Breaking Bad Energy

Date: 17 Nov 2022 | posted in: Building Local Power | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

“The whole concept of a monopoly utility is universal service,” says John Farrell, Co-Director of ILSR and Director of the Energy Democracy initiative. But in California this notion is crumbling. The Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) Company, the regional monopoly, is failing to provide reliable energy service for a section of the grid. When another private company, Sunnova, stepped in to provide solar and energy storage, PG&E stood in the way. Instead of letting monopoly utilities hold the reins of the electric grid, “we should be looking at our electricity system as a commons, a place where many people, businesses, and entrepreneurs can interact and provide services,” John argues.

For this special year-end episode, we are joined by all three members of ILSR’s Energy Democracy team: John, Researcher Maria McCoy, and Senior Researcher Katie Kienbaum. They engage in a riveting conversation on the biggest energy stories from 2022, including the Inflation Reduction Act’s big funding for solar, the antimonopoly focus in the Biden administration, how utility companies are continuing to use their financial power to lobby against energy, and a new tool designed to bring distributed solar to more communities. As John notes, “we are captive customers”—whether we want to give monopoly utilities our dollars or not. But we don’t have to be.

Listen to the episode to learn more.

“If one in four households had access to solar, either through a community solar project or on their rooftop, we think it could really do a lot of good for the country, especially if it was targeted to communities that have traditionally not had access.”
– John Farrell

“Utilities are implementing steep fees and minimum bills and doing things in the name of equity but they’re really just creating regressive rate structures and preventing the benefits of distributed renewable energy from getting to the people who need it most.”
– Maria McCoy

“We don’t have to convince people anymore that community solar is a great idea, that it offers a lot of benefits to communities and is a great option for communities to build their own energy and access those benefits in that way.”
– Katie Kienbaum

John Farrell: We should be looking at our electricity system instead as a commons, a place where many people and businesses and entrepreneurs could interact and provide services, and that it has non-discriminatory access for anybody to do that instead of having one monopoly company that controls it and meters it and restricts access.
Reggie Rucker: Hello and welcome to another episode of Building Local Power, a podcast for the Institute for Local Self-Alliance dedicated to challenging the power of people to shape their own future. I’m your co-host, Reggie Rucker, and as we continue our episodes, looking back at 2022 and looking forward to 2023, today we have our energy team on to talk with us about where the energy is. I’m sorry. I had to, I couldn’t help myself. Well, where the energy is going into next year, some of the wins over the past year, and what that sets the stage for going forward. But before we get into that conversation, let me introduce you to the co-hostess with the mostess, Luke Gannon. What’s up, Luke?
Luke Gannon: You just keep coming up with more and more amazing lines. I’m going to have to start introducing this podcast so I can introduce you, Reggie. But anyway, today we are welcoming every member from the Energy team, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative, John Farrell, researcher Maria McCoy and senior researcher Katie Kienbaum. The Energy team is going to lay out a roadmap of the 2022 policy landscape and how their team’s achievements have impacted the US at large. But without further ado, welcome to the show, John Maria and Katie.
Katie Kienbaum: Woohoo, thanks for having us.
Reggie Rucker: I can’t wait for you all to tell us how you twisted Joe Manchin’s arm to get the Inflation Reduction Act passed, so yeah, looking forward to it.
Luke Gannon: I want to start off by doing a little bit of level setting. So Katie, what is going on in the energy world right now?
Katie Kienbaum: Well, as Reggie already alluded to, and I’m sure many if not most, if not all listeners are aware of, we had some pretty substantial federal legislation that passed this year, the Inflation Reduction Act, which is basically the largest climate investment that the United States has made at the federal level. That of course wasn’t only our doing, we didn’t actually twist Joe Manchin’s arm single handedly, and it’s going to continue to be a big story and something that we’re really watching and paying attention to as we go into 2023. Of course, we have passed legislation, it’s done, it’s law, but now all of the federal agencies need to take all of the new programs and policies that are in the Inflation Reduction Act and figure out how they’re going to actually implement them.
Agencies are already putting out requests for public comment. Advocates are already trying to see how can we try to make sure that agencies are implementing these programs equitably? How can we make sure they’re doing it effectively and prioritizing investments that are going to have the most impact for communities. That’s really the biggest story at the federal level right now. And then I think, Maria, you can talk more perhaps about some of the other things that are going on across the country.
Maria McCoy: Sure. So with all the support that there is at the federal level for rooftop solar, community solar in this Inflation Reduction Act at a more local scale, utilities still hold the reins on the electric grid. And so they’re doing a lot of things to try to slow implementation and that might counteract some of these great benefits and things that we want to happen in response to that federal legislation.
Utilities are often regulated at the state level by utilities commissions, and they have a leg up in a lot of ways in these interactions with the utilities commissions and with the people that they serve. And they use these advantages to fight against rooftop and community solar because they see that as competition and they don’t want people to be able to generate their own electricity.
We’ve seen a lot of interconnection delays, that’s been a real problem in Minnesota. And utilities are also implementing steep fees and minimum bills, doing things in the name of equity and this false cost shift argument, but they’re really just creating regressive rate structures and preventing the benefits of distributed renewable energy from getting to the people who need it most.
Reggie Rucker: Maria, actually let me come right back to you on this point you were making on the disingenuous claims of equity in some of these utility programs. We did something different this time around with John. We asked him to ask his Twitter followers what they might want to hear in this episode of Building Local Power. And one of the questions that came back was an interesting one, asking us to address the issue of equal access for rooftop solar, but to do it outside of the realm of community solar. And it’s such a fascinating question and I think I would love to hear that addressed more deeply in maybe a future Local Energy Rules podcast.
But what I wanted to do for our listeners in particular was really set the stage for why community solar is so important for communities, especially when it comes to this equity issue. Can you talk about the reasons why we advocate for community Solar, despite the ways they can keep communities grid reliant or keep lining the pockets of investor owned utilities, which clearly isn’t the best outcome.
Maria McCoy: I can try. A lot of people know there’s an option to put solar on their roof, but that’s really been only accessible to people who can put down the money to make that happen or own property with a roof that’s suitable for solar. And so we at ILSR really support community solar as an option to provide that access to solar energy and the lower electricity bills by having solar, and that community solar just brings in people that haven’t traditionally had access to rooftop solar. And there are 20 states in the US that have some type of community solar supportive legislation. But again, you do need that legislation or program in place to make that happen.
Sometimes we call it Aggregate Net Metering or Shared Solar Policy, and there’s some states that are doing really well and then there’s some states where it’s been faltering a little bit, so I have to recognize New York. It’s just hit a one gigawatt milestone of community solar projects. Those projects have really been ramping up and there are certain stipulations that help make sure that it’s residential customers that are getting those benefits and specifically low income residential customers that are getting that access.
We’re also seeing more states either hone the rules for their community solar programs and learn from other states that have had their programs in place and put in the best practices for promoting that inclusion and also promoting other co-benefits, local workforce utilization or resiliency centers, things like that that can be a part of a community solar program.
Luke Gannon: I’ll jump in here. Katie, I want to turn it back to you and connect these two threads that both you and Maria are highlighting. What is one of the highlights in the Inflation Reduction Act and how is it posed to help communities that have historically been left behind?
Katie Kienbaum: That’s actually a really hard question to answer just because there’s so many different policies and programs included in the Inflation Reduction Act. One of the big things that comes to mind for me because of our focus here at the Institute on local distributed energy and our work with the 30 million Solar Homes Initiative is the federal Clean Energy Tax incentives for things like solar energy, things like wind energy. For commercial projects like community solar farms or rooftop solar for businesses, those kinds of projects there’s a thing called the Investment Tax Credit and the Inflation Reduction Act just restored that credit and extended it past when it was due to expire, which has a huge impact on its own.
But how it really makes that credit more equitable and more impactful for more communities is that it added some bonus incentives for projects that are located in energy communities, so places where maybe a coal plant has shut down or a mine has shut down. It added bonus credits for low income communities or projects located in tribal lands. It added bonus credits for projects that are made with domestic content and also added some new requirements around labor standards like prevailing wages and apprenticeship requirements.
It’s not a new incentive, it’s existed for a long time at this point, but we see these changes as hopefully having a lot of impact on making sure that incentivizing projects that are a little bit more equitable and have greater impact at the community level, including things like equitable community solar projects.
Luke Gannon: Amazing. Thank you Katie. As you said, of course, it’s a huge question because there’s so much in the IRA and it’s really hard to get that information. I know obviously the IRA was a huge deal and there was so much lead up and momentum that went into that. John, I want to turn it to you. What was ILSR’S role in creating that momentum in the year and months leading up to the Inflation Reduction Act?
John Farrell: I mean, as far as there being legislation at all, it’s a hat tip to people in Georgia who elected Democratic Senators and to the fact that Joe Biden was elected President. We had no idea that there would even be any clean energy and climate legislation to speak of at the federal level going into 2020. We laid the groundwork for the perspective on distributed, decentralized, democratic clean energy earlier in 2020. It’s right after the pandemic had started, and I penned a very brief commentary piece on our website basically saying I think that if we used distributed solar as a way to invest federal funds in an equitable way, it could really address a broad set of our issues facing the country.
At the time, the economic recovery related to COVID, the burden of high energy costs that falls disproportionately on communities of color and disadvantaged communities, and the fact that we need to fight climate change and to reduce emissions. People were really drawn into that. I don’t know if they were feeling the same way I was at that moment, which was, is there anything I’m doing that is meaningful in this pandemic era? But Katie mentioned, we partnered up with Solar United Neighbors in Initiative for Energy Justice. We eventually had over 300 different organizations sign on to a common platform of approaching federal clean energy legislation.
There’s like a 14 or 15 page white paper that Katie authored that we all contributed to that outlined what kinds of things we thought the federal government can do. And you can see some of those things in the Inflation Reduction Act. And there were certainly other people working on those from other perspectives too. It’s not to say that someone picked up is ILSR’s white paper and was like, yep, check that, check that, check that. But we were in some of those conversations and we certainly talked to other people about it and I think they were inspired by the vision that we built that said, we should really do this.
And just to give you a sense, like the top line vision of 30 million solar homes is saying, “Hey, if one in four households had access to solar, either through a community solar project or on their rooftop, we think it could really do a lot of good for the country, especially if it was targeted to communities that have traditionally not had access.” I’m just really proud of the fact that that happened. I don’t know how much credit one should give us but we played some role there and I’m really amazed by the collective effort and what it accomplished.
Reggie Rucker: There is a story that came out of California recently where the company Sunnova is challenging the utility monopoly out there and saying like, “Hey, there’s a different way that we can provide power to communities with these locally based micro grids.” Can you talk about a little bit of where that concept comes from and some of the work that we’ve done to influence the conversation and move policy makers and just the landscape in this direction?
John Farrell: Yeah, I’m happy to. There is some nice intersection with what Maria was talking about earlier about the opportunity for having access to solar. And I think one thing to keep in mind is if you want to do anything on the electric grid, if you want to generate your own power, if you want to plug in your electric car, if you want to set up a micro grid of your own that can make a community center or a church able to have power when there’s not electricity available from the grid, you still have to plug into the grid. And there is universally across the United States one monopoly company or entity that is the point of interface. For most of us in urban areas that is a private company that’s been granted a government monopoly. Some people are served by a city-owned utility or a cooperative, but for most of us it’s that private company.
And what’s fascinating about it is in the past two decades, we’ve gone from really relying on that company to provide all the pieces of our electricity service, generating the electricity at power plants, sending it long distances to our cities, and then distributing it to us and billing us for it. And what we’ve discovered is that a lot of those responsibilities do not need to be held by that monopoly. They can be provided by someone else.
There’s over a million people in California, homes and businesses, that have their own solar erase and more than two and a half million across the entire United States. There are companies that can aggregate together customers with smart thermostats and allow them to adjust their energy usage. There are folks exploring even electric co-ops that are doing ways of helping pay customers to provide some energy from their electric car battery. There’s all these kinds of different things that are happening.
And what happened in California that’s so interesting is that the utility basically said, here’s a community that we can’t provide service to. And it’s ironic because the whole concept of the monopoly utility was universal service. We will give you the monopoly, you serve everybody and we regulate you and make sure your prices are affordable. And in a way that’s been breaking down in California. Pacific Gas and Electric, if you’ve heard of it in the news, you probably did related to the wildfires, caused catastrophic damage from neglective basic maintenance on their system.
There’s actually a fascinating book that’s been out by a Wall Street Journal reporter, Catherine Blunt, if you want to listen to a podcast interview with her about it. Just absolutely fascinating the sheer level of negligence that’s been involved in that particular utility. But it’s basically saying we can’t serve or don’t want to serve this community and this private company Sunnova, it does solar and energy storage, is basically saying, “We’d like to come in and do that instead.” And the utility’s fighting them and saying, “Uh ah, this is our monopoly,” even though we’re saying we don’t want to provide service to these people. And so that’s gone before the regulators in California who’ve got a lot on their plate with this transition in the grid system.
And we’ve been trying to articulate that we think actually that is the right way to go, that we should be looking at our electricity system instead as a commons, a place where many people and businesses and entrepreneurs could interact and provide services and that it has nondiscriminatory access for anybody to do that instead of having one monopoly company that controls it and meters it and restricts access. And you can see that problem in the electricity sector, but you can also see it through ILSR’s work on Amazon and its control over its platform, the way that it manipulates the use of the platform to make it harder for the independent businesses that participate in that platform to get a fair shake. And the same problem is happening in the electricity sector with this particular case in California.
Luke Gannon: Thank you, John. Yeah, I think that is super interesting that monopolies have said that they will provide universal service and that this is just such a clear example that that just isn’t true. And I think we’ve seen this in other examples in different sectors of our economy, but I’m curious how specifically in the energy sector with the Biden administration and with some new people in our regulatory agencies, how the politics have shifted around monopolies and utility monopolies specifically in the past year.
John Farrell: I think one thing that has been a surprise to just about everybody is that the Biden administration would be as forward thinking in so many different areas compared to what we expected. I think a lot of people when Biden was running for office were like, “Well, he’s basically the compromised candidate to beat Trump and he’s going to govern a middle of the road Democrat,” like his history in the Senate. And instead, we’ve seen him really forcefully come out in some long neglected areas of policy. He has the Justice40 Initiative across the administration trying to make sure that 40% of benefits of various programs, including in the climate and energy legislation, go to marginalized communities.
And he’s had a really strong anti monopoly focus, really picking leaders for agencies like the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission that are scrutinizing monopoly and giving them direction to really apply anti trust law and anti monopoly law in a comprehensive fashion that actually aligns frankly with the legal structure for the first time in like 40 years. And so what we’ve seen broadly is there have been a lot of instances now where the Federal Government is looking at monopoly and concentration and saying, “Wait a second, maybe we shouldn’t allow this merger of grocery companies or this merger of telecom companies or this merger of media companies.”
And where we are so far with utilities is we’re not quite as far along. What’s exciting is that independent groups like Center for Biological Diversity have successfully participated in and advanced anti trust cases against utilities. For example, in Arizona, there was a fairly notable case against Salt River Project, and we have heard some interest from the federal administration in having conversations about monopoly in the utility sector, but I wouldn’t say it’s the most pressing thing. I mean, I think tech companies have really drawn most of the attention, and rightly so. Amazon and Facebook and Apple and Google have all dominated this really important space in our economy, whether it’s like where we start a search about information, where we start our search to buy something on the internet, whether or not we’re going to have access to competing app stores that could allow us to buy apps for our devices.
I mean, those are all really important things. And we are trying to make the case that utilities are just as important. I mean, this is an essential service that we all use every day, and for at least two thirds of us across the country, it is controlled by a private company with its own financial interests that don’t often align with what we want, especially the kinds of stuff that we talk about like rooftop and community solar and distributed energy. So it has been really gratifying to see the interest in anti monopoly from the federal administration. We’ve been trying to push forward with that and encourage that. But I wouldn’t say that we’ve yet reached this moment as we did back in the 1930s where the Federal Government did in fact say, “This is a big problem and we have to do something.”
Reggie Rucker: We’re going to continue this conversation after a very short break. Here’s the thing. As an organization seeking the end of corporate control in local communities, you’ll understand why commercial break sounds a little different. There’s no corporation selling you something in an ad, just me thanking you for listening to our show. And if you’re enjoying this episode, which if you’ve made it this far, I’m assuming you are, I need to ask you for two things. One, go check out the Energy Team’s Local Energy Rules podcast at or wherever you listen to your podcast. They’re currently finishing up a miniseries on the promise and parallel of local power and it is phenomenal.
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John, I actually want to follow up on that point because all the progress that we’ve made over the past year, like you mentioned, surprisingly on the legislative front, those options are likely not going to be available for the next couple of years. And so I wonder if you can give me some insight on what the strategy looks like going forward with new legislative body and how you might be able to push at some of the regulatory powers that the Federal Government has and maybe some examples of how that’s looked in the past year.
John Farrell: One of the things that we have done in terms of taking action is we have partnered with some other organizations to petition the Federal Trade Commission specifically to look at this issue of monopoly utility abuses of market power. I think it was in June, but apologies if I have the timing wrong, but we sent a multi-page document basically outlining here are ways in which utilities abuse their market power to stifle competitions. And Katie and our staff has written an excellent piece, for example, around interconnection of solar projects.
Like I said before, we all have to use, no matter what we want to do on the grid, we all have to interface with this one monopoly company, and there’s a lot of examples of how those companies have exercised that power to restrict their competitors. There’s examples of how they have used their financial power to lobby against things that most people would like in a way that really in our minds is not only an abuse of market power, but really first amendment rights of the customers of that utility. We are captive customers. They have our dollars whether we want to give them to them or not, and they’re out there advocating for all sorts of crazy things, whether it’s 2020 election deniers or for more fossil fuel infrastructure.
And so we outlined these things in the petition to the Federal Trade Commission, and what we essentially did is we were asking them to turn back the clock in the wake of the Great Depression and the stock market crash, in particular. The stock market crash and the Great Depression, fascinatingly, this is something I learned in the last year, was largely about utility company stocks because utility companies had merged together to become these big holding companies where the utility business itself was a diluted portion of it, and so that people had this impression that utilities were very safe investments when in fact they weren’t.
And when they started going belly up of their various extensive enterprises unrelated to the utility business, many Americans who had been drawn into the stock market for the first time lost everything. And so out of that came a Federal Trade Commission investigation that was concluded in the mid-1930s that essentially said, “We have to fix all of this.” And out of that came federal legislation, the Public Utilities Holding Company Act of 1935 that ironically solved a lot of that and parts of which have been repealed since because folks decades later thought, oh, everything’s fine. Not realizing that they were basically taking down the guardrails that were protecting us from abuses.
We’re in a way looking for a replay of history of the FTC to once again to do this investigation and this time to not only recognize that there are still abuses happening in general, but that it’s not enough to just change the regulatory oversight. We have so many meaningful competitive choices available in the market that this time around it really is about squeezing down on utilities, the scope of their monopoly power to give some oxygen to the rest of the competitive things that could be provided in the marketplace, solar panels, electric vehicles, smart thermostats, whatever, that are outside of utility control, and that will probably get better and more equitable outcomes for communities of color, for everybody, if things aren’t always under the utility thumb.
Luke Gannon: Thank you for that, John. We’ve been talking a lot about what is happening at the federal level. Maria, I want to turn this to you. Could you talk a bit about the power that exists at the state and local level and the implementation of it?
Maria McCoy: Yeah, so in contrast to some of this top down regulatory work, we do have a tool for communities to use that want to get more community rooftop, just distributed solar in general, into their communities. And so this tool that we developed along with some partners is a forecasting model for residential rooftop solar. And it’s important because this solar, whether it’s community solar, rooftops, it’s really a resource for the electric grid and can help reduce costs for everyone on the system. But the utilities are going to ignore it and they’re not going to support it because they don’t own it. They don’t earn a rate of return.
And so when the utilities are predicting what the customer demand is going to be and planning their system expansions, we created this tool so that we can intervene and say, “Hey, you don’t need to build that gas plant that’s going to be a stranded asset because this tool, this model shows how much distributed solar customers are going to be building anyway.” And so we used it in Minnesota to intervene in Xcel Energy’s resource plan proceeding, and we were able to convince regulators in Minnesota that utilities need to consider distributed solar as a resource in their future planning. We really hope this tool can help accelerate local solar deployment and help allies in states encourage a wider distribution of clean energy and its economic benefits through these distributed solar systems.
Reggie Rucker: That’s great. Maria, I’m going to stay with you. We’ve talked about California, and New York was a good example. Going back to some of the questions that we got through Twitter, there was one that I wanted to see if we could rank from zero to 100. I’m going to make your job a little easier, but they want us to rank the best versions or the best examples of community solar projects, community solar policies. I won’t hold you to a large ranking, but do one or two examples immediately come to mind that we haven’t already talked about that you would point to?
Maria McCoy: Good question. I’ll make a plug for our tracker on our website. We do track the progress of the top community solar states, but there’s a lot more to community solar than just quantity. And there’s a lot of particular pieces of a policy that help make sure the benefits are going to those who need it. I will say New Mexico recently created a policy that’s has some great carve outs for low income customers, and some of these newer states are coming out with policies that just go a little bit deeper into that.
Luke Gannon: It seems like the solar forecast model will certainly be something that you all will be working on for many years to come. What are other goals on the horizon for 2023? What would you like to see happen? Katie, do you want to start us off?
Katie Kienbaum: Yeah, into 2023, I am thinking about how we’re going to engage in implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act. Like I said, there’s still a lot of room to make sure that these programs are being developed well, being developed in a way that prioritizes overburdened communities, prioritizes these local energy solutions that we like to talk about, prioritizes community ownership. Thinking about how we can go forward with not only trying to influence federal and also state implementation of different policies and programs in the Inflation Reduction Act, but also is there a role for us in communicating these opportunities to different communities and local policy makers. That’s one of the things that I’m thinking about as we’re wrapping up the year and heading into 2023.
John Farrell: And if I could jump in, there’s a couple other things that are top of mind for us. One is that the highest opportunity or the best opportunity for things like community solar is also to intersect it with community ownership. That we don’t want to just have it be a way that people can get a shared slice of a solar array that some private company owns transferring wealth from the monopoly utility to some third party company. But we really are interested in this idea of community ownership. And so we’re actually looking at doing a collaborative pure learning bootcamp for community organizations to learn how can we do community solar in a community owned way? How can we learn about the legal and technical and financial pathways that are available to us to both build a resilient energy system that serves our community with clean energy, but also capture more of the economic benefits?
That’s something we’re really excited about for next year. And we’re also really interested in publishing more and talking more about this notion about utilities as a platform monopoly. We talked about the Federal Trade Commission petition, about the history of utilities, about the way that they can blockade the solutions that we want to see in clean energy. And I think there’s a lot more to say there to help people realize that we are at this inflection point at this moment of potentially transformational change on the grid system, and we really have to question the market structure that has led us to this point.
I mean, utilities have gotten us into a problem with climate change, for example, because they made money building power plants that poisoned us and didn’t have to pay for that damage. Wouldn’t we be better off if they were not the ones in charge of the clean energy transition, but rather that that platform was open to everybody. And I think in addition to that and just saying with some humility, we don’t always understand fully, another thing that we really want to do at ILSR is really start to build a better and more comprehensive understanding of the racial inequality impacts of our energy system.
There’s so many good things that have been written recently, The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee, Cast, who’s author I forget, that talk about the inherent structural inequalities that were built in on purpose into the US political system and political economy to restrict Black and brown folks from having economic success, with through slavery, through Jim Crow, et cetera. Yeah, Isabel Wilkerson by the way for Cast. But those have very real impacts in the energy sector.
When we talk about solar, as Maria mentioned, having rooftop solar, if you have to pay out of pocket or if you have to have a good credit score to get access to solar, then it matters, like our historical oppression of African American folks not giving them access to the GI Bill, redlining them out of building wealth from homes. That’s where the money’s coming from for people to go solar. So we’re really looking at how do we build a better understanding that links those things, the racially oppressive policies that have been adopted, with the implications for the energy sector, and then on top of that, what are the things that might still be playing out that are racially charged in the energy sector?
Are solar companies marketing in Black and brown communities, for example, or are they not doing that? Where do all those layers come together to help us understand, can we build an equitable clean energy future? Can we give communities more control and will that actually result in better outcomes than we’ve had in the past? We have a lot of confidence that we can, but we also feel like it’s important to understand that history and that past in order to avoid repeating some of those mistakes.
Reggie Rucker: I’m a little afraid, I have this sense in my head that your Twitter followers are like the beehive and because we didn’t get to all their questions, they’re going to come for us. Rest assured that if you submitted a question on Twitter, we’re looking at future episodes, we’re going to try to get all your questions answered. Unfortunately, couldn’t just get them into this episode, but please be patient with us.
But I wanted to say, John, I was thinking about you’ve been doing this work for over a decade and although this episode was mostly about what’s changed in the last year, I’m curious thinking about how your work has changed over the last 15 plus years. What’s different that makes the work that you do maybe a little bit easier or maybe allows you to shift your focus towards a different objective?
John Farrell: Well, the simplest answer is I have help, Katie and Maria are terrific researchers and partners in the work of our energy democracy initiative, and I can’t imagine having to do it alone. And 10 years ago I was doing it alone, largely. I mean, I think there are some amazing things that have changed as well. I can’t discount the changing economics of renewable energy. A decade ago we would make the case for wind or solar power often on the electricity price plus the environmental benefit, plus maybe being able to locate [inaudible 00:34:33] and the economic benefits. We say taking all that together, you might pay a little bit more, but it’s still going to pay off.
I mean, these days, solar and wind are the cheapest goddam thing we can connect to the electricity grid. We don’t have to make the argument for clean energy, it makes itself. In fact, what we have to deal with now, are people out there telling falsities just like they tell about the 2020 election. There was a Twitter thread I came across this week of this one guy with 150 slide PowerPoint who goes around to county commissions and basically just tells a bunch of lies about solar and wind, about ridiculous stuff like how it’s going to poison your water or you’re going to get killed by a wind turbine blade or something. I mean, the stuff is just utterly fantastic.
And yet we have to remember that most people don’t live in the world that we live in where we know so much about how this stuff works. We have so much confidence in it, we understand the implications. They’re just concerned about the future of their community and in the same way they ought to be concerned about the gas stove in their home or the burning at the coal plant to generate their electricity, they can latch onto some of these things. Overall, we are winning… The economics are hugely helpful to us in the success of that. There are some politically motivated bad actors trying to undercut that, realizing that that is the way things are going.
And then I also think, I don’t feel like such a lone voice in the wilderness, and not that we were ever alone, but critiquing utility monopoly power. I think a lot of people have realized it’s not enough to say, “Oh, we need to go to the Public Utilities Commission and ask for help modifying these interconnection rules.” Or, “We need to go to the legislature and ask for an incentive for rooftop solar.”
There are folks really seeing the connectivity between all of these problems that we encounter in getting clean energy deployed quickly and to the best benefit of communities and equitably, and the utilities’ role in doing that, whether it’s their lobbying dollars, their oversight of the electric system, their partnership with lots of other utilities across the country trying to protect their profits.
I mean, folks are starting to see that as a political problem that we need to address. And by saying it’s a political problem, a problem that we can address with politics, that it is legitimate for us to discuss and attack the idea of utility monopoly as a problem we could be solving rather than just a baked in part of how this system operates.
Katie Kienbaum: And as a concrete example of what John was talking about, just the growth of community solar. We were talking during one of our work planning meetings about how we don’t have to convince people anymore that community solar is a great idea, that it offers a lot of benefits to communities and is a great option for communities to build their own energy and become self-sufficient and access those benefits in that way. That’s just one example that ties together what John was just talking about.
Luke Gannon: Yeah, thanks for jumping in there, Katie. I think that’s a super important point. John, you are off the hook for this question because you already gave us two book suggestions, but Katie and Maria, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a book, a podcast, maybe a report you read, maybe a graphic you saw. Was there anything like that that is coming to mind that influenced either your work or your life?
Maria McCoy: There is this book that came out just a couple weeks ago called The Persuaders by Anand Giridharadas that I have been eyeing, so I’ll have to check out my local bookstore and see if they’ve gotten it in yet.
John Farrell: That ties in perfectly to the way that people are misinformed by all sorts of evil forces and how do we combat some of that disinformation that is intentionally leading people astray, so I’m looking forward to that one too. That’s a good pick. Katie?
Katie Kienbaum: I’m going to just plus one of The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee. I actually borrowed it from John this year and I hadn’t read it before, so I thought that was not new, but definitely still worth reading.
Reggie Rucker: Love it. Thanks both of you. That’s great. We appreciate having you all on the show. You were fantastic, love the conversation. John, please, please, please make sure the beehive… We need to come up with a really clever name for your Twitter following. Like beehive is taken and your initials don’t have B in it, so we can’t use that, but we’ll come up with something really cool. I’m thinking about something electric and they shock you if you go after John the wrong way.
Katie Kienbaum: Spark plugs.
John Farrell: Spark plugs, there you go.
Reggie Rucker: Spark plugs, that’s heading in the right direction.
John Farrell: Except that that is a feature of an internal combustion car, not an electric vehicle.
Reggie Rucker: All right. Thank you for tuning in to this. Please don’t judge me. High energy episode of the Building Local Power Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to resources, references, the transcript, everything from this episode by going to and finding Building Local Power under the podcast tab, clicking on the show page for this episode. There you have it. That is
Luke Gannon: If you have more energy jokes, do leave them in your review of this episode wherever you listen to your podcast. Reggie and I will read them. To stay informed sign up for the Energy Democracy Newsletter at This podcast is produced by the phenomenal Reggie Rucker and me, Luke Gannon. This podcast is edited by Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunctional. This is Building Local Power. Thanks for listening.

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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: Worcester Youth Collaboratives 

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Luke Gannon is the Research and Communications Associate for the Independent Business team.

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As Communications Director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Reggie develops communications strategies and leads campaigns to build public support for ILSR local power initiatives. Contact Reggie with media inquiries.