Energy as a common good

Mayors across the country have vowed to deliver on the goals of the Paris climate accord in defiance of President Trump’s decision to back out. But how can they, realistically, when the national government is questioning climate science and promoting coal, fracking, and pipelines?

“When a local economy is dominated by enterprises that work to extract value for Wall Street banks or corporations controlled by absentee owners, communities are drained of their common wealth.”

Simply put: Make energy public. Instead of privatizing city services, as some policymakers have long advocated, a new report shows that public ownership gives cities and towns the best shot at meeting renewable energy and efficiency targets.

Reclaiming Public Services: How Cities and Citizens are Turning Back Privatization,” a study by the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, challenges the ideas that governments are ineffective service providers, that private companies are more efficient, and that austerity budgeting and reductions in public service are inevitable.

Cities and towns that want well-run water and sanitation services, low-cost access to the internet, and affordable housing should keep those operations public or run by local nonprofits, the report found. If these services are now private, the institute recommends “re-municipalization.”

The report is based on research involving 1,600 cities in 45 countries that have chosen public ownership over corporate ownership, especially of their energy and water systems. “These (re)municipalisations generally succeeded in bringing down costs and tariffs, improving conditions for workers and boosting service quality, while ensuring greater transparency and accountability,” the report concludes.

Both Hamburg, Germany, and Boulder, Colorado, for example, are making their electric power enterprises public in order to shift to green and renewable energy sources.

In France, 106 cities and towns have taken over their local water systems in the past 15 years, in spite of the fact that France is home to some of the world’s largest private water companies. During that time, the report found that no French cities went the other direction and privatized their water system.

The report focuses on water and energy services, but there are many other services that benefit from local public ownership—some unexpected. The French towns of Mouans-Sartoux and Ungersheim bought farmland and hired local farmers to supply organic produce for school lunches. In India, the Tamil Nadu government opened dozens of public low-cost restaurants run by impoverished women to feed the poor. Argentina privatized postal services in 1997, but just six years later, renationalized the service in response to the private company’s poor service and high prices.

Privatization is tempting; it can provide local governments with short-term cash infusions. What politician doesn’t like to fill a budget hole without raising taxes? But the infusions don’t last. The private companies must pay large sums to their shareholders and executives, which they often do by cutting corners on upkeep, wages, and services, or jacking up customers’ rates. Instead of circulating locally, that money leaves a city’s economy.

According to the report, once a service is turned over to a private company, many cities found it was difficult to maintain accountability. They faced cost overruns, poor service, and violations of contracts. Many found they saved money and improved services when services went back into public hands.

Although family-owned or worker-owned businesses and consumer cooperatives are essential to local economies, some services—like water and sanitation—are best operated at a municipal or regional scale, and multiple providers may not make sense. In cases of these natural monopolies, local public ownership especially makes sense.

Like an ecosystem, a functioning local economy requires diversity. It needs many forms of ownership and types of entities. To thrive over years, each entity must both give and take; they must be in relationship with the people, institutions, and ecosystems that make up each community. When a local economy is dominated by enterprises that work to extract value for Wall Street banks or corporations controlled by absentee owners, communities are drained of their common wealth. It is that concern that drives much of the opposition to big international trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which critics say favor corporate rights over those of local government.

On the other hand, local entities, whether operated by worker-owners, families, nonprofit enterprises, or local governments, seek out multiple bottom lines—multiple benefits for employees, young people, vulnerable residents, and other local enterprises. They also take responsibility for their own human and natural communities. That is how We the People and the natural world can thrive for the long term.

Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder and editor-at-large of YES! Magazine, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000 Mile Journey Through a New America. Follow her blog and connect with Sarah on Twitter: @sarahvangelder

Originally published on energycommonsblog.  This articles is in two parts. This is the first part; read part two here.

Image: Advertisement for the municipal electricity utility in Hamburg (round 1900)

In Germany, there is a strong movement to claim the gas, electricity and heating networks back from private corporations. Initiated by civil organisations, they are pushing the political arena to take action towards a remunicipalisation of the energy system. This is a very interesting process, which allows to explore key concepts such as the right to energy and democratic governance as well as the interplay between politics and the civil society.

I presented this story during a conference on about the potential remunicipalisation of the Groningen gas field at the beginning of January (see previous article). You will find here all the slides from the presentation, which you can download and reuse (but please, cite me!). All sources are indicated at the end of the post.

Energy is a commons

Firstly, I will quickly lay some theoretical foundations to the relationships between energy and the commons. The following slide is an illustration of the differences between energy used as a commodity or a common good.

  • Energy is a commodity: it is produced to make profit (even green): we are clients/consumers and our decision power is to chose between different companies. The incentive in this case is to produce as much energy as possible (or raise the prices) to increase the profits. The prices are set either by the producer (the owner of the power plant) or by the market.
  • Energy is a commons: it is produced to respond to a need and we are producers and consumers at the same time, this is called “prosumers”. We can decide together with our neighbours on the system we want to have. The incentive is to produce what is needed and save it. Being a commons does not mean that energy becomes free of charge but that the prices can be adapted to our needs (we control it and use it to foster social and climatic justice). Think of water, which is also a common good: it still has a cost for the consumer. But you don’t make profit out of it because it is considered as a human right. We should look at energy in that way.

Cooperatives and municipal utilities to foster energy democracy

When we think energy democracy, one thing that comes to mind are cooperatives. There are many throughout Europe, which can have very different financial structures and sizes. But they have one thing in common, which makes them very particular: their ownership and governance modes.

The infrastructure is owned by the members, who each have a vote. Decisions are taken on the model “one member, one vote”.

The other form of organisation that holds great potential for energy democracy are municipal utilities. They are known in Europe for the water utilities and used to play a large role for energy as well. But the wave of privatisations in the 1990s put them in the hands of private corporations. Since a few years, some cities are taking a reverse path and buy their networks and utilities back. This is very interesting because municipal utilities, which inherently belong to all, have potentially one crucial advantage over cooperatives: as all inhabitants/users can be considered as members, they might prove more inclusive structures. However, this is only true if the governance mode is copied on the coop one: “one member one vote”. We will see that it is not necessarily the case.

Hamburg in the driver seat

First, here are a few basics on the structure of the energy system in Germany:

  • On the one hand, there are the grid operators (TSO): they own and operate the local electricity, gas and heating networks. They get concessions of 20 years, given by the federal states: these are quasi-monopolies. They compete to get the concession but once the get it, they have no competitors.

  • On the other hand, there are the energy providers, who operate the power plants and commercialise energy (they are the users of the grid). Here it can be anyone producing energy, from the very big to the very small.

In Hamburg, the concession for the networks was hold by Vattenfall and ran out in 2013. People then decided to regain control on the grid. So the city of Hamburg grounded a municipal utility (called “Hamburg Energie”), as a daughter of the water utility. It is now an energy provider, which focuses on producing and selling local green energy (mostly electricity but also some gas).

Next to that, a collective of citizens founded the initiative “Unser Hamburg Unser Netz”. They ran a campaign and had a referendum, during which people voted in favour of a full remunicipalisation of the networks. Therefore, the electricity network was bought back in 2014 and the gas and heating networks should get back in the public hand by 2018/2019.

So things seem to be on a right track in Hamburg, and it was indeed experienced as a tremendous victory for the supporters of energy democracy. But… something is missing in the Hamburg model: the citizen participation, based on the cooperative model. Indeed, both the municipal energy utility and municipal TSO are run as companies and users are not taking an active part in decision-making (they are merely consulted).

That’s it for now. Next time, we’ll have a look at energy cooperatives in Hamburg and at the story in Berlin. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, you can watch the whole presentation, that was recorded by TNI (whom I thank very much!).

Photo by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory – PNNL

Mayors make their own pledge, could shift 42% of US electricity to renewables by 2035

The country’s largest coalition of cities plans to vote this weekend on a pledge to make 100 percent renewable power a top policy priority over the next decade.

The resolution by the U.S. Conference of Mayors ― who represent a 148 million people and 41.8 percent of the country’s electricity use ― would be the broadest rejection of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. If each of the federation’s 1,481 cities actually converted to zero-emissions electricity by 2035, U.S. emissions of planet-warming gases would fall by 619 million metric tons, according to a Sierra Club analysis shared exclusively with HuffPost.

That’s equal to the total combined carbon footprint of the five worst states emitting greenhouse gases: Texas, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Florida and Ohio.

“The more cities that not only pledge to move to 100 percent renewable energy but pass that into a local law or ordinance and begin to work on that transition,” Jodie Van Horn, director of the Sierra Club’s “Ready for 100” campaign, told HuffPost by phone Wednesday from the mayors’ conference in Miami, “the closer we can get to meeting the Paris goals through city-level action.”

The Paris Agreement, a pact signed by every nation except Syria and Nicaragua, set broad, non-binding targets for countries to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause the planet to warm and alter the climate. The U.S., historically the world’s biggest emitter, agreed to scale back pollution by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Trump announced plans to pull out of the deal this month after shredding virtually every policy meant to meet those goals.

An alliance of more than 1,200 cities, counties, businesses and state leaders, led by billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, formed soon after, announcing plans to meet the Paris Agreement targets anyway. The group, called We Are Still In, includes some smaller municipalities than the U.S. Conference of Mayors, whose members have populations of at least 30,000.

The Sierra Club outlined three potential scenarios for cities helping to reach the goals set by the Paris Agreement. 

The Sierra Club analysis, based on data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the U.S. Energy Information Administration, considered two additional scenarios. If the 34 cities who already have plans in place to transition to 100 percent clean energy achieve their goal, the U.S. emission from electricity would fall by 19.1 million metric tons. The number increases to 34.5 million metric tons, equal to 3.4 percent of U.S. electricity consumption, if an additional 84 cities whose mayors pledged to completely switch to renewables but have yet to pass a formal policy also meet their target. Of the 100 who committed to that promise, 16 already approved policies to convert their electricity supply to solar or wind.

Getting the entire U.S. Conference of Mayors to adopt solar and wind power remains the ideal, if lofty, goal, Van Horn said.

“This is the good, better, best scenario,” she said, referring to the three situations outlined in the report.

The analysis comes just days after new research sparked fresh debate over the feasibility of converting to 100 percent renewable energy. The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, warned that the costs of shifting the U.S. electricity grid to renewables by 2050, as Democratic senators proposed in April, could prompt a political backlash.

“If we push down the avenue of 100 percent renewables, it will become very obvious very quickly that it is neither cheap nor effective,” Christopher Clack, the study’s lead author, told InsideClimate News. “We worry that it could be used by our opponents to diminish the role of renewable energy on the grid.  We worry if we oversell them, it will lead to disappointment and backlash.”

Rather, Clack proposed policymakers should aim for a number closer to 80 percent renewable energy.

That public discussion of clean energy has progressed at all to the percentage of renewable energy, rather than its merits compared to fossil fuels, struck Van Horn has a victory in itself.

“We think the academic debate is healthy,” she said. “A few years ago, we wouldn’t have been having a debate.”

The official resolution’s deadline is 2035. 

And related to decarbonization…

George Harvey, Clean Technica, 9 July 2017

A study by Prof. Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford and 9 others, “100% clean and renewable wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy roadmaps for the 50 United States” (Roadmap), has been very much in the news over the past few weeks. It was published just over two years ago, but a controversial article in response appeared only in the past few weeks. It is clear to me that much reported in the wider media on these two articles has been wrong.

The Roadmap

The Roadmap was published in the journal, Energy & Environmental Science. It was covered by a large number of articles, including the CleanTechnica article, “State-By-State Plan To Bring US To 100% Renewables By 2050 Unveiled By Researchers.”

My thought on the article at the time was that it was not really a roadmap at all, so much as an elaborate academic exercise intended to provide one possible approach as a subject of discussion.

If I found fault with it, it was because I believed it was too restricted. I thought it failed to deal adequately with certain inputs that seemed very important, including problems that are not usually thought of as relating directly to climate change, but which should among the issues considered.

For example, the Roadmap to 100% renewables is almost entirely restricted to examining wind, water, and sunlight, just as its title suggests. This meant that it largely ignored the separate problems we have dealing with waste, especially from agriculture, food, and human waste, which we must deal with regardless of considerations about energy. These waste products can be treated in bio-digesters to generate biogas, which we can then use both to reduce energy demand for waste handling and to produce electricity.

The amount of energy that could be produced from bio-digesters is impressive. In October of 2013, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory issued a paper on this, “Biogas Potential in the United States,” which gave the maximum amount of biogas that could be produced as 40% of the amount of natural gas we consumed at the time. I would have expected the Roadmap to say something about this.

Evaluation for the Sake of Criticism

As the Roadmap approached its second year in publication, Christopher T. M. Clack et al. published their “Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar” (Evaluation). This article set out to show how the Roadmap was wrong for a number of reasons. My take on it is that it is embarrassing, but not for Jacobson et al. While it set out to debunk the Roadmap, I think it demonstrably debunked itself.

I would like to consider two quotes in the Evaluation. One is this:

“With all available technologies at our disposal, achieving an 80% reduction in GHG emissions from the electricity sector at reasonable costs is extremely challenging, even using a new continental-scale high-voltage transmission grid. Decarbonizing the last 20% of the electricity sector as well as decarbonizing the rest of the economy that is difficult to electrify (e.g., cement manufacture and aviation) are even more challenging.”

This quote appears in the section titled, “Faults with the Jacobson et al. Analyses.” I would point out that it is stated without citing any reference to a source. What puzzled me more about this statement, however, was the fact that it explicitly contradicted something I had just read in the same paper:

“A number of studies, including a study by one of us, have concluded that an 80% decarbonization of the US electric grid could be achieved at reasonable cost (1, 2).”

This statement, which appeared in the Evaluation’s section, “Abstract,” has two citations. (I restrain myself from asking a very rude question here.)

The Media Response

There have been a number of pieces published in the back-and-forth between Mark Jacobson and Christopher Clack. One article that appeared in the Energy Collective is “Energy Wonks Have a Meltdown Over the U.S. Going 100% Renewable. Why?” In it, we find this on the aftermath of the publication of the Evaluation:

“What followed was a storm of debate as energy wonks of all stripes weighed in on the merits of the PNAS analysis. Mark Z. Jacobson, a Stanford University professor who was the lead author of the 2015 study, shot back with detailed rebuttals, in one calling his fellow researchers ‘fossil fuel and nuclear supporters.’”

While that is all extremely exciting to wonks, I suppose (including myself), the really important immediate effect of the publication of the Evaluation was what it was taken to mean in the media at large.

Scientific American published an article at one extreme of the discussion, “Landmark 100 Percent Renewable Energy Study Flawed, Say 21 Leading Experts.” It criticizes Jacobson for “dismissive and flippant responses” to “legitimate concerns” of some critics on a number of occasions. It praises Clack et al. for “rising above the political fray and rigorously critique Jacobson’s methods and assumptions based on engineering and scientific principles,” which is something I do not feel at all confident that they did. But importantly, it also said this:

“That doesn’t mean that decarbonization of the energy system is impossible.”

At the other extreme of the discussion, represented by many more articles than those like the one in Scientific American, were articles such as one in the National Review, whose title speaks clearly to its bias, “The Appalling Delusion of 100 Percent Renewables, Exposed.” The first paragraph of this article speaks clearly of what I can only see as its utter disdain for facts and truth:

“The idea that the U.S. economy can be run solely with renewable energy — a claim that leftist politicians, environmentalists, and climate activists have endlessly promoted — has always been a fool’s errand. And on Monday, the National Academy of Sciences published a blockbuster paper by an all-star group of American scientists that says exactly that.”

The contrast between the National Review and Scientific American is driven, I believe, by a contrast between the “politically incorrect” (which is easily as bad as the “politically correct”) and science. It is clear to me that renewable energy and climate change provide issues of real concern to neither conservatives nor libertarians. They are, however, issues for the tiny subset of people who call themselves conservatives or libertarians and pay the bills of the right-wing media and politicians.

A Cautionary Conclusion

The leaders in Washington don’t want objectivity.
They want uncritical Objectivism.

Conservatives should take heed. Reality will inevitably prevail, and both climate change and the disruptive possibilities for low-cost renewable energy are real. I do not think voters will not forgive fraud in this case, especially when they see what they will pay for the damage.