people all over the world.

But from Trump's point of view, nothing could be finer than for thousands of environmentalists to clash at the plant gates with highly paid refinery workers. Such demonstrations, even if peaceful and respectful, set a dangerous trap for environmental progress. Here's why: 

Just Transition and Energy Democracy: a civil service trade union perspective

By staff - Public and Commercial Services Union, June 22, 2017

New PCS pamphlet Just Transition and Energy Democracy : a civil service trade union perspective

We urgently need to transition to a zero carbon economy but this doesn’t have to come at a price for workers and communities. PCS will launch a new pamphlet on just transition and energy democracy at its annual delegate conference on 23 May. The pahmphlet makes the case for a just transition and energy democracy from the perspective of a civil service trade union, based on public ownership and democratic control of energy that provides an opportunity to re-vision and rebuild our public services for people not profit.  

ADC Green Fringe: Energy Democracy: A worker-public partnership for a just transition

Tuesday 23 May, 5.30pm

Brighton Conference Centre: Syndicate 2

Chaired by PCS vice president Kevin McHugh

Speakers:   

Chris Baugh - PCS assistant general secretary 

David Hall – Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU)

Dorothy Grace Guerrero – Global Justice Now 

Capitalism is destructive and unsustainable: It needs to be replaced

By John Bachtell - People's World, June 6, 2017

This article is based on remarks made by the author at the CPUSA National Labor Conference, May 20-21, in Chicago.

Several crises of contemporary capitalism have reached or are reaching dangerous tipping points. They are rooted in a path of destructive and unsustainable development.

They include extreme wealth and social inequality, job loss and dislocation from automation, and the existential threat posed by the ecological crisis.

These interconnected crises are impacting everything and must be addressed together. And they can be.

But standing in the way are Trump, the GOP and extreme right, and their main support base: monopoly-finance capital, the fossil fuel industry, and the military-industrial complex. Their agenda is intensifying these crises and must be defeated.

This underscores the urgency to build the broadest resistance movement and radically elevate the fight for unity of our multi-racial, male-female, LGBTQ, immigrant and native-born working class and people. This is central to guarantee the working class emerges as leader of the entire movement to break the extreme right political stranglehold and open the way for the challenging, contested, and complex transition to a just, peaceful, eco-socialist society.

How the Light Gets In

By H. Patricia Hynes - Portside, May 25, 2017

Every now and then I re-visit these lines of the Canadian poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that cannot ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

In these times of climate change denial, macho military chest-beating, stagnant wages, and soulless extremes of wealth and poverty, light-bearing cracks are all that we have.  They surface in unexpected places.

Take North American Windpower magazine, a monthly shaft of light.  It was first sent to me by a friend who never subscribed to it. When I told her how informative - and realistically hopeful - it was, she turned her non-subscription over to me.

The March 2017 issue carried the story of an oil sands worker in Alberta, Canada, Lliam Hildebrand, who created a national initiative, Iron and Earth, to retrain out-of-work oil sands tradespeople - among them pipefitters, electricians, boilermakers, drillers, and construction laborers - to enter the Canadian renewable technologies workforce, including solar, wind and hydro.  A survey of 1,000 oil sands sector workers revealed that 63% responded that they could transition directly to the renewable energy sector with some training; and 59% reported that they were willing to take a paycut to transition into the renewable sector.  The Canadian wind company, Beothuk Energy Inc., has signed a Memorandum of Agreement with Iron and Earth to retrain oil and gas workers for the company's proposed offshore wind farm project, which has the potential to create 40,000 jobs.

Why not a similar US program for unemployed coal industry workers, given that everyone knows - except the President - that the cost of coal generated electricity cannot compete with renewables, and that solar and wind are the biggest job creators in electric power generation.  A team of developers recently proposed to install a large solar farm atop two mountaintop removal sites in the heart of coal country, Pikeville, Kentucky.  Further, they have pledged to hire as many unemployed coal miners as they can.  What more prescient sign of the times than this: in April 2017, the Kentucky Coal Museum installed solar panels on its roof!

In nearby West Virginia, the Coal River Mountain Watch is fighting to save 6,600 acres of their mountain from being blown up for strip mining of coal with a proposal for a 440 Megawatt wind farm.  The windpower would generate electricity for 150,000 homes, remove only 200 acres of hardwood forest, create 200 jobs with 40-50 being permanent and longer lasting than coal jobs, and provide sustainable income for the local economy.

R&C02-Is renewable energy a commons?

By Cécile L. Blanchet - Energy, commons and the rest, August 24, 2016

How relocating energy in the commons helps scaling-up renewables & saving energy
Is energy a mere commodity, or is it a common good? Why is this relevant in the first place? Here we look at why energy is part of our commons, from the sources to the product itself. In a second time, we will see that relocating energy in the commons has very important implications: it helps solve the energy efficiency dilemma (i.e., we need to reduce our energy consumption but who’s going to pay for that?) and scale-up renewables.

Article also published on the Commons Network.

What is a commons?

Once upon a time… there was an alpine pasture, where cattle from the village came to graze. The air was fresh and brisk, there was enough grass for the animals. But it was also a delicate, sensitive environment: put too much pressure on it (too much cattle) and it would be ruined in no-time… In other words, the pasture was a finite resource, which could support a finite number of cattle.

A (finite) natural resource, that is necessary to all: that’s a natural commons.

There are three way of dealing with natural commons:

  1. The commons (e.g., the pasture) is claimed by someone, who controls its access and monetize it: it becomes a commodity and the usage profits mainly to a few. 
  2. There is no communication in the community and no rules are set to use the commons. Individuals tend to exploit the commons as much as possible in order to maximise their own profit and compete for accessing to it. Eventually, the commons is destroyed. This is how Garrett Hardin described modern humans’ behaviour in the “Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968, which led him to argue that only privatization (as in 1.) or state regulation are successful mode of governance for the commons.
  3. People actually talk to each other and are conscious of the problem of over-using their commons. Therefore, communities organise themselves and set some rules, compensation mechanisms and sanctions against free-riders. Benefits are shared and sustained. This is what Elinor Ostrom (and her colleagues) reported upon throughout her career: communities are able to (and do) manage their common goods by themselves.

Next to the finite or physical resources defining the classical commons framework, we can think of other non-finite and more abstract resources that can be treated as commons and referred to as social commons: digital commons, knowledge commons, health commons, urban commons… Shifting the paradigm from commodity to commons helps to reduce the (artificial) scarcity of these resources (created and sustained by privatisation and monetisation) by having a common-ownership or no-ownership. This is best illustrated by the creative common licences, which allow (for some of them) companies to sell a product but not to claim its ownership (which means that other companies can sell the same product, modify it, etc…).

And finally, there’s the act of commoning: doing together, sharing, benefiting from each other. As we saw in the previous episode, this is one of the recurrent arguments given by members of energy cooperatives as a ground and as a co-benefit from their project.

3 Steps to Building Just Transition Now with a Permanent Community Energy Cooperative

By Subin Varghese - P2P Foundation, May 9, 2017

Step 1. Start now

Don’t wait. That’s rule #1 for living in a world where we’re already feeling the impacts of climate change; millions of lives and livelihoods are at risk — or stand to benefit from solutions — in this and future decades. We needed a just transition of our energy economy yesterday. And while there are challenges to universal access and equitably shared benefits from clean energy, there are steps we can take today to start building projects, jobs, and improved health in local communities.

rule_one.jpg

Which way for the climate movement?

By Michael Schreiber - Socialist Action, May 11, 2017

On April 29, more than 200,000 people marched in Washington, D.C., in a powerful show of determination to rescue the earth from the ravages of climate change. Over 370 sister marches took place simultaneously across the United States and in countries around the world from Britain to Brazil, and from Mexico to Kenya and the Philippines.

The size of the crowd in Washington far surpassed earlier expectations by the organizers and the National Park Service. At precisely 2 p.m., virtually the entire march, which at that point extended more than 20 blocks along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House, grew quiet as people sat down as an ensemble. Drums kept the rhythm as the marchers thumped their chests to show that while coming from many backgrounds, their hearts beat as one.

In addition to the colorful puppets and banners carried by organized contingents, most of the marchers brought hand-lettered signs, with slogans reflecting a variety of related social concerns (such as “Black Lives Matter”) in addition to that of the environment.

Although the organized trade-union contingents were meager, spirited groups of Native Americans, LGBTQ people, and communities of color—including a number of Washington, D.C., youth—made their presence felt.

“In the face of a federal administration that would rather reap profits than protect people, our communities are rising up,” Jeremiah Lowery, climate justice organizer with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said in a press statement on the eve of the march. “In Washington, D.C. and around the world, it’s low-income communities, communities of color, and workers who are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis they did the least to contribute to.”

There is no doubt that the threats by the Trump administration to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords and to rescind environmental measures put in place by Obama—which themselves were far from adequate—were responsible for swelling the numbers of people who joined the demonstration.

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