Introduction

 

Climate and environmental activists on the left have long argued for transforming from our fossil-fuel based economy predicated on extraction towards a twenty-first century renewable and regenerative economy. However, despite these calls, centrists and moderates have consistently tried to soften the request in an attempt to depoliticize climate change in fear that a justice oriented approach could alienate would be supporters.

Instead they have insisted on deferring to the logic of markets, growth, and compromise. Together, this has only made our situation more dire as the climate crisis accelerates and advocates remain divided. 

Luckily, the Green New Deal has provided an opportunity. It has galvanized millions to join the fight for justice utilizing climate as the vehicle towards the societal transformation that is necessary. No longer can climate be depoliticized or be portrayed as a shame-based movement; it is now about uplifting the frontline communities’ solutions. These communities, the first and worst affected by the climate crisis, have built a framework for transitioning to a society built on justice, equity, and fairness. Now it is incumbent on our movements to make this transition.

One of our most unjust areas of climate is our day-to-day energy usage. Think about where you live, your town, your community, your city; now think where the power plants are. Do you know what types of power they are producing? What communities are they in? No? This is because of deliberate political choices that only heighten existing inequalities.

Generally, in the United States, power plants are in the poorer areas of your community, and the more polluting the plant is, the more likely it is to be sited in a poorer neighborhood, which often constitutes of people of color. What does this mean for a community? Well first off, asthma rates are higher there, public health is generally worse, and the benefits of this plant are rarely held out for the community. 

The fight for 100% renewable energy is not just a fight for more green energy, it is a fight for public health, for kids no longer growing up with asthma because they live in an environmental injustice frontline community. And more than that, it is a fight for community control and determination. While these communities didn’t choose to live in the fossil fuel toxic communities that these power plants were sited in, they do have the opportunity to control their own destiny in determining to be the leaders of the clean energy revolution with microgrids that not only secure resiliency for the local community but serve as roots to the community pushing against gentrification and displacement. 

 

The Power is Yours (To Control)

 

Public power is not a radical idea. In fact, public power already exists throughout the US, in the form of municipalities, co-operatives, state owned power authorities and even a federal power company, the Tennessee Valley Authority. Under the New Deal, the Rural Electrification program run by FDR’s administration built much of the grid infrastructure in rural parts of the US, since the investor-owned utilities refused to provide power to such locations. This is not to say that publicly owned power companies are by default more aware of the environment and the ratepayers’ interests. For example, the Nebraska Public Power District still uses mostly coal to generate its electricity. Municipal light plants in MA are exempt from meeting the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) and other clean energy requirements. However, publicly owned companies can be held accountable and pressured to switch to 100% renewables faster than investor-owned utilities (IOUs). The energy companies in CA offer a great example as to how this can be done - the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) was recently pressured by ratepayers and environmental activists to approve a contract for record cheap solar power and to build a 200 mW battery storage. In contrast, even after massive public pressure, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), responsible for multiple fires and the destruction of several thousand homes and the entire town of Paradise, CA, have yet to be held totally accountable for their actions. Coast to coast, ratepayers are realizing that a basic element in their lives, critical for survival, is out of their control and at the mercy of capitalists and their cronies who put profits over people. Since there currently is not a 100% renewable utility, private or public, we should not be proscribing our future based on utilities of the past, we should be asking what we want in our utilities. We know we want 100% renewable and we know it must have robust democratic control. The only way to ensure that is to have public ownership. 

Public ownership also helps fulfill energy democracy. As the Climate Justice Alliance says, “Energy Democracy represents a shift from the corporate, centralized fossil fuel economy to one that is governed by communities, is designed on the principle of no harm to the environment, supports local economies, and contributes to the health and well-being for all peoples.” The resurgence of the demand for energy democracy and public power therefore is grounded in a historical basis and principles of justice coming from the climate justice movement, not the leftist utopian dream some claim it to be. 

The looming climate crisis requires us to cut emissions drastically through significant changes in our society. One of the major ways to do that is to decarbonize the grid. However, investor-owned utilities (IOUs) are loathe to do so, as evidenced in an Energy and Policy Institute report which shows that IOUs are actually slowing their decarbonization efforts. In recent years, the lack of regulatory enforcement on IOUs to maintain and upgrade the grid by the public regulatory agencies, and the profiteering tactics of the IOUs including cost-cutting and negligence towards grid repairs, have resulted in devastating consequences for the ratepayers. It is also the ratepayers who bear the cost burden for repairs and maintenance. Combined, these issues highlight why the demand for public power has resurfaced. Considering the racist policies enacted throughout the history of the US - which continue to the present day - it is not surprising that people of color and low-income people are disproportionately affected by increasing cost burden put on them by the IOUs, and face repercussions such as shut-offs when they cannot meet such demands. 

The fight for energy democracy is then not only for a change in ownership of the grid or switching to renewable energy. It is also a fight for environmental justice, climate risk mitigation, democratic oversight - all of which are encapsulated in the 4D framework - decarbonize, democratize, decommodify and decolonize. Energy democracy is a necessary step that we need to meet the climate crisis, and for our survival. 

 

#PublicPower for New York

 
Existing landscape

New York is unique as it has the largest state-owned public utility in the country - the New York Power Authority. Despite this advantage, NYPA is hamstrung by not being able to own new energy generation- much less new renewable energy generation. Currently NYPA has approximately 6 GW of generation assets coming from 16 generation plants. These plants are a mix of large scale hydro and natural gas plants with 83% of the generation being large scale hydro. While large scale hydro counts as a renewable energy source in the New York State percentage total, it has its own major issues and New York thankfully will not and should not expand its large scale hydro production. 

This means we need to scale up renewable energy sources like wind and solar as quickly as possible to have any shot at meeting our existing climate targets. To do so we must do it with a blended model, all the energy possible both larger scale and smaller. On the local level, climate justice groups like UPROSE are leading the way with the innovative Sunset Park Solar.  Unfortunately, on the state level, grid-scale sized projects New York are lagging. Currently only 5% of New York’s energy comes from wind and solar with no new grid scale solar projects in sight and only two offshore wind facilities planned. Last year’s passage of the CLCPA which was won  through years of hard organizing from the NY Renews, a statewide coalition who’s steering committee contains climate/environmental justice groups, labor unions, and other environmental groups, mandates that the state must get to 70% renewable generation by 2030. With the drawdown of the Indian Point Nuclear Facility and the state mandate to scale up renewables, the urgency to scale up wind and solar is to ensure that the nuclear power coming off the grid is not replaced by more dirty energy like transported fracked gas and that we meet our longterm targets. 

NYPA luckilly owns 1,400 miles of transmission lines or approximately 1/3 of the backbone grid for New York State. This means NYPA is in prime condition for expansion in providing generation and transmission to the rest of the state as long as it can expand renewable sources. And this is where the problem lies. As mentioned before, New York does not allow NYPA to own new generation, much less new renewable generation.

 
The Rate Case

Over the last year, NYC-DSA took part as a party in the Con Edison Rate Case. Con Edison is the distribution utility for New York City and had proposed raising its residential rates 13% over the next three years. In New York City, we already had the second highest municipal rates in the country, so as our public power campaign we decided to take part in the rate case. While we did not believe that state burocracy and official channels alone would be able to save us, much less achieve energy democracy, we believed it was necessary to participate in the process to engage with opportunities for change on multiple levels. At the same time as participating in the rate case, we also began a popular education campaign as well as started canvassing, tabling regularly in public spaces, and organizing town halls.  

The energy landscape in New York has been so oversaturated with bad actors, from predatory Energy Service Companies (ESCOs) that we initially found reticince from many people thinking we were potentially another bad actor. Once we explained the campaign and highlighted that we solely wanted to listen and hear their experiences with the utilities, they then became more favorable. Some of whom we canvassed ended up attending our town halls, and sharing their experiences with elected officials. When the Public Service Commission (PSC), the oversight body from the state charged with regulating these rate cases only held one public testimony hearing in lower Manhattan on a weekday, we teamed up with local legislators to host town halls in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx to share our campaign, but also allow general testimony and public statements from residents in communities affected by Con Edison’s issues to be on the public record. 

We thought by being part of the official channels and using our own unofficial channels we could make an impact in the case along with coalition partners who had greater  experience opposing these hikes. Unfortunately the process, ripe for regulatory capture, was captured by the utility long ago. Along with coalition partners, our demands to not include new fossil fuel infrastructure were ignored as the rate case went forward. Con Ed only provides solar energy to 1% of households in New York, yet brags about being the second largest solar distribution utility in the country. They guarantee a rate of return on any new investment of 9% to shareholders no matter what and in this rate case they requested and were granted an increase on that to 9.75%. That includes 9.75% on the over 200 million of new fossil fuel infrastructure they baked into this rate case. With these private utilities at the helm, and NYPA hamstrung from growing, we knew we needed to change and the current system would not offer it.  

 
We Wrote Bills
 

In New York State we have worked with Assemblymember Carroll to bring our demands to fruition. We have introduced three bills to bring public power to New York. This process coincided with over twenty-five legislative visits to elected official offices to talk through our campaign, our ideas for public ownership, and discussion on what electeds saw as potential issues. While we did this, we continued accelerating our campaign by hosting more town halls, information sessions, and outreach to key stakeholders. During this period, our research group held meetings with academics, policy experts, and activists across the country who had taken on corporate utilities before. Through this work we understood that we could not do this alone. 

We recognized that since we were no longer tackling legislation that would solely affect New York City, we had to reach out to the rest of the state and make sure this was something that was beneficial for them as well. In doing so we created the Public Power New York coalition with groups from across the state. During our rate case process we had also joined the Energy Democracy Alliance in New York State. This organization gave us the ability to collaborate and connect with groups across the state that had been thinking and working on these issues for years. Along with our prior membership in NY Renews which had enabled us many other key connections over the years and our joining of the newly formed Movement for a Green New Deal which made Public Power one of its four key planks, all of a sudden we had coalition allies and support across the state to advocate for public power. 

Working with AM Carroll’s office, we were able to turn our demands into actual legislation. The first of these bills calls on all New York state publicly owned properties, both state and municipal, to lead the charge and transition to 100% renewable energy by 2025. Our second bill expands NYPA to own new renewable generation. Instead of being subjected to the whims and profits of the corporate utilities, NYPA will allow the publicly owned utility to scale up to meet our necessary solar and wind growth. NYPA will have the right to first offer and later match the purchase price of any new renewable project. If NYPA chooses to match the price, it will then own the project. This will grow NYPA’s peak demand capacity from one quarter of New York state’s energy system to hopefully the entire peak demand. This bill will also fix the issues and distrust in the energy sector in New York state that are ESCOs. This bill will ban all for-profit ESCOs while continuing support and allowing not-for-profit ESCOs and community choice aggregation, and any other community energy projects whether community solar or a microgrid to continue. It will then allow NYPA to sell energy directly to customers through usage of any utility’s transmission and distribution infrastructure. This energy must be cheaper than the current local distribution utility’s prices and be 100% renewable. No longer will customers have to mine through the false information if they are trying to make their energy 100% renewable; now NYPA will allow them to do that directly. 

Lastly, our third bill will create the Downstate Power Authority. This new public authority will include service area of Con Edison, Central Hudson Gas and Electric, and National Grid Gas service, including all of New York City parts of nine other counties. The service area can be extended to additional territories if there is demand for this. This will bring a publicly controlled distribution utility to approximately two-thirds of all New Yorkers. This utility will include a democratically elected board of trustees from the service area under the jurisdiction of the PSC. While guaranteeing this utility is publicly owned and democratically controlled, it also will have a mandate for 100% renewable energy to be distributed directly through working in concert with the second bill and NYPA’s expansion. All of a sudden New York State will have publicly owned, democratically controlled, renewable energy from generation through transmission and distribution. Not only this, the authority must guarantee rates lower than the existing rate of Con Ed, National Grid, and Central Hudson Gas and Electric. New York State will either purchase or exercise eminent domain to take over these three utilities, bringing them under public control. This new utility’s board will oversee and decide democratically how the utility will be run but safeguards including progressive rates and prevailing wages are baked into the new authority. The authority will then work with the unions that currently work for these companies to ensure the jobs in the new authority go first to these unionized workers, and the expansion in scaling up the new jobs that accompany this new utility are also unionized.

 

What’s Next

Together these three bills will transform New York’s energy sector. Now with our statewide coalition we are in the process of continuing our public education, our town halls (we have eight on the calendar already over the next month and a half), and our lobbying of legislators. We also plan on increasing agitation with direct actions to help push the legislation through Albany. There will surely be pushback to these bills from the corporations that currently profit off our unequal system. But, for us to meet the scale of the challenges, we must transform New York’s energy sector which is why we are pursuing this legislative fight for public power. 

 

How to #TakeBackTheGrid in Massachusetts

 

The energy landscape in Massachusetts is not dominated by one or two, but 4-5 privately owned utility companies. National Grid and Eversource, while the two largest providers of both electricity and gas in the state, especially in the eastern side, share the market with other smaller but significant companies such as Columbia Gas and UNITIL. In the midst of all these are 50 municipally owned energy grids (munis; mostly electric and a few gas), located primarily in central and western MA. Legislation enacted in the 1990s prevents “vertical integration” for investor-owned utilities in the state, which basically means that these companies cannot own generation and transmission. This was done in order to promote competition between the companies in the hopes of lowering rates for consumers. Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, the actual effect turned out to be the opposite, leading to consolidation of market share by the IOUs and rate hikes for consumers. Legislation in MA also provides prohibitive barriers to forming new municipalities - according to current law, any new muni will have to buy the existing grid infrastructure from the operating IOU in the area at a price the IOU deems to be fair and after obtaining approval from the IOU. Just to put it into context, the last muni in MA was formed in 1932. Besides munis, an attempt was made previously to bring the MA energy grid under public control - in 1976, a ballot question was put forward to form a statewide power authority. That ballot question was overwhelmingly voted down. 

This is the backdrop against which Boston DSA’s #TakeBackTheGrid energy democracy campaign started to take shape. Inspired by Providence DSA’s #NationalizeGrid campaign, the original intention was to build an interstate movement against National Grid. Just as the idea was coalescing, a political moment arose to start organizing around this issue - National Grid locked out two United SteelWorkers of America (USWA) locals which represent gas workers over contract negotiations in the summer of 2018. As we provided solidarity and strike support with the locked out workers, our research into the grid revealed the oligarchical control of the grid, thus setting our campaign apart from that in Rhode Island. As National Grid’s lockout continued, a separate gas explosion incident in the Merrimack Valley area of MA brought the malpractices of IOUs under federal and state investigation. Columbia Gas was found to have been negligent in their maintenance of the gas pipelines, and also did not have any emergency response plans in place. At the state senate hearings, it was also revealed that legislators knew as little about the state’s energy infrastructure as any average resident, highlighting the technical jargon that keeps information inaccessible. National Grid’s six-month lockout of the USW locals also generated media attention highlighting the lack of health insurance for the workers and families, after a particularly emotionally charged hearing (incidentally Marcy Reed, the VP of National Grid USS Policy & Social Impact, is also on the board of Blue Cross Blue Shield, which provides health insurance to the USW gas workers).

Interestingly, Eversource has somehow escaped the public scrutiny that its fellow IOUs were put under, even as it is pushing to build an electric substation in East Boston, an historical environmental justice community. The proposed site is projected to be in a flood zone taking into account sea level rise. To complicate matters further, the site is located next to a playground and jet fuel storage for the Logan Airport. The local EJ organization, GreenRoots, has been organizing against this substation for years now, and while their resistance has garnered attention from the media and local legislators, Eversource still enjoys significant popularity, which is further aided by their proposal to pilot-run geothermal microdistrict plan as an alternative to gas heating. 

The first task for the #TakeBackTheGrid campaign was to create political education resources and spread it to remove the barriers to information and expose the malpractices of the IOUs in the area. The goal was to bring the energy grid out of the technocratic web and cast it in a political light - after all, a basic need as energy should be a political subject. This is achieved through organizing seminars on energy democracy with coalition partners such as Science for the People-Boston, and town halls around local utility infrastructures that are being opposed by grassroots EJ groups such as GreenRoots in East Boston and the Linden Park Neighborhood Council in East Cambridge, a heavily residential area where Eversource is trying to build an electric substation across from an elementary school. This substation has been deemed “necessary” due to rising energy demand from commercial development in Kendall Square, Cambridge MA, but the burden of cost will fall on ratepayers adding to the increasing risk of displacement these residents face from luxury developments following the commercial ones. We continue to participate in energy and Green New Deal conferences at different academic institutes such as Northeastern University and Harvard School of Design, which are usually dominated by representatives from government agencies, IOUs, ESCOs and smaller renewable energy companies to present an alternative to corporate controlled energy grid. 

Alongside building a political education component, the campaign focuses on three main short term goals to organize around - 1) oppose any new fossil fuel infrastructure, 2) oppose any new rate hikes and 3) build a just transition framework.

Climate and environmental justice (EJ) activism in MA is dominated by the big non-profit environmental groups. Boston DSA, especially the Ecosocialism Working Group's politics are almost always to the left of these groups. But energy democracy fortunately is an area where we found common ground to organize around, especially with shared short-term goals. We joined the largest EJ coalition in MA, Mass Power Forward, whose goals include transition to 100% renewables and securing a seat for EJ communities at the table for EJ policies being discussed in the State House. The coalition mainly organizes through an electoral approach (calling Representatives to drum up support for the bills, lobby days, etc.); we performed our own analysis of the bills from a socialist perspective and advocated for those that would result in harm reduction and/or ease the path to our own goals. Separately, we testified in support of Rep. Mike Connolly's bill which seeks to establish an independent committee to study the feasibility of transitioning to public power in MA (Rep. Connolly is a member of Boston DSA). 

Direct action tactics in our campaign have been undertaken both independently and in solidarity with grassroots EJ groups such as GreenRoots and Fore River Residents Against Compressor Station (FRRACS). This work has included attending public hearings organized by the Dept. of Public Utilities (DPU) and the Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP), organizing comment drives for rate cases, hosting town halls against fossil fuel infrastructure, attending rallies, and in some cases higher risk actions such as site blockades. Interestingly, we found our position to be on the other side of that of Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) on National Grid's rate hike proposal that we opposed - the rate hike proposal package included provisions for electrical vehicle infrastructure program. We opposed it on the basis that the cost would be borne by low-income ratepayers (mostly immigrants) who cannot afford electric cars, whereas the non-profits supported it on grounds that it reduced emissions. This distinction was a clarifying moment for us on the lack of class and race analysis lacking in mainstream EJ activism in this mostly white state. It is also important to highlight the lack of effort on the DPU’s part to get the public involved - the public hearings for this rate case were poorly attended, and the only people who showed up (besides us) were either energy industry lobbyists or business representatives. Additionally, even though the hearings were held in immigrant-dominant towns with language barriers, the DPU did not provide any translation services either before or during the hearing, thus ignoring the voices of a significant portion of community members.   

After a year, our campaign has a firm footing in the energy scene in the state. We continue to build relationships with communities, EJ organizations and sympathetic legislators, and to educate both DSA members and the general public through our political education program to bring public power back into the mainstream conversation. Following the negligence of IOUs leading to gas leaks, labor exploitation and rate hikes, the political moment for organizing to take back the grid in MA is peaking and we strive to make the best of it. 

 

#DemocratizeComEd: Taking Back Power in Chicago

 

In 1897, Samuel Insull, a former acolyte of Thomas Edison, incorporated the Commonwealth Electric Light & Power Co., pitching his company as a “public utility.” As he amassed an empire of privately held utilities, he argued they should be regulated in the public interest - as long as he continued to extract a profit. Today, his company, Commonwealth Edison (more commonly known as ComEd) is the sole electricity utility in the City of Chicago, and the “public utility” model he developed is at the heart of the power struggle that DSA organizers face to take back control of the energy grid.

ComEd is an investor-owned distribution utility serving Chicago and Northern Illinois, but their parent company, Exelon, is one of the most powerful energy generation companies in the U.S. (and the only one in the Fortune 100). ComEd is one of Exelon’s most profitable business units, with Chicago making up 38% of ComEd’s income, yielding approximately $2.2 billion in revenues and more than $200 million in profits in 2018. 

Exelon and ComEd know that municipalization of Chicago’s electric grid is an existential threat to their profit margin, and the underlying business model of investor-owned utilities (IOU’s). So, they have created a powerful apparatus to secure their control. The IOU paradigm incentivizes ComEd to use every tool in the book to buy their way into favorable legislation from state lawmakers, and they are currently the subject of extensive federal corruption probes. Executives at ComEd have donated at least $78,000 to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s reelection campaign years before she faces another contest, and Chicago’s City Council has received over $100,000 from the companies since 1990 (including nearly $15,000 to 12th Ward Alderman George Cardenas, the chair of the city’s Environmental Protection and Energy Committee). 

Perhaps the most effective way ComEd maintains its power in the city is through lengthy franchise agreements, which enables their role to remain unquestioned for decades at a time. Chicago has only negotiated these contracts with ComEd twice in the past 73 years, for the first time in 1947 and most recently in 1992. ComEd’s current franchise agreement with the City expires December 31, 2020, providing a rare point of leverage for Chicagoans to meaningfully debate and determine our energy future. 

Although a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the franchise agreement should garner public attention, the looming expiration date has largely flown under the radar with the exception of the occasional article in industry publications. To seize upon this opportunity, Chicago DSA publicly launched the #DemocratizeComEd campaign in early 2019, after nearly a year of research and internal organizing, to begin building a mass movement for public electric power that serves working class people of Chicago rather than shareholders. The key demands of #DemocratizeComEd are the municipalization of ComEd, establishment of a democratically elected governing board, decarbonization of the city’s electric supply by 2030, a progressive rate structure, an end to electricity shutoffs, and expanded low-income assistance.

Initially, the campaign focused primarily on research in order to build a base of expertise around the electrical grid, utilities, and the available mechanisms for municipalization. Through this process we learned that the Illinois Municipal Code allows municipalities to acquire, construct, own, and operate a public utility within the municipality at-will, and that there is a similar provision in ComEd’s franchise agreement. Knowing that municipalization could be achieved by a City Council vote clarified our organizing strategy to focus on developing the political will among elected officials to municipalize, building a broad base of people and groups willing to agitate around energy democracy, and creating a class-conscious narrative that could cut through ComEd’s extensive PR about its reliability and efficiency. 

Before beginning the process, it is generally necessary for any municipality considering public power to conduct a feasibility study to assess the costs and ramifications of municipalization. In July 2019, the #DemocratizeComEd campaign worked with our allied socialist aldermen to write a council order to commission a feasibility study. Five of six of these socialists had just been elected in February 2019 after endorsement and a monumental canvassing effort by Chicago DSA that helped get them in those seats. The study was introduced by CDSA-endorsed 1st Ward Alderman Daniel LaSpata, who brought in an additional 21 co-sponsors. This was the first win of the campaign, bringing the issue to public notice and the media for the first time. 

After learning the order would not be on the November 2019 Environmental Protection and Energy meeting agenda, we turned out to the meeting and asked questions about its status until Chair Ald. George Cardenas stated that the City was already conducting a feasibility study of its own. Although the council order passing would have been a more visible victory, the feasibility study process would not have been initiated without our agitation around the issue. This also clearly demonstrated how a small number of elected officials that share politics with and are accountable to a mass movement organization can very quickly move the needle on critical issues.

Although the legislative approach is a key tool for the campaign, building ecosocialism in Chicago and the mass political power to achieve municipalization will not come through the City Council alone. To demystify the energy system and take knowledge of municipalization out of the domain of wonks and policymakers and into the hands of everyday Chicagoans, we have been hosting regular “Democratize ComEd 101” workshops. The goal of DemComEd 101 is to politicize the electric grid, empower non-experts to understand the basics of electricity, and tie municipalization to a broader set of demands for an ecosocialist future organized around meeting people’s material needs rather than maximizing shareholder profits.

In addition to political education, another key component of our grassroots organizing is building a coalition around the issue of energy democracy. Though we’re in the early stages of coalition-building, we see opportunity to forge relationships around a number of issues, especially housing and environmental justice. Utility costs are undoubtedly intertwined with secure housing and shelter, making this a critical area where we are working to strengthen our analysis. In 2019, ComEd shut off electricity to 5% of its customers, and delivery rates have increased 37% over the last 6 years at a time when renters can still be evicted for not paying utility bills. By communicating how public power connects to Chicagoans’ material needs and realities, we can mobilize the political will to win.

As Chicago is poised to declare a climate emergency, public power should be a key issue for environmental organizations. In Illinois, municipal utilities have greater control over power procurement and can invest directly in clean and renewable generation. Although municipalization is no guarantee of decarbonization, and it is true that public power in the U.S. is often dirty and coal-powered, a democratically governed municipal utility where residents are invested in energy democracy would be powerful lever to take the bold action the climate crisis mandates. Despite this opportunity, we face serious challenges to building coalition with some groups. One of the tools ComEd and Exelon use to maintain their political capital is to strategically fund organizations and green initiatives, to the extent it does not threaten their business model. Exelon collaborated with the IL Clean Jobs Coalition to pass the Future Energy Jobs Act, and ComEd provides funding to local groups to promote energy efficiency, leaving many organizations’ hands tied when it comes to severing ties through municipalization.

So, where do we go from here? At this juncture, the #DemocratizeComEd campaign will continue to agitate around the city’s planned feasibility study while pushing for increased transparency and organizing town halls to build urgency and support for municipalization among the public and elected officials. Although democratically-controlled public power in Chicago is our ultimate and winnable goal, there are other substantial victories that are possible. Even if we do not win municipalization in this round of the fight, #DemocratizeComEd has created a clear set of steps for creating the political landscape to make it happen in the near future. The pressure is on ComEd to incorporate our key demands in future franchise agreements, including a shorter contract length, a progressive rate structure, an end to electricity shutoffs, and better terms for labor. Ultimately, by pursuing energy democracy as a way to restructure the political terrain, we hope Chicagoans will continue to demand even more of not only their energy system, but to do what is necessary to create a Chicago for all.

 

Lessons Learned and Future Directions

 

Although the above campaigns are about a year or so old, they can provide valuable lessons on organizing in different regulatory landscapes across the US. The knowledge created through organizing is invaluable and separate from knowledge gained through a formal education on energy policy or grid mechanisms. That being said, it is critical to acknowledge that the commonality that underlies all energy democracy campaigns is the research into the stakeholders and the regulatory process. Demystification of jargon and making information about the energy grid accessible is in itself a first step towards energy democracy as the general public are woefully uninformed about a basic element of their lives. Creating an informed and simplified political education program is key to winning votes for electoral-focused campaigns, as well as to organizing ratepayers to attend public hearings to push back against utility companies’ profiteering tactics. Creating a political education program also helps to define the tactics and aims of the campaign - there is no one size fits all when it comes to public ownership of the grid since state regulations vary across the board. Therefore, research is required to understand which model - be it municipalization, state ownership, cooperatives, federal or a mix - works best for the area in question. Additionally, even within the same city, certain tactics may work well in certain places, and not in others. Canvassing in Central Brooklyn was successful at bringing out people to town halls, whereas in the Bronx tabling on busy streets was far more successful. 

Solidarity and coalition building with labor unions, especially those involved in the energy sector, is necessary not just for public ownership of the grid, but also switching to 100% renewables. Currently there is a surge of initiatives across cities to ban natural gas hookups in new buildings in an attempt to curb emissions. However, these initiatives will face pushback from the gas workers if there is no just transition policy in place to help them - as has been observed in MA where the USW locals and New England Gas Workers Alliance (NEGWA) are expressing concern about their jobs and pushing for more “diverse options” rather than just electric-only options. Similarly, in LA, the contract to construct solar power and battery storage was stalled due to opposition from IBEW local, who were also protesting the shutdown of three local gas plants that employed more than 400 LADWP workers as part of Mayor Garcetti’s Green New Deal initiative. While it is necessary to transition away from natural gas and other fossil fuels towards 100% renewables, it is very important to incorporate protections for workers who will lose their jobs in the process so as to not repeat the exploitation that they already face in a capitalist economy. The false dichotomy of “environment vs jobs” has long been peddled by the fossil fuel industry, and needs to be broken to organize labor for energy democracy and other Green New Deal initiatives. This can be done through working with organizations such as Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, the Labor Network for Sustainability, etc., and unions such as United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), who are on board with the Green New Deal and can help bridge the divide between other unions and EJ activists. 

Ultimately, to achieve energy democracy, we need the buy-in from the ratepayers, who are the general public. It is more often than not the case that the ratepayer who is at risk of shutoffs, or facing disproportionate burden due to rate hikes, is also the tenant who is facing eviction or dealing with a slumlord, is also the patient who is facing a massive hospital bill due to exploitative insurance policies, is also the worker facing unemployment, and is also a person of color and belongs to a low-income group. These intersecting identities are important to acknowledge considering the racist policies enacted throughout the history of the US and which continue to have ripple effects when it comes to energy democracy and the switch to 100% renewables. For example, there is a clear racial divide in rooftop solar deployment - Black and Latino communities have significantly less rooftop solar access compared to white communities within the same income groups. When organizing ratepayers, the disproportionate burden borne by frontline communities and communities of color needs to be acknowledged. Therefore, it is important to build collaborations with not just large EJ groups with chapters nation-wide, but also local grassroots community EJ organizations that represent such communities. 

It should be noted that not all community EJ organizations will have an ecosocialist analysis; the vice grip of capitalism that we all are trying to survive under forces us to make ideological compromises or to set aside a class analysis for the purposes of harm reduction. This doesn’t mean that the organizers aren’t aware of the machinations of the 1%; rather, it reflects their priorities of reducing harm and improving the material conditions of their base in gradual increments. This is where participation of DSA members in such coalitions is necessary for two main reasons: 1) to support an intersectional angle that hinges on both class and identity and 2) to leverage the dedicated base these organizations have already built up for mass mobilizations, whether it is calling the representatives, or showing up to a protest. The second point is especially critical for DSA chapters and socialists in the absence of a socialist political party in the US. While the work of socialists should be dedicated to organizing the unorganized, it is necessary to build common cause with organizations that can provide an activist network for DSA chapters to be able to effectively organize with. Fortunately, energy democracy and public ownership can provide common ground for such collaborations, considering that public ownership campaigns, independent of DSA’s involvement, are ongoing in Maine and Colorado

Building coalition with community EJ organizations, especially those that represent the interests of frontline communities, is also critical for any nascent energy democracy organizing - the goal should be to complement existing work already done by such organizations and learn from them, rather than supplant their work, which would be an act of appropriation and harmful for solidarity. In instances where there is no existing energy democracy campaign, or a political moment to initiate such organizing, it would further help to collaborate with community EJ organizations on related issues such as transit justice; such collaborations should be based on the Jemez principles. 

We can only win public power when we build people power.

 

Conclusion

 

While the climate crisis even on good days can feel insurmountable, organizing towards public power represents a tangible and real way to improve our conditions. We know that each barrel of oil we keep in the ground makes a difference just as we know every tenth of a degree lower of global warming will averts even more climate chaos and destruction. As the energy sector is our largest source of energy usage, combatting and converting to 100% renewable energy as quickly as possible is imperative. Advocates have argued that doing this while maintaining the same hierarchies, hegemony, and imperialism can only lead to climate apartheid. In contrast, the Green New Deal offers a positive vision — a world of solidarity. The Green New Deal is a socio-ecological transformation that meets the challenge of the 1.5 degree Celsius warming in the timeframe necessary to avert the worst of the crisis. While achieving public power alone will not do this on its own, creating a publicly owned, democratically controlled energy system with a mandate to 100% renewable provides a framework for getting there. In the process, it will create millions of good-paying union jobs and make our world cleaner, greener, and healthier.

Strong institutions and international solidarity are the only ways to overcome this crisis. Allowing private enterprise, the same system that got us into this mess in the chance to profit from it, runs far too much of a risk when planetary survival is literally at stake. It is time for us to claim our future as the public good it is and fight for a world where energy is renewably sourced, democratically controlled, decommodified, and decolonized.

 

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