Democracy, the energy transition, and the America we want

What does this day — intended as a celebration of democracy, our republic, and the founding ideals of the United States — mean when the Trump administration is expanding and entrenching corporate power in ways that are antithetical to our democracy? How do we most effectively transform our society to end economic injustice and inequity, systemic racism and oppression to truly become a country of justice and liberty for all? And how can we rapidly grow the corporate accountability movement to build a world where everyone — in the U.S. and around the world — can thrive?  I have a feeling you may be asking these same questions.  So, as you or your neighbors light up sparklers this evening, here are a few articles recommended by Corporate Accountability International staff that might spark further thoughts and conversation as we grapple with these vital questions of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. — Kelle Louaillier, Corporate Accountability International

  • “Protest and Persist: Why Giving up Hope is not an Option,” by Rebecca Solnit. Solnit’s writing is luminous and inspires me to do this work every day. In this article — one of my favorites — she reminds us that taking action now can have an impact years and even decades into the future, in ways we never could have foreseen.
  • “Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning and Connection for the America We Want,” by Frances Moore Lappé and Adam Eichen. This Fourth of July weekend, Executive Director Patti Lynn is reading an advanced copy of this Beacon Press book. It will be available in September as an inspiration for activists and organizers building hope and transforming power in the Trump era. We are excited to partner closely with Frances, our long-time ally and author of “Diet for a Small Planet,” and Adam to spread optimism and organizing this fall toward realizing democracy and challenging corporate power.
  • “Neoliberalism — The Ideology at the Root of all our Problems,” by George Monbiot. Michél Legendre, our Action League Organizer, recommends this lucid description of the invisible force that has shaped virtually every aspect of our lives today. For people challenging neoliberalism’s ugly manifestation — unchecked corporate power — this article is a must read.
  • “People Were Resisting Before Trump,” a conversation with Michelle Alexander, Naomi Klein and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Three brilliant thinkers and writers talk with one another about the foundational social justice movements that paved the way for and undergird the current resistance to the Trump administration. Our Corporate Research and Financial Analyst Joby Gelbspan pulls forward Naomi Klein’s comments on corporate power as spot-on in this joyful, thought-provoking read.
  • “Justice Doesn’t Trickle Down: How Racialized and Gendered Rules are Holding Women Back,”a report from the Roosevelt Institute and Ms. Foundation authored by Andrea Flynn. Our Membership Organizer Julia Gabbert recommends it as a way to think about why political action around economic inequality is not enough on its own. To achieve social justice, we also need to transform the racism and sexism that are built into our institutions.
  • Declare Independence From Fossil Fuels 1, 2017 by Mark Dunlea

    When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary to act on global warming and dissolve our dependence on fossil fuels, a decent respect to the opinions of others requires that we should declare the causes which impel us to the dissolution.

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that the burning of fossil fuels is a leading contributor to climate change. As a result of our addiction to fossil fuels, extreme weather, melting ice caps and glaciers, global sea level rise, diminishing food and water supplies, forced migration, and damage to public health threaten the world’s populations.

    We call for a Green New Deal. An immediate halt to the development of more fossil fuels. A rapid transition by 2030 to 100% clean, renewable energy. A Just Transition that helps impacted workers and vulnerable communities. A public jobs initiative to provide full employment through a sustainable, publicly controlled economy.

    Prudence dictates that institutions long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations evinces a design to reduce the People to poverty, sickness, insecurity, and death, it is their right, their duty, to throw off such a system and provide new guards for their common security. The history of the present power structure is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of a tyranny of the Few over the Many. Let these facts be submitted:

    • Big Oil, Gas and Coal corporations have known for decades that their extractive industry, if left unchecked, would doom our common future with extreme weather, melting ice caps and glaciers, global sea level rise, ocean acidification, diminishing food and water supplies, forced migration, damaged physical and mental health, and a progressive unraveling of the very bonds of Civilization.
    • They have continued to seek untrammeled Profit over the over the health and welfare of the People, endeavoring in every manner to manufacture doubt and mislead the People about the consequences of their activities, using their vast Wealth to skew the Body Politic into confusion, apathy, distraction, and even self-destructive support of their very Oppressors.
    • And they have known that those who will suffer first and most from these ravages will be those who are most innocent of the damage: the poor, the flora and fauna of our earth, and our future generations.

    In every stage of these Oppressions we have petitioned for Redress, stating the facts well studied by our best minds and lately observed all over our Earth. Our repeated Petitions have, unfortunately, been answered by repeated injury and a turning away from these Truths so inconvenient to our Oppressors.

    It is against such Corporate and Governmental abuses that we, the People, join forces in common purpose to end the dirty-energy era and bring about a just transition to a future based on clean energy and economic opportunity for all rather than the few. There is not a moment more to lose.

    We urge Governments of all States to say no to fossil fuel infrastructure, to deny permits, certifications, and other regulatory approvals for further extraction, transport, processing, and combustion of these dirty fuels.

    Our governments must lead on energy by 1) accelerating investment in renewable energy like off-shore wind, community solar, geothermal, regenerative agriculture, mass transit, electric vehicles and energy efficiency measures; 2) holding corporate polluters responsible for their actions, in the courts and through financial penalties (e.g., a carbon tax); and, 3) divesting from its investments in fossil fuel companies.

    Winning our energy independence requires winning democracy, breaking free from the political and economic domination of fossil fuels companies including their corporate campaign funding.

    To preserve our only planet and protect our communities, we need to create community owned and democratically controlled energy systems that incorporate a Just Transition for impacted workers and vulnerable communities.

    We therefore, in the Name and by Authority of the good People of this Earth, solemnly publish and declare our intention to become independent from fossil fuels and transition to clean, renewable energy. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the rectitude and necessity of our Purpose, we mutually pledge our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

  • The shiny future

    Krishna Kolluri

    Varun Sivaram, acting director of the Council on Foreign Relations energy security and climate change program (and member of this year’s Grist 50)

    In the United States, wind and solar power just cracked the 10 percent threshold for energy use. (And we are at far more than 10 percent clean energy use, thanks to nuclear and hydro.) But fossil fuels still account for the majority of both electricity use and primary energy use overall, and at no time in the near future will that change.

    So we’re not aiming for 100 percent renewable. We’re aiming for near-zero greenhouse gas emissions, or “deep decarbonization.” The target we tend to look at is an 80 to 100 percent reduction in electricity sector emissions by 2050. That’s a goal that we can get our heads around. The strategy looks something like: Make electricity nearly zero-carbon, and then electrify as many end uses as possible. Make transportation run off electricity, make industry run off electricity, and voila, you’re going to get to deep decarbonization of the whole economy.

    It’s not feasible with today’s technologies. It could be feasible if we invest in innovation. That can be technological innovation: better nuclear reactors, better forms of energy storage, better solar panels. We could reimagine the way the power grid works. Instead of today’s AC power grid, we could have a bunch of networked DC microgrids that are super efficient. We could have a massive supergrid. We could have both!

    You can imagine a world in which you have very cheap solar coatings. These coatings convert sunlight into electricity just like today’s panels, but these are so dirt cheap and flexible and colorful you can do anything with them. You can paint skyscraper windows with them, you can paint your house with them — but they still only generate power when the sun is shining. So, you also have super-efficient concentrated solar plants that take the sun’s rays, convert them by heating up something like a molten salt, and store that heat so you can generate electricity 24/7. You put them together, and you have very reliable power.

    On top of this, you also want fuels for your planes, ships, cars, and trucks. So you have technologies that will look something like a tarp that you unroll over a football field. It soaks up the sunlight and spits out hydrogen, and you use that hydrogen fuel for cars, ships.

    That’s a vision of the world where new technologies allow us to basically power all of our uses with sunlight.

    Costs matter

    UC Berkeley

    Meredith Fowlie, University of California energy and environmental economist

    There are different paths to meeting greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, and some will cost a lot more than others. The long-run political viability of decarbonization depends on finding lower-cost paths.

    The marginal cost of supplying electricity changes all the time. Every now and then, when demand is really high, it spikes.


    Fowlie et al.

    Traditionally, we’ve built gas plants to meet demand in these peak hours. Instead, we could be providing incentives to trim these peaks! For most electricity consumers — say, the person who wants to inefficiently run his air conditioner with the windows open — the price doesn’t change hour-to-hour, not even at the moment at which that extra electricity requires a whole new plant to come online. That makes economists sad.

    It’s kind of crazy if you think about it: There’s no information sent to consumers about when it’s expensive to supply more electricity and when it’s not.

    Think about a world with a lot of renewables, where the sun is rising and setting, and the wind is gusting and ebbing. You need to match this variable supply with demand. You can do this with more investment in flexible gas plants or batteries that bank supply and move it to meet demand. But there’s another important lever we should be using. If you just charge people a lower price when there’s a lot of wind and sun (when the supply of electricity is abundant and cheap) and a higher price at times when there’s not, they’ll reduce consumption when electricity is scarce.

    In an experiment, we tried sending people a price signal, where they were paying more in those peaks, and we saw a significant response: People use less electricity when the price is high.

    This may seem like it’s in the weeds, but it’s important. We can’t achieve our goals if we ignore cost.

    All of the above

    Fatima Ahmad

    Fatima Maria Ahmad, fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, former Interior Department staffer

    After President Trump pulled us out of the Paris Agreement, I thought it was an encouraging sign that so many mayors and governors and university presidents committed to reducing carbon emissions – the “We Are Still In” campaign.

    It’s hard to put an exact time on it, but I do think we can still hit the Paris Agreement’s target of net zero emissions by the second half of this century. It is achievable. But fossil fuels will still serve as a source of energy demand, and so the only way to achieve our goal is through carbon-capture technology.

    We want to achieve deep decarbonization as quickly and as cheaply as possible. And I think that carbon capture is the cost-effective way to do it.

    Politically it makes a lot of sense, too. There’s a lot of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats about energy, but with CCS you get bipartisan support. What else gets coal companies, some environmental groups, and labor unions in support of it? If there’s a bipartisan agreement on something that can help us, we should seize it.

    I’m definitely a proponent of the “all of the above” strategy. I don’t know if there’s one silver bullet. You need multiple sources of energy — wind, solar, natural gas. Maintaining our nuclear energy is important to hit our clean-energy goals.

    It’s also going to require stable policy from federal and state governments and corporate leadership with research and development. I think we need a lot of private-public partnerships, like Petra Nova in Texas, where NRG Energy and other companies retrofitted a coal-fired power plant with carbon capture technology. It’s the largest carbon capture project in the world. It received investments from U.S. and Japanese companies — the technology was created by Mitsubishi — and also the Recovery Act.

    There are federal financing policies that could help fund renewable energy and carbon capture. We need to double our R&D spending. And obviously, a price on carbon would help us get corporations to focus on this.

    A lot of states have renewable portfolio standards. Some states, a few, have clean-energy standards, sometimes called alternative-energy standards. They’re broader than wind and solar and can include nuclear and carbon capture storage. Massachusetts has one that includes capture. Utah and Michigan have similar standards. If states could expand this, it would do a lot to drive investment.

    Let’s do the math

    Saul Griffith

    Saul Griffith, inventor and MacArthur Fellow (but don’t call him a genius — he gets angry)

    If we’re going to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, the two biggest opportunities are transportation and electricity. These complement each other: If we fully electrify transportation and run it off renewables or nuclear, you’d reduce the energy transportation consumed by two thirds.

    So, what would we have to pay for it? America uses about 3.5 terawatts of energy. If we electrified transportation and everything else, we’d only need 2 terawatts. The cost of solar is about $1 per watt when you have the most sun, and about five times as much if you want power all day long. So switching over to 24-hour renewables is $10 trillion. Add in electric cars and let’s call it $15 trillion.

    That’s a lot of money, but we’ve made that kind of investment before. There’s 8.6 million lane-miles of road in America, and it costs us upwards of $1.5 million to build a lane. If you do the math, the current value of the U.S. road system is $13 trillion, an investment made over the last century. And if we got the incentives right, the private sector would pay for 90 percent, which brings public costs down to $1 trillion.

    If we cared, we could do this in a decade. To be more practical, think about the replacement rate of the components of our system. The turnover in the U.S. car fleet is about 10 years, so if everyone bought an electric car the next time they bought a car, you’d have 95 percent electric cars in 10 years. If half of people buy an electric car, you have 87 percent electric cars in 30 years. And if we waited until the end of each power plant’s lifespan to replace it with clean energy, we could be done in 25 to 50 years.

    We lock ourselves into bad carbon behavior every time we replace one retiring piece of infrastructure with another that runs on fossil fuels. What we really need to do is focus on the big purchases — like cars and power plants — and provide the information and financing to help people make better choices.

    Policy comes first

    UC Berkeley

    Andrew Campbell, former ExxonMobil engineer, Energy Institute at Haas executive director

    I don’t view fossil-fuel independence per se as a goal. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the goal. And to get there, we’d need to put in place underlying policy mechanisms. Pricing carbon dioxide would be a big one, and coupling that with aggressively funding research and development in many different areas.

    I’m most enthusiastic about policy approaches that are either technology neutral or pursue lots of options. It could be that carbon capture and sequestration is going to be a very important piece of this. It could be nuclear power. It very well could be solar and wind, combined with storage.

    Getting to an emission-free future will require a real commitment to research and development, technology development, and support for technologies as they enter the market — like ARPA-E, but at an even larger scale. I could imagine maybe 12 different technologies supported through that process, and it turns out two or three will end up having a big impact.

    The Paris accord is hugely encouraging, even though the United States pulled out. It’s the first international agreement where almost all countries agree that climate change is an issue that needs to be addressed. There’s also been sustained success of some of the cap-and-trade markets in Europe and North America. I understand that China is moving forward with cap-and-trade markets. That’s been a very encouraging development that seems to be spreading outside of the United States.

    I’m most pessimistic about the transportation sector. It’s much more consumer driven — people and businesses making choices about where they live, where they work, the characteristics of the transportation they want to use.

    Cities like to keep things as they are and aren’t really promoting the sort of business and residential development necessary to reduce people’s travel. On the vehicle side, politicians are very afraid of gasoline taxes — a key ingredient to begin to transition the sector.

    I don’t know if being emission free by 2050 is possible, and certainly we’re taking significant steps back domestically in terms of no longer pursuing regulations — not making CAFE standards more aggressive and not moving forward with the Clean Power Plan. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the current four-year presidential term is just a blip in the next 35 years.