Bernie Sanders Calls To Seize the Means of Electricity Production

The presidential candidate’s new climate plan includes moving toward 100% public ownership of power.

Johanna Bozuwa August 22, 2019

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks during a town hall meeting about climate change on August 22 in Chico, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A year after a neglect­ed Pacif­ic Gas & Elec­tric (PG&E) pow­er line sparked a wild­fire that tore through north­ern Cal­i­for­nia, pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thurs­day vis­it­ed Chico, Calif., where many who fled the fire made a new home. He held a town hall the same day he released a new cli­mate plan, in which he declared that the days of investor-owned util­i­ties — with their prof­it incen­tives to under­in­vest in the elec­tric grid and dou­ble down on fos­sil fuels — have to end.

At the municipal, district and state levels, Sanders explicitly commits to supporting the growth of public and co-op utilities.

He’s right: It is time for a mas­sive pub­lic takeover of the nation’s elec­tric grid.

The for-prof­it com­pa­nies that reign over our ener­gy sys­tem now have shown no mean­ing­ful sign of being will­ing to trans­form our ener­gy sys­tem; they are much more inter­est­ed in share­hold­er gains and busi­ness as usu­al. Togeth­er, for-prof­it util­i­ties and fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies have cre­at­ed pow­er­ful polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic machines across the coun­try to solid­i­fy the sta­tus quo of extrac­tion and extor­tion. In con­trast, demo­c­ra­t­ic pub­lic own­er­ship of our ener­gy sys­tem could pri­or­i­tize com­mu­ni­ty ben­e­fit over prof­it, paving the way for a just and equi­table ener­gy system.

We will end greed in our ener­gy sys­tem,” says Sanders’ cli­mate plan. The renew­able ener­gy gen­er­at­ed by the Green New Deal will be pub­licly owned.”

His plan comes as pub­lic pow­er own­er­ship cam­paigns mobi­lize across the coun­try. California’s move­ment took off after the state’s largest for-prof­it util­i­ty, PG&E, request­ed a bailout after the fire forced the util­i­ty to declare bank­rupt­cy under the weight of lia­bil­i­ty claims. Com­mu­ni­ties across the state are now demand­ing pub­lic own­er­ship, and the company’s home­town of San Fran­cis­co has begun look­ing into munic­i­pal­iza­tion.

In New York, in the midst of a July heat wave, Con Edi­son sac­ri­ficed low-income com­mu­ni­ties of col­or in Brook­lyn by cut­ting their pow­er to avoid a larg­er black­out. Res­i­dents respond­ed with out­rage, and May­or Bill de Bla­sio, anoth­er pres­i­den­tial con­tender, called for kick­ing out the util­i­ty in favor of pub­lic ownership.

The birth­place of the monop­oly for-prof­it util­i­ty, Chica­go, just intro­duced an order to study the fea­si­bil­i­ty of tak­ing over Com­mon­wealth Edi­son after years of rate hikes and inac­tion on cli­mate change. Alder­man Car­los Ramirez-Rosa said that through munic­i­pal­iza­tion, Chica­go could accel­er­ate decar­boniza­tion, and imple­ment a pro­gres­sive rate struc­ture that ensures bet­ter rates for work­ing-class Chicagoans.”

Over the past months, mul­ti­ple Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates have come out in favor of democ­ra­tiz­ing our ener­gy sys­tem. Wash­ing­ton Gov. Jay Inslee (who this week dropped out to run again for gov­er­nor) cen­tered much of his plan for a clean ener­gy econ­o­my on com­mu­ni­ty-owned and com­mu­ni­ty-led renew­ables. And Julian Cas­tro — the for­mer may­or of San Anto­nio, where one of the more pro­gres­sive pub­lic util­i­ties is locat­ed — has voiced sup­port for poli­cies that empow­er the pub­lic to set up demo­c­ra­t­ic util­i­ties not only for elec­tric­i­ty but also inter­net ser­vices and water.

But Sanders has voiced the most direct sup­port for 100% pub­lic pow­er, and this demand is fun­da­men­tal to his cli­mate plan. Unlike oth­er pro­pos­als to date, Sanders’ plan explic­it­ly com­mits to using pub­lic dol­lars for every­thing, refus­ing to leave the tran­si­tion to cor­po­rate investors who so far have failed the pub­lic. By doing so, the Green New Deal pro­pos­al also ensures that the ben­e­fits of the plan don’t dis­ap­pear into the pock­ets of bil­lion­aires like Elon Musk but are direct­ed toward a more equi­table soci­ety. Pub­licly fund­ed projects, when struc­tured so com­mu­ni­ties have a say in the types of projects and jobs they cre­ate, also have the poten­tial to be more account­able, and can pri­or­i­tize mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties’ access to high-pay­ing, union­ized pub­lic jobs and respect the rights of the com­mu­ni­ties where this new infra­struc­ture is built.

Sanders’ plan envi­sions har­ness­ing and expand­ing the four already-oper­at­ing fed­er­al Pow­er Mar­ket­ing Admin­is­tra­tions (PMAs) and the Ten­nessee Val­ley Author­i­ty (TVA), as well as cre­at­ing a fifth PMA, to build out renew­able ener­gy. It would inject $1.52 tril­lion into renew­able ener­gy expan­sion and $852 bil­lion into ener­gy stor­age, work­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly with pub­licly or coop­er­a­tive­ly owned util­i­ties. By 2035, this plan would essen­tial­ly decom­mod­i­fy ener­gy gen­er­a­tion through the fed­er­al author­i­ties. Unlike the TVA of the past, designed large­ly for the ben­e­fit of white men in search of work in the South, the entire plan is based on the Jemez Prin­ci­ples of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice that focus on bot­tom-up orga­niz­ing and includ­ing all peo­ple in decision-making.

At the munic­i­pal, dis­trict and state lev­els, Sanders explic­it­ly com­mits to sup­port­ing the growth of pub­lic and co-op util­i­ties. Already, pub­lic and coop­er­a­tive­ly owned util­i­ties serve 49 mil­lion peo­ple in the Unit­ed States, at low­er costs and with gen­er­al­ly more reli­able ser­vice. In fact, the entire state of Nebras­ka runs ful­ly off of pub­lic pow­er after the state expelled the for-prof­it util­i­ty in the 1940s because of its extor­tion­ist rates. Unlike their for-prof­it coun­ter­parts, these enti­ties are ulti­mate­ly behold­en to the pub­lic and any prof­its are rein­vest­ed into the community’s schools, parks and pub­lic ser­vices. This plan would help this sec­tor expand its reach and invest more in renew­able ener­gy, ener­gy effi­cien­cy, and much more.

It also pro­vides express assis­tance to states and munic­i­pal­i­ties so they could start their own demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly owned util­i­ties — ones dri­ven by the pub­lic inter­est and a cli­mate-resilient future. This could be key for places like New York or Chica­go that are start­ing the process of tak­ing over their util­i­ty, seek­ing guid­ance and exper­tise through­out the process. By tak­ing ener­gy util­i­ties into pub­lic own­er­ship, we can cat­alyze renew­able ener­gy deploy­ment at the same time we redis­trib­ute wealth and power.

Ele­ments of Sanders’ pro­pos­al are sim­i­lar to a pro­pos­al for a Com­mu­ni­ty Own­er­ship of Pow­er Admin­is­tra­tion that was co-cre­at­ed by The Democ­ra­cy Col­lab­o­ra­tive (where I work) and grass­roots ener­gy groups.

Sanders’ plans for pub­lic own­er­ship don’t stop at elec­tric­i­ty. He would also allo­cate funds to mas­sive­ly increase pub­lic broad­band projects to give peo­ple access to a new and nec­es­sary pub­lic good: the inter­net. An esti­mat­ed 19 mil­lion peo­ple, large­ly locat­ed in rur­al Amer­i­ca, still do not have access to broad­band. He offers a vision for inte­grat­ed and effec­tive local pub­lic trans­porta­tion sys­tems with high-speed rail con­nec­tions. He stress­es the impor­tance of build­ing high-qual­i­ty, low-car­bon-foot­print pub­lic hous­ing, as well as weath­er­iz­ing already-stand­ing homes to end ener­gy pover­ty. The plan rein­states the fed­er­al Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps jobs pro­gram to restore our pub­lic lands. It invests dra­mat­i­cal­ly more in pub­lic region­al devel­op­ment agen­cies like the Appalachi­an Region­al Com­mis­sion. It even cre­ates spaces for coop­er­a­tive­ly owned gro­cery stores to facil­i­tate local agri­cul­ture not held hostage by monop­o­lies like Monsanto.

Sanders is not alone in his call for more pub­lic own­er­ship. Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren has sim­i­lar­ly auda­cious plans for ser­vices like broad­band, and both War­ren and Sen. Cory Book­er have invoked the Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps as a mod­el. How­ev­er, Sanders’ Green New Deal pro­pos­al stands alone in its com­pre­hen­sive com­mit­ment to pub­lic fund­ing and programs.

The future is pub­lic. It is account­able to the prin­ci­ples of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice. It is demo­c­ra­t­ic. It is decom­mod­i­fied. Sanders’ plan is the lat­est to set the bar for a new econ­o­my shep­herd­ed in by the green ener­gy tran­si­tion. We learned long ago that pri­vate inter­ests won’t solve for cli­mate and jus­tice at the same time — that change will have to come from unit­ed and empow­ered peo­ple. Now, this real­iza­tion is firm­ly on the pres­i­den­tial polit­i­cal agenda. 

Johan­na Bozuwa is a research asso­ciate with The Next Sys­tem Project at the Democ­ra­cy Col­lab­o­ra­tive. Her work focus­es on tran­si­tion­ing away from the extrac­tive, fos­sil fuel econ­o­my and toward ener­gy democracy.
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