Electric Companies Won’t Go Green Unless the Public Takes Control

Private electric utilities are an obstacle to climate justice. Here’s how to build alternatives.

Johanna Bozuwa and Gar Alperovitz April 22, 2019

Illustration by Ryan Johnson

Less than 100 years ago, elec­tric­i­ty was far from a giv­en for all Amer­i­cans. As late as the mid-1930s, decades after most U.S. cities were ful­ly wired, nine out of 10 rur­al fam­i­lies made do with kerosene lamps and pumped water by hand. Pri­vate­ly owned pow­er com­pa­nies were unwill­ing to invest in any­thing that did not pro­duce extrav­a­gant prof­its, so rur­al com­mu­ni­ties were not pri­or­i­tized. The answer — though not called by this name — was demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism.” Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt launched the Rur­al Elec­tri­fi­ca­tion Admin­is­tra­tion (REA) in 1935 to pro­vide tools for rur­al fam­i­lies to band togeth­er to build pub­licly or coop­er­a­tive­ly owned util­i­ties. REA brought elec­tric pow­er to 90 per­cent of rur­al Amer­i­ca in around 10 years.

The Green New Deal could give communities the much-needed financing, legal authority and capacity to kick out investor-owned utilities in favor of community-run, renewable-powered ones.

Today’s cor­po­rate ener­gy util­i­ties once again stand as imped­i­ments to a viable ener­gy future. More inter­est­ed in fleec­ing ratepay­ers than in sus­tain­abil­i­ty, they des­per­ate­ly guard their fos­sil fuel invest­ments, lob­by reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies and donate to pre­ferred politicians.

We need sim­i­lar urgency and pub­lic action to avert cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe. The Green New Deal — which calls for a 10-year mobi­liza­tion to meet 100 per­cent of pow­er demand through clean, renew­able and zero-emis­sion ener­gy sources” — requires not just a few new green tech­nolo­gies, but a reimag­in­ing of the way the pieces fit togeth­er. We need a sys­tem rebuilt from the ground up with insti­tu­tions of demo­c­ra­t­ic, rather than pri­vate, control.

About 17 per­cent of our elec­tric­i­ty came from renew­ables in 2018, includ­ing hydropow­er. Get­ting from here to 100 means we need to build around five to six times the renew­able capac­i­ty we cur­rent­ly have, all while phas­ing out gas-pow­ered heat­ing and oil-fueled vehi­cles in favor of new, elec­tric-pow­ered mod­els and increas­ing ener­gy efficiency.

We know that in a warm­ing world, we need a more resilient, smarter infra­struc­ture to cope with the real­i­ties of extreme weath­er events, chang­ing con­di­tions and new, inter­mit­tent sources of pow­er, like wind and solar. One key way to get there is to down­size parts of our cur­rent mono­lith­ic grid into small­er, com­mu­ni­ty-sized units, inter­linked but capa­ble of oper­at­ing inde­pen­dent­ly in an emer­gency. Here, com­mu­ni­ty- or neigh­bor­hood-size renew­able ener­gy instal­la­tions could be owned and oper­at­ed for the ben­e­fit of the com­mu­ni­ties they serve, not a giant pow­er company’s investors.

The new Sun­set Park Solar project in New York City is a per­fect exam­ple of the sort of ini­tia­tive a Green New Deal could finance across the nation. Uprose, one of the old­est com­mu­ni­ty-based Lat­inx orga­ni­za­tions in the city, part­nered with sev­er­al groups, includ­ing the state gov­ern­ment agency NYC Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion, woman-owned solar installer 770 Elec­tric and con­sumer-owned coop­er­a­tive Co-op Pow­er, to install com­mu­ni­ty-owned solar on top of the Brook­lyn Army Ter­mi­nal by the end of 2019. When fin­ished, it will serve 200 low-income res­i­dents with elec­tric­i­ty that’s cheap­er and more resilient in the face of poten­tial cli­mate-relat­ed grid dis­rup­tion. At larg­er scales, dif­fer­ent forms of democ­ra­tized own­er­ship begin to come into focus. Pub­lic own­er­ship at the city lev­el cuts out investors demand­ing high­er rates and allows for long-term and holis­tic com­mu­ni­ty invest­ment. Res­i­dents of Boul­der, Colo., have waged a mul­ti-year strug­gle to take their elec­tric util­i­ty into pub­lic own­er­ship for the explic­it goal of tran­si­tion­ing to clean ener­gy. Cut­ting their con­tract with investor-owned util­i­ty Xcel would free them from the company’s his­tor­i­cal foot-drag­ging on renew­able ener­gy deploy­ment, allow­ing them to make their own deci­sions about how to trans­form their grid.

At the state lev­el, cam­paigns to take pow­er sys­tems back into pub­lic hands are mak­ing strides. In Cal­i­for­nia, the fail­ures, greed and bank­rupt­cy of the statewide grid oper­a­tor, PG&E, has prompt­ed activists to push for pub­lic own­er­ship instead of an investor bailout. In Rhode Island, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of America’s #Nation­al­ize­Grid cam­paign against pow­er com­pa­ny Nation­al Grid is pick­ing up steam. In Jan­u­ary, Rick Sav­age, a Repub­li­can and busi­ness own­er from Bethel, Maine, respond­ed to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a pub­lic util­i­ty quite straight­for­ward­ly: Cre­at­ing Maine Pow­er will reduce costs to busi­ness­es like mine, put the con­trol back in our hands, and put mon­ey back in our pock­ets as Mainers.”

The Green New Deal could give com­mu­ni­ties the much-need­ed financ­ing, legal author­i­ty and capac­i­ty to kick out investor-owned util­i­ties in favor of com­mu­ni­ty-run, renew­able-pow­ered ones by launch­ing a Com­mu­ni­ty Own­er­ship of Pow­er Admin­is­tra­tion, akin to Roosevelt’s REA.

We also need to think about large-scale plan­ning that can struc­tural­ly shift entire sys­tems to serve the many. Here, anoth­er pro­gram of the orig­i­nal New Deal shows what can be done: The Ten­nessee Val­ley Author­i­ty (TVA), a gov­ern­ment-owned cor­po­ra­tion cre­at­ed in 1933, was part rur­al elec­tri­fi­ca­tion pro­gram, part agri­cul­tur­al man­age­ment, part riv­er man­age­ment, and part jobs pro­gram for a region of the coun­try hit hard by pover­ty. A large-scale exper­i­ment in region­al plan­ning, TVA now pro­vides whole­sale ener­gy to sev­en states and 10 mil­lion customers.

It should be not­ed that TVA backed away from an ini­tial vision of more bot­tom-up demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol, and its record on equi­ty is far from per­fect. When build­ing its dams in the 1930s, it used emi­nent domain to take over farm­ing land and failed to ade­quate­ly sup­port dis­placed black farm­ers. Its envi­ron­men­tal record, too, is spot­ty, marred by large hydropow­er dams, nuclear and coal power.

But TVA still offers a mod­el of the kind of large-scale plan­ning that could today allow us to devel­op — in a more demo­c­ra­t­ic, racial­ly equi­table and eco­log­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate way — at-scale infra­struc­ture designed to pro­vide cost-effec­tive renew­able pow­er to mil­lions. A recent report by the People’s Pol­i­cy Project pro­pos­es reform­ing the TVA, turn­ing the ener­gy jug­ger­naut into a Green TVA” by decar­boniz­ing all of its ener­gy pro­duc­tion and expand­ing its ser­vice area so it can install large-scale clean ener­gy across the country.

Alter­nate­ly, we can look to the New Deal vision of Sen. George Nor­ris (R‑Neb.), one of the orig­i­nal archi­tects of the TVA, who helped make his large­ly con­ser­v­a­tive state the only one entire­ly served by pub­lic pow­er sys­tems. Nor­ris urged the cre­ation of sev­en lit­tle TVAs” oper­at­ing across the coun­try as anchors of eco­nom­ic democ­ra­cy. Such region­al-scale ini­tia­tives could be lever­aged to sup­port a just tran­si­tion now — with spe­cif­ic reflec­tion on how to not reper­pet­u­ate the harms of the first New Deal. Imag­ine the windswept plains of Texas and Okla­homa with oil and frack­ing rigs rede­vel­oped into cen­ters for wind pow­er, along with region­al strate­gies for tran­si­tion­ing work­ers from extrac­tive indus­tries to renew­ables. And a region­al con­sor­tium of cities and coun­ties invest­ing in pub­licly owned solar and stor­age to pow­er com­mu­ni­ties across the South­west. And a mas­sive jobs pro­gram to retro­fit every house in the North­east for greater effi­cien­cy and to get it off gas heat­ing. And ful­ly elec­tri­fied region­al tran­sit systems.

This is the lev­el of ambi­tion we need to make the Green New Deal work. The tech­nol­o­gy to get us to 100 per­cent renew­ables is there, accord­ing to the research of Stan­ford engi­neer Mark Z. Jacob­son; the ques­tion is how we redesign the sys­tem fast enough and for the peo­ple. If our goal is to save and even improve human lives, the new sys­tem has to bake in equi­ty and democ­ra­cy at every lev­el — from the com­mu­ni­ty to the region­al and beyond.

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.Gar Alper­ovitz is co-founder of The Democ­ra­cy Col­lab­o­ra­tive and co-chair of its Next Sys­tem Project. He is author, most recent­ly, of </i>Principles of a Plu­ral­ist Commonwealth.</i>
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH