As predicted, the climate has been screaming out with intensified ferocity at the assault on the earth by the global fossil fuel economy. Extreme weather conditions are wreaking havoc on communities across the world, leading many climate activists in the U.S. and elsewhere to declare a climate emergency, requiring an urgent, intensified transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
But thinking of this transition as mainly a shift in energy technology, as de-carbonizing the economy, is to misunderstand the deep roots of the climate crisis in an extractive economic system based on racialized social and economic inequality.
Emphasizing de-carbonization of energy without broad institutional transformation—an approach called carbon fundamentalism—leaves us still at the mercy of the corporate energy establishment. That approach, as we shall see, is actually amplifying the already devastating impacts of the climate crisis. “It ignores the specific needs of people of color, it promotes programs that force low-income people to pay unfairly for carbon reduction, it exposes our communities to increased risks, and it sacrifices justice in the urgent rush to reduce carbon,” says Jessica Tovar of the Local Clean Energy Alliance. “Time and again, it ends up throwing people of color under the bus.”
We need more than clean energy to address the climate crisis. We need to move from a large, centralized private utility model to a locally based, decentralized energy model. We need an energy system centered on democracy and justice.
A new battlefront
Thanks in large part to the sustained efforts of grassroots climate advocacy groups, significant parts of the U.S. political and corporate establishment now recognize the need to transition our energy system off of fossil fuels.
A transition to renewable energy really means a transition to electricity (electrification) and, in particular, to electricity generated only from renewable energy sources. There are many institutions involved in the electricity sector, but electric utilities are the most visible. Some of them are private, some are public, some are cooperatives. Some are vertically integrated—they generate electricity, build the grid infrastructure for delivering it, and deliver the electricity to their customers—and some do only parts of that. Some are regulated by state agencies, some not.
These electric utilities, especially the large, private, monopoly utilities and the set of institutions that underwrite and support them, are currently calling the shots about the transition to renewable sources of electricity.
And that’s a big problem.
The legacy centralized energy model
For the electric utilities and their financial backers, a transition to renewable energy is mainly an opportunity to extend the legacy fossil fuel energy model to renewable sources of electricity. Their goal is to grow the century-old, centralized utility system created for coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy sources.
For them, a transition to renewable energy sources means a switch to big solar plantations and large wind farms, generally remote from electricity customers and dependent on existing and new long-distance transmission infrastructure. President Biden has virtually codified this approach in his signature infrastructure package. The bill sets aside upwards of $60 billion for investments in thousands of miles of power lines that would carry electricity from remote wind turbines and solar farms to far-away electricity users.
Ownership of that grid infrastructure and energy decision-making would remain centralized in powerful financial interests. In most cases this means Wall Street financing with political support from state regulatory agencies, which have been committed to the financial success of this model for the last 50 – 100 years.
We’ve seen just how harmful the impacts of this legacy system can be as climate-induced drought and mega-storms have dramatically increased in the last few years. In California, in addition to causing unprecedented numbers of wildfires, the state’s three monopoly utilities—Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric—have been shutting down power for millions of ratepayers to avoid liability for causing additional wildfires. Meanwhile, Californians are forced to pay sharply higher electricity rates to bail out utilities for transmission-sparked wildfire damages, utility neglect of transmission upgrades, and other utility failures. This summer, PG&E announced it was requesting an 18% rate increase just to cover wildfire mitigation costs.
Across the United States, hundreds of thousands of people—sometimes millions—have been left without power for days or weeks as unprecedented storms bring down transmission lines. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy left many New Yorkers without power for two weeks. Texas residents suffered prolonged outages this past February that left 4.5 million homes and businesses without power, caused more than 150 deaths, and resulted in unprecedented spikes in the cost of electricity—all due to failure of the utility system to prepare for a cold snap that was predicted decades ago.
In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria in 2017 resulted in the deaths of about 4,000 people, many due to the lack of electricity that left residents without power for medical equipment, food, water, and shelter for months after the hurricane.
“The storm laid bare the vulnerabilities of our transmission and distribution system and an electricity model that left our communities exposed to power failures,” explains Ruth Santiago, an environmental and community lawyer that works with numerous groups such as Comité Diálogo Ambiental. “The U.S. colonial relation to Puerto Rico—Black and brown people—has created conditions of dependence on centralized, fossil-fired generation that dramatically amplified the impact of the storm. The hurricane, the failure of a centralized electricity system, and racism created a combination of factors that resulted in the death of so many Puerto Ricans.”
These impacts illustrate two key truths.
The first is that increasing reliance on remote sources of electricity and long-distance transmission infrastructure is exactly the wrong strategy for mitigating the impacts of climate change. It exposes our communities to grid failures—both climate-induced and utility-caused—that cut off electricity to millions of people, making this approach unstable, unreliable, and fraught with danger.
The second is that low-income communities and communities of color—those with the least resources—bear the brunt of the failures of centralized energy systems. These communities are most jeopardized by electricity system failures—killed, left homeless, unable to meet basic needs—thereby intensifying racialized impacts of these failures. In this way, the corporate, centralized utility energy model is an expression of institutionalized energy racism.
A transition to renewable energy within this corporate, centralized utility system does not qualify as a “solution” to the climate crisis. Instead of mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis, this approach is amplifying the crisis.
Clearly, a different transition to renewable energy is needed.
An alternative vision and strategy
In October 2012, unions from more than 18 countries, affiliated with Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, organized an international roundtable to address the struggle for a global energy transition within the framework of democracy. “An energy transition can only occur if there is a decisive shift in power toward workers, communities, and the public—energy democracy,” the group stated in their 2012 report, Resist, Reclaim, Restructure.
Energy democracy is a way to frame the international struggle of working people, low-income communities, and communities of color to take control of energy resources from the corporate energy establishment and use those resources to empower their communities—literally (providing energy), economically, and politically. It means bringing energy resources under public or community ownership and/or control, an essential step toward solving the climate crisis while building a more just, equitable, sustainable, and resilient economy.
“Energy democracy is about local communities taking in their own hands the responsibility of building a cleaner and more equitable future,” says Crystal Huang, coordinator of the Energy Democracy Project, a collaboration of 40 affiliated energy democracy organizations. “Our communities seek solutions that address the economic and racial inequalities that an otherwise decarbonized economic system would continue to perpetuate.”
Energy democracy implies a profound shift in how we think about and relate to energy. Energy is more than a commodity; it is an essential resource driving all human activity—from producing the essentials of life to transportation, communication, and the creative arts. We can’t survive without it. It is a human right. Given the existential threat we now face from the burning of fossil fuels, our relationship to energy must be reevaluated.
“The question is whether we will build [the new energy] system on a foundation of justice and equity or whether we will build that system using the very same tools that landed us in this disaster in the first place,” Shalanda Baker, the Deputy Director for Energy Justice at the U.S. Department of Energy and author of Revolutionary Power, says. “I think we have to be creative. We’re so locked into these old models where there’s always going to be someone on the short end of this.”
Baker and other clean energy advocates identify with a growing climate justice movement: activists who see the opposition to fossil fuel capitalism as a key battle in transforming our economic system more deeply—an economic system that has used fossil fuel energy as the driver of capital accumulation, ecosystem destruction, and institutionalized racism. It is a movement for community health, community resilience, community control over resources, and community empowerment. It is a struggle for social and economic justice.
A new decentralized energy model
To realize the broad benefits that renewable energy makes possible, we need to shift from the old, centralized energy model to a decentralized energy model.
Decentralized control of renewable energy resources is made possible by the fact that renewable energy resources, by their very nature, are distributed: Solar energy, wind, geothermal energy, energy conservation, energy efficiency, energy storage, microgrids, and demand response systems are resources that can be found and developed in all communities.
The decentralized energy model emphasizes the development and deployment of distributed energy resources and investment in our communities: local economic development, local jobs, business opportunities, local workforce development, and local wealth building. It is the polar opposite of the centralized energy model in operation today: It calls for control, ownership, and decision-making regarding renewable energy resources to reside in the community, rather than in remote corporate boardrooms. It is the basis for a democratized energy system centered on justice.
A growing energy democracy movement
In recent years a conscious energy democracy movement has emerged, one that recognizes the need to replace our current centralized energy system with a decentralized energy system that puts environmental, racial, and economic justice at the forefront of the transition to 100% renewable energy.
The base of this movement is mainly women-led, local initiatives in communities of color across the U.S. Many of these are affiliated with the Energy Democracy Project, which grew out of a 2019 national Strategic Convening on Energy Democracy.
The movement’s initiatives take many forms:
– Solar United Neighbors and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, for example, are organizing for installation of solar on residential properties in low-income communities across the United States, with a target of 30 million solar installations.
– Co-op Power in New England, Cooperative Energy Futures in Minnesota, and People Power Solar Coop in California are promoting the development of a new generation of consumer energy cooperatives in low-income and people of color communities across the country.
– The Reclaim Our Power: Utility Justice Campaign in California and the New York Energy Democracy Alliance are taking on major private utilities to democratize energy and build community energy resilience in their respective states.
– The Red Black & Green New Deal is an initiative of the Movement For Black Lives (M4BL) designed to educate and catalyze Black people to take actions that mitigate the impact of the global climate crisis on Black Lives.
– The California Alliance for Community Energy is advocating for best operational practices to promote community benefits and equity among the state’s 23 local public Community Choice energy agencies that now serve over 11 million customers.
– We Own It is attempting to return the nation’s rural electric cooperatives, predominantly in poor regions of the U.S., to democratic governance.
This emerging movement has even spawned a congressional resolution, House Resolution 457, introduced by Representatives Cori Bush of Missouri and Jamal Bowman of New York. Along with promoting public electric utilities, the resolution calls for the U.S. Congress to “facilitate the development of community owned and controlled clean energy resources” and to “create transparent and equitable systems for public participation and cultivate processes for community governance over energy production, distribution, and procurement decisions.”
The centrality of justice
Many passionate, dedicated climate activists have been advocating for a transition to 100% renewable energy, citing how it is technically possible to develop sufficient renewable resources to meet known needs. The calls for this technological transition, however, too often do not specify who will develop and control that renewable energy, to what end, to whose benefit, and at whose expense. As a result, it leaves the basic extractive and unjust economic and social system intact.
Instead, our relationship to energy must be rooted in a priority of and a grasp for social justice, in which we recognize the racialized impacts of the corporate fossil fuel economy, and of climate change itself, and emphasize justice-centered community-based renewable energy development. This is how we can address institutionalized racism within the energy sector, and it is a path to a more unified, stronger climate movement.
“I think energy, the energy transition, lends itself to the possibility of justice—because you can put solar on rooftops, because people can come together to own a project that will power their community,” says Shalanda Baker. “It’s not inevitable that this will be unjust. We can change it. I think this is a remarkable opportunity to really take back the energy system in service of those who’ve been on the bottom.”