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energy democracy

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.

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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.

Beyond Petroculture: strategies for a Left energy transition

By Imre Szeman and Jeff Diamanti - Canadian Dimension, February 17, 2017

Five years ago, a group of us at the University of Alberta in Edmonton formed the Petrocultures Research Group to develop a sharper understanding of the ways we use (and abuse) energy. Our immediate intention was to examine the social, cultural and political implications of Canada’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century leap into the ranks of the world’s oil superpowers. Our interest in energy arose in part as a result of working at the research university closest to the Athabasca tar sands. In Edmonton, it’s hard not to see oil everywhere, and not only in the physical infrastructure of refineries, but also in its social costs and consequences: labour dislocation, inflated housing prices, alcohol and drug abuse, and rates of sexual violence and family dysfunction.

Very quickly, however, Petrocultures scholars also began to grapple with other, larger questions. What is energy for in our society? How does the availability of relatively cheap energy effect how we socialize and relate to one another? What are the inequalities that come with fossil fuels, and what is stopping renewables from carrying those same inequalities forward? Petrocultures began investigating how energy in the 20th century made a number of other, seemingly unrelated things, possible. We moderns tend to image energy as a largely neutral aspect of social life, as little more than a dead input into the motors of a society whose form and rationale originates at a distance from coal mines and oil fields. But in fact, the forms of energy we use, and how we use them, shape society through and through, and not just how we work (in factories instead of fields) or how we move around (using horsepower instead of horses).

This is what we mean by “petroculture,” the term that gives our group its name. Petroculture is the global culture we find ourselves in today. It is the name for a society that has been organized around the energies and products of fossil fuels, the capacities it engenders and enables, and the situations and contexts it creates. It’s not just that our physical infrastructures depend on oil and gas, or that our social and economic practices have been organized around easy and cheap access to fossil fuels. The relationship to our dominant energy form is deeper, pervasive, and constitutive: to say we inhabit a “petroculture” is to say we are fossil-fuel creatures all the way down. Our expectations, our sensibilities, our habits, our ways of being in and moving across the world, how we imagine ourselves in relation to nature, as well as in relation to one another—these have all been sculpted by, and in relation to, the massively expanded energies of the fossil-fuel era. To give but one example: in the potential shift from gas to electric-powered cars now promised us, what is never questioned is necessity of the automobile itself. As inhabitants of a global petroculture, we have all come to expect the mobility, freedom and autonomy of mechanized movement by land, sea and air. Those parts of the world that don’t yet have a car in every garage see it as an index of economic and social progress — a sign of having joined the modern community because, at long last, they are able to use energy at the same level of those in the global North.

Does Trump Bring Us Closer to Social Revolution?: Fascism, Crisis, Revolt

By Anonymous Contributor - It's Going Down, March 22, 2017

“Never were we freer than under the German occupation.”
–Jean Paul Sartre, “Paris Alive,” 1944

It is impossible not to notice the foreboding and despair many people express as they witness the first months of Trump’s presidency. The list of grievances grows longer with each passing day, and make no mistake, there are real human consequences to every appointment, executive order, and tweet.

Based on the title, you would be forgiven for thinking this article may bring a message of hope in spite of such despair. But while I am going to offer a different perspective on what is happening, I am wary of that brand of cruel optimism that leads to complacency. To be clear from the outset, what I’m arguing here is that even as we are right now seeing the beginnings of a dark and apocalyptic future, we are also closer to realizing a massive social revolution than ever before. The difference between these two alternatives is in our ability to rise up and fight like our lives depend on it, because our lives really do depend on it.

The perspective I am offering here, which is somewhat counter-intuitive, is the perspective from below. Much of the analysis of the Trump train wreck looks down from above. The perspective from above takes the elite point-of-view and understands the world through a lens of authority. Trump did this, Bannon did that, Spicer said this, and Conway said that. Clinton responded, Merkel explained, and Trudeau lamented. These powerful individuals are, in the view from above, the movers of politics and the shapers of our collective destiny. All us plebs are basically inert, a field of grain before the reaper.

The view from the grassroots, on the other hand, sees all of us regular folks, the whole multitude and mass of us around the globe, as the prime movers of history. For a long time, we have been trying to carry out a social revolution, a fundamental shift with respect to how we live and how we experience the world. But those with the most power and those with the most wealth have opposed us at each step. Every time even a hint of the social revolution comes to the surface, those with economic and political power react. The reactionaries come forward and do whatever it takes to maintain the system that benefits the wealthy and powerful. They also do whatever they can to make us forget the social revolution is even possible.

The system these reactionaries are fighting to maintain is difficult to clearly define. Some call it “the machine” and some call it “empire” and it has many other names as well. It doesn’t have one person at the top calling the shots and there is no shadowy conspiracy pulling the strings. The system is not controlled by any one state and it is not reducible to the vast and unaccountable corporate matrix that enmeshes the globe. The system is all the different nodes and collections of power interacting. And even though the people who benefit most from the system have their internal differences and disagreements, and even though they only vaguely perceive or understand the emergent social revolution, they are nonetheless united in their opposition to it because it threatens to overturn their wealth and power.

As I see things, the recent surge of fascism is precisely a defense mechanics of the system as it desperately tries to keep down the social revolution. Historically, the system has used other remedies and adapted in various ways to maintain itself. Fascism is what the system turns to when other mechanisms don’t work. The Trump presidency in the United States provides a vivid example of this last ditch reactionary mechanism, but similar fascistic tendencies are evident everywhere. The important point to note is that the only reason we are seeing fascism is because the social revolution is presently so dangerous to the system.

A brief and necessarily incomplete historical overview of the 20th and early 21st century from the grassroots point-of-view helps back up the claims I am making, but I want to stress that none of this is as clear-cut as I am presenting it. I encourage interested readers to view some of the linked materials for more detail or to do some background reading.

The Walking Dead in Washington

By Paul Gilding - Paul Gilding, February 23, 2017

We’re all focused on the drama and entertainment of Trump’s takeover of the world’s centre of military, security and economic power. For some it’s exciting and entertaining, for others terrifying and apocalyptic. I too have been glued to the news – at various times having each of those responses! But now I’ve come back to earth, recognising it all for what it is. Important, but a sideshow to a much bigger and more important game. And on reflection, I’m glad he got elected.

How can a Trump Presidency be positive? Surely this is a major setback – to action on climate change, to addressing inequality, to human rights and global security. Doesn’t it make the world a scarier and less stable place?  In isolation, all true, but in context, not so much. The context is the key.

Trump’s election is not a trend. It should not be seen as evidence of a swing to the right, to nationalism and xenophobia etc. It is simply a symptom of the volatility inherent in the accelerating breakdown of our current economic approach and model.

What we are seeing is the last hurrah of a dying approach. A desperate attempt by the incumbents to rescue the now failing economic model that did deliver great progress for humanity but has come to the end of its road – and that road finishes at a cliff.

A cliff is the right analogy for a range of reasons. Perhaps most starkly it’s climate change and resource scarcity but also inequality and the failure of the old model to deliver further progress for most people in Western countries. There are many other issues we face, but these two – climate change (and with it food supply and geopolitical security risks) and inequality within countries – are the systemic risks. They define the cliff because neither can continue to worsen without the system responding – either transforming or breaking down. So the old approach is finished, along with the fossil fuel industry, and the walking dead taking over Washington won’t bring it back to life.

This leads to why, on reflection, I’m surprisingly pleased Trump was elected, rather than Hillary Clinton. I know it is hard to imagine how someone as appalling as Trump is better than the alternative, so let me expand.

We are now accelerating towards the cliff and we don’t have much time left to change course. If Clinton had been elected, we would have continued to suffer the delusion that we were addressing the systemic risks we face in an inadequate but still worthwhile way. There would have been the same debates about fossil fuel companies having too much influence on politics, the conservative wealthy elites (yes there are liberal wealthy elites!) manipulating the system to their benefit etc. But we would have seen some progress.

Meanwhile business people would have argued the need for less regulation and “freeing up” the economy. They would have argued we needed to run the country like business people run companies, that if only we had strong (i.e. autocratic) leadership, we could get things done. And the Tea Party style extremists would have had their favourite enemy – another Clinton – to rail against and blame for it all, as they mobilized their base.

Now there’s no debate – it’s all there to see. The fossil fuel industry dominates the administration, gaining unfettered access to more coal, oil and gas. The iconic symbol and long term funder of climate change denial, Exxon has seen their CEO put in charge of US foreign policy and climate negotiations. Trump is “the businessman in charge” and can slash regulation, free up the financial markets to unleash more mayhem and wind back those pesky environmental protections.

He will attack the media, mobilise extremists and unleash all the autocratic and nationalistic tendencies that the system has – but normally suppresses. His solution to inequality will be to give tax breaks to the rich (you can’t make this stuff up!) when we know only government intervention – or catastrophe–  prevents inequality being the inevitable result of unfettered markets.

The critical result of all this? No change to the fundamental direction we are on. The rich will get richer, the middle class will stagnate, racism and conflict will worsen and we will be less secure – all while climate change destabilises civilisation.  How is this good?

Because three big things will change.

Clean energy: The challenge of achieving a ‘just transition’ for workers

By Sophie Yeo - Carbon Brief, January 4, 2017

Tackling climate change is good for the economy, good for business and good for people. This is the narrative often pushed out by campaigners, researchers and governments around the world.

But while measures to curb emissions and reduce the impacts of rising temperatures will be good for the many, the few who work in industries affected by climate policies risk losing their livelihoods as the economy leans increasingly upon renewable energy.

Around the world, there is a growing movement demanding a “just transition” for the workforce, so that workers are not left in the cold as fossil fuels become consigned to the past.

Peabody and the Navajo tribe

Arizona’s Navajo tribe is one example of a community already fighting for a just transition. This Native American group signed a lease in 1964 allowing Peabody Energy, America’s largest coal company, to mine for coal on reservation lands. Now, 50 years later, many are battling against the impacts of this deal.

When they signed the lease, the company agreed to “employ Navajo Indians when available in all positions for which…they are qualified”. Since then, Peabody has been a major employer of tribe members — 90% of the 430-person workforce of its Kayenta mine are native people.

Yet, while Peabody has provided jobs and money, poverty rates on the Navajo Nation Reservation are more than twice as high as the Arizona state average, and benefits have come at the expense of the local environment.

The Navajo tribe has seen their water sources dwindle as Peabody has used the reservation’s aquifer to turn coal into slurry and pump it down a pipeline. Coal plants surrounding the reservation have polluted the air, clouding the view of the nearby Grand Canyon and other national parks. It is also a source of CO2, the primary contributor of human-caused climate change.

Members of the Navajo tribe, alongside the Hopi tribe that also lives in the area, are calling for a “just transition” away from coal — one that will see old jobs tied to the polluting coal industry replaced with clean and profitable work.

One group, the Black Mesa Water Coalition, is trying to create economic opportunities that will help to release the community from its reliance on coal. For instance, they have tried to revive the traditional Navajo wool market, developing partnerships with wool buyers and organising an annual Wool Buy.

It has also started a solar project, which aims to install a series of 20MW to 200MW solar installations on abandoned coal mining land, transforming the reservation’s old role as an energy provider.

The idea has gone global. In Ghana, for instance, the government has developed a programme to plant more trees, simultaneously improving the landscape, providing jobs, and offering a diversified source of livelihoods for farmers. Peasant farmers and the rural unemployed were involved in planting species such as teak, eucalyptus, cassia and mahogany, generating 12,595 full-time jobs.

In Port Augusta, a town of 14,000 people in South Australia, there is a plan underway to install a solar thermal plant to replace the town’s coal industry. This became even more urgent after the Alinta power station announced that it would close, potentially putting 250 jobs at risk.

Nationalize the energy industry!

By Bruce Lesnick - Socialist Action, November 23, 2016

On Nov. 18, the Obama administration banned oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans for the next five years, while allowing drilling projects to go forward in the Cook Inlet (southwest of Anchorage, Alaska) and in the Gulf of Mexico. The media have noted the strong possibility that when Donald Trump assumes office, his administration would try to rewrite this blueprint in order to ramp up off-shore oil drilling even more.

The environmental movement points out that if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided, the world’s remaining oil and gas deposits must remain in the ground. Yet the U.S. government, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, has ignored these warnings and continues to feed the oil companies’ hunger for profits. In this article, Bruce Lesnick outlines why and how these companies should be taken out of the hands of the billionaire tycoons and nationalized to be run by working people.

We know that human activities are adversely affecting Earth’s climate. Scientists began to draw our attention to the link between fossil fuels, greenhouse gases, and climate in the 1980s. Since then, the evidence for anthropogenic climate change has become overwhelming. All that’s left to debate is what to do about it.

Under the current setup, energy conglomerates that owe their fortunes to fossil fuels have every incentive to dismiss global warming and to cast aspersions on climate change research. The top five oil companies (BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Shell) reported combined profits of $93 billion for 2013. That’s more than the U.S. budget that year for Education ($71.9 billion) or Housing ($46.3 billion.) It’s more than 10 times the federal budget for environmental protection ($8.9 billion). The more coal, oil, and natural gas that get burned, the more the climate is thrown out of whack, and the more these companies are rewarded financially.

If we’re serious about addressing climate change, nationalization of the energy industry must become a central organizing demand. Nationalizing the big energy companies would make all the difference to the fight to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Right from the start, it would eliminate profit from the energy calculus and remove a large pool of money that’s used to manipulate government policy. It would make it possible to embark on a plan for a sustainable energy future, which would focus on the needs of the population and the planet as a whole, rather than on the reckless aggrandizement of a few.

But the issue of nationalization does raise many important questions: Is it moral? Is it legal? How would it work? Is it practical? Should the owners of nationalized industries be compensated?

How to Socialize America’s Energy

By Kate Arnoff, Dissent, Spring 2016

To hear Lyndon Rive tell it, there is a war brewing between the private-sector innovators building the clean energy economy and the utility bureaucrats standing in its way. Rive is the cofounder and CEO of SolarCity, one of the country’s largest solar providers. In late December, the company came under sudden assault from Nevada regulators when the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) unanimously passed a law allowing it to raise the monthly fees charged to solar panel owners by 40 percent. The measure also reduced the amount customers could be paid for excess electricity they sell back to the state’s energy grid. PUC staffers say the move was a defense against an existential threat posed by private solar to the traditional utility model. If solar customers could take advantage of utility grids without paying for it, who would pay for upkeep on power lines and generators? Homeowners installing solar panels on their roofs, generating their own electricity, and selling the excess back to the utility at a profit, the PUC argued, were leading into a “death spiral.”

Solar companies saw the move in life-and-death terms, too. SolarCity retaliated against the PUC’s decision by announcing that it would withdraw from Nevada entirely, laying off 550 staff in the process. Another major solar company, Sunrun Inc., followed suit, cutting hundreds of jobs statewide. The PUC’s decision, SolarCity’s Rive warned Fortune, would “damage the state’s economy, and jeopardize thousands of jobs.” Similarly, he told ThinkProgress, “These jobs can be lost if you have a person [read: regulator] who doesn’t look at the future and only looks at supporting the monopolies of the utilities.”

Whose side to take in Nevada is far from clear. The state’s primary utility company, NV Energy, is owned by Warren Buffett. Two of the governor’s advisers work as lobbyists for the company, and their involvement in the December law’s passage remains unclear. Monopolistic, fossil fuel–based utility companies (which provide about two-thirds of the country’s power) are no friend of the people.

What about the solar companies? Rive is joined on the SolarCity’s management team by Silicon Valley icon Elon Musk, whose vision of the renewable energy future carries a strong libertarian streak. Entrusting the market to achieve the “best solution,” Musk has advocated swapping environmental regulations for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, and sees the disruptive power of private green innovation as the key to averting climate catastrophe. No doubt net metering—what allows solar customers to sell surplus power back to utilities at retail price—is a necessary step for a transition to renewables. But the coverage of the fight in Nevada, stacked unanimously against the PUC, would suggest there’s only one option for a low-carbon future: a free-market paradise for corporate solar.

What other possibilities are there? Beyond Big Solar are a range of ownership and profit structures that complicate the renewables landscape, and could ensure that an economy powered by something other than fossil fuels will be more equitable and democratic than today’s. Energy cooperatives and publicly owned utilities are two promising models that allow for stripping dirty energy from our power grids without doubling down on profit-hungry development. The alternative to a corporate-controlled fuel transition is simple: socialize America’s energy economy.

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