Energy Democracy: People Power for a Cleaner Planet [OPINION]

By Denise Fairchild Jan 11, 2018

There’s a power grab underway in Washington—a reverse Robin Hood strategy that transfers resources from working people to corporations and the 1 percent.  It’s also reversing the global movement to replace dirty energy with renewables, in spite of the health and environmental impacts. Beneficiaries include the fossil fuel industry and multinational enterprises.

Energy democracy is a strategy to take some of those resources back, by putting power—literally—in the hands of the people. It has potentially game-changing benefits for low-income people and communities of color. To understand the promise of energy democracy, we need to consider the problems with our current systems of power, both the political variety and the kind that recharges your iPhone. (Spoiler: they are very closely connected.)

Today, our lives and economy are powered by fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. There are some notable downsides to this arrangement. First, burning fossil fuel pollutes our air and water, while wrapping Earth’s atmosphere in a blanket of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that is rapidly changing the climate. As a result, we are suffering ever-more deadly heat waves, crop failures, supercharged storms and catastrophic wildfires.

While no one can completely escape the effects of climate change, it won’t surprise you to learn that low-income people and people of color take the brunt of it. Those communities are least able to afford the rising price of food and other necessities, often lack access to health services, live in neighborhoods that are most vulnerable to floods and heat wavesand lack financial resources to bounce back after disasters. For example, according to a recent study by the NAACP, low-income, African-American women suffered the highest rates of injury and mortality in Hurricane Katrina. And because power plants and refineries are more likely to be sited in low-income communities of color, those communities have much higher rates of asthma, cancer and premature death.

At the same time, our fossil-fuel powered energy system has insidious effects on democracy and civic life. That massive, centralized system produces huge profits for the handful of corporations that control it. And, as wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few, their political power has grown. (Consider, for example, the outsized influence of the Koch brothers.) The concentration of power, literal and otherwise, distorts public priorities and undermines democracy. That’s why the Trump Administration chose to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, though seven out of 10 Americans wanted to stay in. It also explains the astonishing $5.3 trillion in subsidies and other benefits that the world’s governments bestow upon the oil industry every year. In the U.S. alone, fossil fuel production receives $20 billion in subsidies each year.

So what’s the answer? A rapid transition to solar, wind and other clean-energy technologies are one part. But renewables alone can’t address the corrosive concentration of power in our society. Instead, we need an energy democracy movement that wrests control and ownership out of the hands of corporate interests, reclaiming it as a vital resource for advancing the environmental, economic and social-justice needs of our communities. 

That movement is already under way. It seeks to bring energy resources under public or community control. It confronts the racial and other injustices at the heart of our current energy system, and prioritizes the needs and concerns of working families and communities of color in the struggle to define a new energy future. 

While no community has energy democracy completely figured out, there are works in progress across the country that give us a glimpse of what’s possible. In Mississippi, for example, a group called One Voice is fighting to restore democratic control of the state’s rural electric cooperatives. During the Great Depression, those co-ops were founded to bring electricity to the state’s poorest, returning profits to their ratepayer members. But over the generations, electric cooperatives came instead to resemble their profit-making counterparts. Most enjoy monopolies in their service areas, and are heavily reliant on coal power. Co-op members—who are entitled to influence policy by voting for the board of directors—are not engaged in the planning, design and decision-making processes.

Perhaps as a result, Mississippi’s 26 electric co-ops sit on assets of $5.2 billion, while their impoverished, largely African-American customers pay as much as 42 percent of their income on electricity.  And only 6 percent of the co-ops’ board members are Black, in a state that is 37 percent Black.  To tackle these problems, One Voice is educating ratepayers about the rights and responsibilities of board members, the structure of co-ops, and the changing dynamics of the energy sector. Importantly, it offers guidance on how to effectively engage in membership meetings, and cultivates community leaders to serve on co-op boards. 

And there’s more. From Oakland, California to New York State, local and state governments are experimenting with “Community Choice” programs that could ideally give communities control over where their electricity comes from and how their ratepayer dollars are spent. In the South Bronx, a public housing resident council called Mothers on the Move is leveraging the New York City Housing Authority’s investments in energy efficiency to conduct education and training in energy conservation and careers. And, across the Northeastern U.S. a consumer-owned energy cooperative called Co-Op Power is nurturing community-owned energy enterprises, including a biodiesel plant in Greenfield, Massachusetts, that produces fuel from recycled cooking oil, an energy-efficiency company called Energia in western Massachusetts that trains and employs young people of color, and a community-based solar development company, Resonant Energy, that uses innovative financing strategies to bring rooftop solar to low-income households in Boston.

These energy democracy initiatives are as diverse as the communities that launched them, but they have some things in common. They all go beyond simple “techno-fixes” to address power dynamics. And fundamentally, they recognize that energy—both fossil fuels and renewables—is not simply a commodity to be bought and sold; it is part of the commons—a precious global resource that must be respected, conserved and equitably shared.   

That recognition poses a direct threat to the 1 percenters who now control our energy and political power. We should not expect them to give it up without a fight. (Neither did the slave-owners who enjoyed a similar lock on power in the antebellum South.) Energy democracy is a powerful way to fight back, by empowering people and communities to build a society worth living in.

This op-ed is adapted from "Energy Democracy: Advancing Equity in Clean Energy Solutions," edited by Denise Fairchild and Al Weinrub (Island Press, 2017). Fairchild is president/CEO of Emerald Cities Collaborative, a national nonprofit organization of business, labor, and community groups dedicated to climate resilience strategies that produce environmental, economic, and equity outcomes.