Public Ownership for Energy Democracy

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 1678 ... October 2, 2018

Public Ownership for Energy Democracy:
Opportunities for Publicly-run Energy Utilities to Revolutionize Generation and the Grid

Johanna Bozuwa

Energy democracy -- a new idea from the ranks of community organizers, labour, and renewable energy advocates who see our current energy system as broken and destructive -- seeks to take on the political and economic change needed to tackle the energy transition holistically. A democratic energy system powered by renewables (and free of fossil fuels) would distribute wealth, power, and decision-making equitably. But, practically speaking: How can we redesign our energy system with energy democracy at its core?

A first step is to stop exploiting fossil fuel reserves, as Quantitative Easing for the Planet proposes. Another imperative is to shift ownership of the generation, transportation,... and distribution of energy. Restructuring and democratizing our electric systems through public ownership -- whether government or cooperative -- can help transition the United States away from fossil fuel production and toward a renewable future built with communities in mind instead of profits.

Public ownership of utilities can accelerate the renewable energy transition at the scale needed to meet our closing climate deadline for action. It’s simply too late to provide piecemeal incentives and then wait expectantly for a market controlled by fossil fuel interests to voluntarily deploy more renewables. Energy utilities’ control over so much of the energy supply chain make these entities a strategic platform for bringing energy democracy tactics to scale. Harnessing energy utilities for the people could fuel projects from expansive low-income housing efficiency projects (such as PUSH Buffalo), to community solar programs (such as the solar gardens of Cooperative Energy Futures in Minnesota), to stopping gas pipelines (such as the resistance to Dominion Power’s Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia).

Public ownership of energy is nothing new in the United States. American communities have exercised the right to own and operate a municipal utility since the 1880s. In the 1930s, a federal loan fund for rural electrification started, and farmers ignored by for-profit utilities banded together to create rural electric cooperatives to serve their communities. Publicly-owned utilities now serve cities as small as Hammond, Wisconsin and as big as Los Angeles and Nashville. In Nebraska, only publicly-owned utilities are allowed to operate. Still, some of these utilities lack the ample democratic oversight or access to investment needed to become effective envoys for energy democracy.

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