Why does it matter whether electricity is generated locally? Why should we care if an energy company is run for-profit or as a municipal institution or cooperative?
Energy democracy is the idea that people should have control of the production of their energy. Let’s begin with the Principles of Energy Democracy, as defined by the international Energy Democracy alliance.
UNIVERSAL ACCESS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
Everybody should be guaranteed access to sufficient and affordable energy. The energy system should prioritize the needs of communities, households and marginalized people.
RENEWABLE, SUSTAINABLE AND LOCAL ENERGY
Fossil fuel resources must be left in the ground. We want to make the energy mix as renewable as possible and, ultimately, 100% renewable.
PUBLIC AND SOCIAL OWNERSHIP
New forms of municipal/public ownership and collective private ownership, often in the form of cooperatives, are emerging and have served the public interest. The means of production need to be socialized and democratized.
FAIR PAY AND CREATION OF GREEN JOBS
The transition is to be co-driven by workers in order to guarantee that the jobs in the renewable energy sector are created, unionised and fairly paid.
In the United States, utility companies come in three different types based on their ownership. First are investor-owned utilities, which are privately-owned companies. Their goal is to maximize profits for their shareholders. The 168 investor-owned utilities provide services for over 110 million customers in the US. Investor-owned utilities are behind many of the recent debacles that have plagued the US electricity system in recent years.
Co-operatives are another common utility structure in the US, especially in rural areas. There are 812 co-ops in the US that serve 20 million customers. Finally, publicly-owned utilities, or municipal utilities, are fully government-operated, and run for the people. There are 1968 of these across the country, and they serve 24 million customers. Seattle City Light is a local example of a municipal utility.
Some recent examples of investor-owned utilities wreaking havoc on their customers include the Camp Fire disaster, which killed 85 people and destroyed much of the town of Paradise, California. This fire was started by a malfunctioning transmission line owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). The company has acknowledged their fault and pled guilty to manslaughter in the accompanying legal cases. In order to maximize profits for their shareholders, investor-owned utilities often underspend on routine maintenance costs. The malfunctioning equipment in the Camp Fire was over 100 years old, and required manual shut-downs rather than remotely controlled systems.
Another recent investor-owned utility debacle happened during the cold snap in 2021 in Texas. Texas has its own electric grid, meaning electricity cannot be brought in from neighboring states in an emergency. This is done to maximize profits for private investors, while leaving the residents in states of precarity. Fossil gas plants across the state froze over and were unable to operate during the 2021 storm, as were many poorly-weatherized wind turbines. The result was large fractions of the state with no electricity or heating during the coldest weather in recent memory. In the richest country in the history of the world in 2021, people froze to death in this event.
Despite the unprecedented wealth of the United States, a large fraction of its population lives in energy poverty, meaning they cannot pay utility bills some of the time, or must sacrifice other aspects of their budget like food spending in order to keep their lights on. Imagine losing a refrigerator’s worth of food, or your insulin supply, if you’re living paycheck to paycheck. The energy democracy movement, active in both the US and around the world, stands up against energy poverty, arguing that everyone should have access to electricity.
Electrical systems can be designed with the benefit of the people in mind, rather than wealthy shareholders on Wall Street. These are important for building a more resilient society facing weather extremes of the future. Microgrids are locally closed electric generation systems that can come back quickly after outages, leading to less interruptions of critical services. On days with forest fire risks, we should be able to generate power locally within such grids, with residential solar panels. If decisions are made with communities in mind, maintenance of the system would always be prioritized over profit generation for investors.
Microgrids and energy democracy were critical in serving community needs following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Much of the island was without electricity for 8 months following the storm, in the most widespread blackout in United States history. Locations on the island like Casa Pueblo, a museum and alternative energy collective, was able to serve as a community power center, providing much needed charges and critical equipment to the community. Arecibo Observatory, a radio telescope that I worked at for a summer during undergrad, was also able to provide power for the community because of its solar panels and microgrid.
The power authority in Puerto Rico, PREPA, is a publicly-owned utility, which goes to show that public ownership is not sufficient to ensure an adequate electricity system. PREPA, along with the rest of Puerto Rico, faced decades of disinvestment and neglect from the US government. Despite the fact that Puerto Ricans are US citizens, they’ve lived under austerity policies for years. Puerto Ricans have been targets of predatory lending practices, leading to a debt crisis. It is more important than ever to resist the disaster capitalist desire to further privatize the island at the expense of the Puerto Rican people. Puerto Rico has plentiful solar and wind resources, and should lead the country in developing an energy democracy for everyone.
Casa Pueblo is an environmental watchdog and community organization in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. They distributed 10,000 solar lamps to community members following Hurricane Maria.
- Follow Casa Pueblo on social media, and listen to salsa music and more on Radio Casa Pueblo.
- Read articles about Casa Pueblo’s energy democracy struggles and watch The Battle for Paradise, a short documentary featuring Casa Pueblo members. Naomi Klein’s short book of the same name has stories about Casa Pueblo and resisting disaster capitalism in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.
- Watch After the Dark: The Movement to Light Up Puerto Rico with the Sun, a Google Earth documentary, and San Juan, Puerto Rico: After the Storm, an episode of PBS series The Good Road (Casa Pueblo segment starts at 17:00).