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A New (Renewable) Energy Tyranny

Above photo: Effi on iStock.

There are two very different (and antagonistic) renewable energy models: the utility-centered, centralized energy model—the existing dominant one—and the community-centered, decentralized energy model—what energy justice advocates have been pushing for. Although both models utilize the same technologies (solar generation, energy storage, etc.), they have very different physical characteristics (remote vs local energy resources, transmission lines or not). But the key difference is that they represent very different socio-economic energy development models and very different impacts on our communities and living ecosystems.

Let me start by recounting some recent history in California—the state often regarded as a leader in the clean energy transition.

In recent years, California’s energy system has failed the state’s communities in almost too many ways to count: utility-caused wildfires, utility power shutoffs, and skyrocketing utility bills, for starters. Currently, state energy institutions are advancing an all-out effort to suppress local community ownership and control of energy resources—the decentralized energy model.

Instead, they are promoting and enforcing an outmoded, top-down, utility-centered, extractive, and unjust energy regime—the centralized energy model—which effectively eliminates local energy decision-making and local energy resource development. This model forces communities to pay the enormous costs of unneeded transmission line construction and bear the massive burden of transmission line failures.

Using the power of the state to enforce the centralized energy model is at the heart of California’s new renewable energy tyranny. And this tyranny has now spread to the federal level, as substantial public investment is now set to go toward large-scale renewable energy projects across the country. These projects will be controlled by and benefit an increasingly powerful renewable energy oligarchy. Being touted as a solution to what is popularly regarded as the “climate emergency,” this centralized energy model has actually failed to meet our communities’ energy needs, and at the same time has exacerbated systemic energy injustice.

Act One: PG&E Escapes Accountability

Pacific Gas and Electric, one of the most powerful private electricity utilities in the United States, was responsible several years ago for igniting some of the most damaging wildfires in California. In 2017 and 2018 alone, PG&E’s faulty equipment and gross negligence killed over 150 Californians and caused about $30 billion in property damages, leaving tens of thousands of residents homeless.

Governor Newsom immediately came to the rescue. He pushed legislation, AB 1054, through the state legislature that shielded PG&E from future liability for utility-caused wildfire damages! All PG&E would need would be a “safety certificate” granted by the state. This safety certificate was to be based on the utility having received a state-approved Wildfire Mitigation Plan—a sham political process in which PG&E gets a safety certificate no matter how deficient its wildfire mitigation plan is. This is an administrative process without any accountability except to the governor.

True to form, the governor subsequently has approved PG&E mitigation plans that did little to reduce wildfire risk, and for the last three years the utility has continued to cause or intensify fires that have burned California’s forests and communities. The resulting costs have been passed down to ratepayers, as PG&E shareholders rake in windfall utility profits.

And what about the $30 billion in liability damages from the 2017 and 2018 fires? Well, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a settlement worked out by Governor Newsom and PG&E behind closed doors. Wildfire victims received only a fraction ($13.5 billion) of the damages they were owed.

California’s energy institutions—meaning the governor’s office, his CPUC, and the California legislature—fell all over themselves to bail out PG&E. This bailout came at the expense of wildfire victims, PG&E customers, and even taxpayers—with PG&E shareholders bearing no liability. The state sent a strong message that it supported the interests of PG&E shareholders over public health, public safety, and skyrocketing utility bills.

Act Two: The State Attacks Rooftop Solar

Another example of state support of California’s centralized energy model: In the spring of 2021, PG&E, San Diego Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison launched a campaign to stop the growth of rooftop solar in California, which had been the state’s claim to renewable energy fame. The attack came just as rooftop solar had become increasingly viable financially, with its largest adopters being middle- and low-income households.

The first line of this attack was AB 1139, a bill meant to gut California’s Net Energy Metering (NEM) program, which had incentivized community-based solar installations for many years. A massive outpouring of clean-energy activism—including opposition from over 110 California organizations—resulted in defeat of the bill.

But a second line of attack came in December 2021 when, not unexpectedly, Newsom’s CPUC proposed a decision that changed the state’s NEM tariff to make it uneconomical for property owners to invest in rooftop solar in California.

The people of California stood up and mobilized in even greater opposition—and this time, targeted Governor Newsom. Over 700 organizations and 120,000 letters called on the governor to withdraw the CPUC’s proposed decision. In response, Newsom put the proposed decision on ice for several months until after he was reelected governor. The CPUC then took action in late 2022 and essentially killed the growth of rooftop solar in California for the foreseeable future.

Community-based solar, along with many other local distributed energy resources (DERs), such as energy efficiency, energy storage, energy conservation, microgrids, and other technologies, are elements of the popular decentralized renewable energy model. This model is meant to empower California communities, meet their energy and economic needs, and address climate change. It represents an alternative to the utilities’ centralized energy model.

The centralized energy model, by contrast, is characterized by remote, large-scale electricity generation sources and one-way delivery of electricity to customers across long-distance transmission lines. This model involves large capital investments, corporate ownership of energy assets, and control of the electricity grid by the state’s investor-owned utilities (such as PG&E). As previously mentioned, it is the top-down model in which local communities have virtually no decision-making power over energy development and investments. It is a model by which a powerful California energy oligarchy—consisting of the state’s monopoly utilities, large-scale electricity generation and transmission line builders and owners, and Wall Street financial institutions—extracts electricity profits and wealth from our communities.

As a result of the failures of this centralized energy model, California communities have been subjected in recent years to a litany of unsafe, unreliable, unaffordable, unsustainable, and unjust energy development practices—with the most negative impacts falling on low-income communities and communities of color.

The state’s attack on California’s highly-successful rooftop solar program is meant to create barriers to local energy decision-making and to local DER investments. This forces communities to be dependent on the utilities’ centralized energy model and to pay the huge costs of (unneeded) transmission line construction as well as the costs resulting from transmission line failures and power shutoffs.

Basically, this attack on community-based solar development is a state-sponsored energy extortion racket at a massive scale on behalf of the state’s renewable energy oligarchy. The new renewable energy tyranny.

Apologists for Injustice

In the aftermath of the gutting of rooftop solar in California, state-sponsored attacks on the decentralized energy model have continued. Newsom’s CPUC is actively working to undermine community-based microgrid development in California and curtail energy efficiency and local solar through fixed customer charges that discourage local investments. The agency is also working to kill rooftop solar on multi-family housing, a program that mainly benefits renters, and it has declined to hold hearings on program proposals meant to advance deployment of local renewable energy resources in communities across the state.

Three clean-energy organizations recently filed suit in the California Court of Appeals, calling for a reversal of the CPUC’s decision on rooftop solar. The lawsuit points out, among other things, that the CPUC’s NEM decision violates California state law.

Defenders of the CPUC decision, however, make arguments that have now become commonplace. For example, as this Los Angeles Times article argues, “When it comes to rooftop versus large-scale solar, it’s all a matter of degree. Researchers have found that California—along with the rest of the country—will need enormous amounts of both types of clean power to have any hope of ditching coal, oil and gas.”

What is being stated here as a simple truism is a strategic framework that needs to be sharply questioned, challenged, and rejected.

First, the contention between the investor-owned utilities’ centralized energy model and the community-based decentralized energy model is a struggle over whose interests are being served by renewable energy development. It is a fight between a powerful energy oligarchy in California and the vast majority of working people and historically marginalized communities. The latter are the groups who have borne the brunt of deadly wildfires, destruction of homes and property, power shutoffs, climate-induced grid failures, massive utility bill increases and energy poverty, lack of access to renewable energy resources, and other centralized energy model injustices.

Second, California does not, as claimed, need massive amounts of remotely-generated electricity and costly transmission lines. In May, announcing his administration’s plan for meeting the state’s renewable energy targets, Newsom declared that his “joint energy agencies” had determined that a whopping 148,000 megawatts of new utility-scale clean energy resources would be needed by 2045, along with an unprecedented $7.3 billion in rapid funding for transmission line construction.

Newsom’s plan gets those numbers by categorically ignoring the huge undeveloped potential of local energy resources that could meet mostif not all, of the state’s renewable energy targets. What our communities have been demanding, and what they need, is to fully harness these local resources—to meet their electricity needs as well as their economic, environmental, and social justice needs.

So, no, this clash between the centralized and decentralized energy models is not just a matter of degree. It is a matter of survival for our communities. And no, a massive amount of remotely-generated electricity is not needed to meet community energy needs. Newsom and his energy oligarchy bedfellows are simply attempting to monopolize the Sun, and thereby seeking to prevent any and all efforts of California’s communities to develop the sustainable, decentralized, democratized energy model needed for our future survival.

A National Energy Pandemic

To make matters worse, the renewable energy tyranny in California has been adopted by the federal government.

On May 10, the Biden administration, in the aftermath of the Inflation Reduction Act’s huge investments in new energy infrastructure, released a White House statement outlining its priorities for building massive amounts of transmission infrastructure. These priorities hinge on removing barriers to large-scale clean-energy project deployment—including blocking environmental review of transmission projects and quickly advancing transmission construction at the expense of objecting communities.

It can be easy to miss the coercive nature of these priorities. The White House statement is replete with phrases and buzzwords like facilitating “the timely, responsible, and equitable permitting of electric transmission infrastructure,” “producing better environmental outcomes,” “advancing environmental justice,” and “ensuring strong environmental protections and robust community engagement.”

These federal transmission priorities are seen as key to meeting the so-called “climate emergency” and therefore justified by a purported urgent need for a rapid, utility-driven, centralized transition to renewable energy—one that ignores whatever energy injustice or ecological destruction that results. Basically, this is the “decarbonization” framework of white privilege that for thirty years has ignored energy injustice, and in doing so crippled effective climate advocacy, intensified the climate crisis, exacerbated energy injustice, and layed waste to many living ecosystems.

In siding with the powerful, extractive, renewable energy oligarchy and its centralized energy model, federal and state government institutions are attacking our communities. This new renewable energy tyranny represents an assault on the Earth, local communities, and energy democracy. It is a prescription for intensified climate disaster.

Prescription for Disaster

As described earlier in Act One and Act Two, recent struggles in California to promote community-centered renewable energy development to meet the needs of our communities have been met with a concerted attack from the state’s energy agencies.

This use of the power of the state of California to promote and reinforce the interests of the renewable energy oligarchy and their centralized energy model has now spread to the federal government, which is enforcing a coercive, federal energy tyranny, as well.

This is what declaring a “national climate emergency” looks like. In practice, it means promoting renewable energy development that actually threatens the Earth’s ecosystems and undermines genuine programs to address climate change. It means strengthening an energy oligarchy that exploits the climate crisis for its own gain. It means amplifying and extending the institutionalization of social injustice at the heart of the utilities’ centralized energy model.

It is a response to the climate crisis that guarantees a worsening of the crisis itself. This is the real climate emergency: that our economic and political systems have so totally missed the boat about the systemic causes of the climate crisis and the needed solutions.

The renewable energy tyranny must be understood and named for what it is, and strongly opposed for the real threat it represents to life and to a just energy future.

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