The Environment, The Economy, and Equity – Episode 83 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 14 Aug 2019 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States, equity, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

What exactly is energy democracy, and how will we achieve it? The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is seeking an answer to this complex question, but we are far from the only folks doing so.

ILSR shares this space with the Energy Democracy Project, which came together in 2016. With editors Denise Fairchild and Al Weinrub, they published a book on the subject in 2017, Energy Democracy: Advancing Equity in Clean Energy Solutions. The book illustrates what energy democracy looks like in practice.

On this episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Denise Fairchild, President of the Emerald Cities Collaborative, about Energy Democracy. As co-editor of the book, Fairchild helps explain the concept of energy democracy to Farrell for a recent episode of ILSR’s Building Local Power podcast, republished in a slightly shorter version for Local Energy Rules.

Denise Fairchild: Again, it’s really about redefining our relationship to capital, to the environment, to each other. It acknowledges the sort of intersectional relationship between the environment, economy and equity. And to recognize that, you know, fixing income inequality, fixing racism, fixing gender inequality, fixing environmental degradation really requires changing an economy that’s screwing up everything.
John Farrell: What does energy democracy mean, and how does the fight for an equitable, clean energy future mirror the movement to abolish slavery? Denise Fairchild is the President of Emerald Cities Collaborative, and Co-editor with Al Weinrub of the book Energy Democracy: Advancing Equity in Clean Energy Solutions. In this interview, we discuss the stories illustrated in the book, how they embody the concept of energy democracy, and what we need to do to make our energy system more small d democratic. I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and this is Local Energy Rules, a podcast sharing powerful stories about local, renewable energy.

Welcome, Denise.

Denise Fairchild: Well, thank you John. Glad to be on the program and have a conversation about this important topic.
John Farrell: Yes. Well I just want to say thank you again for taking time and thank you for putting together this book. It was delightful. I really enjoyed reading it, especially as I work on energy democracy issues through the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and many of the organizations that we collaborate with.

I was hoping that we could start with a story of how energy democracy is playing out. You know, is there something happening out in the world that you see sort of embodying this notion of energy democracy that you draw inspiration from?

Denise Fairchild: Well, you know the book itself that Al and I put together really is a book of stories. There’s stories of all the wonderful efforts that are going on in the grassroots frontline communities, really trying to bring energy into a clean energy future that’s owned and controlled by communities. So I mean we, you know, the voices of nontraditional environmentalists, as you might think about it, are, it’s just what the book is about, from the young suburban high school students who just wanted to put solar on their roofs and accidentally politicized an entire community that is now fueling a national co-op movement. I mean, I love that story, but then there’s, there’s a story of immigrant refugees, Chinese immigrants, basically monolingual populations on the west coast that are not only fighting Chevron and in the fossil fuel industry because it’s keeping them in the hospital with respiratory and asthma cases.

But they are, these are folks that are now at the forefront of California’s progressive energy policies. But what’s most even compelling about that, is that they’re also participating in rallies for black lives matter as an example, because they’re seeing the connections between the environment, the economy and equity. That is all sort of rooted in this notion of how our economies is screwing everybody or even the fight of the local clean energy alliance, which is fighting to make community choice a reality are really about community and not just putting energy services in the hands of government, but making sure that government is also engaging community in its governance of these energy resources.

And they’re also taking on the struggle to democratize PG&E as you know, because of the bankruptcy and the recent climate fires that’s taken place on the west coast. There’s a restructuring. There will be a restructuring taking place with PG&E and the communities in the fight about how we actually take this large utility and put these assets in the hands of communities. So that’s what the book is about.

It’s stories like this, but my favorite story is really the one that embodies for me what the struggle is, and then what the hope is; the story of one voice in Jackson, in Mississippi. And this is a story about black rural communities. And you know, folks think about rural communities, they don’t recognize it’s a lot of black folks in rural communities and how this one voice is going around really community organizing, knocking on doors one by one and actually asking people the question, “Do you know that you own an energy company?” And most of the folks in these communities don’t recognize that they’re a part of a co-op and they have never seen a dividend check.

They have never participated in the governance of these rural co-ops. At the same time, they’re seeing that their utility bills are, that represents 40% of their household budgets. Many of these co-ops are still burning coal. The profits that are being realized out of these rural co-ops are often used to support conservative issues and conservative politicians against the interests of these community residents.

There is one story in the book where this organizing is bringing knowledge and education, not only knowledge and education to the residents themselves, but they’re politicizing the residents and training them through their Institute for Electrification, Rural Electrification, about the by-laws, about what it means to be a member of a co-op. And then getting residents to actually think about running to be on the board, to begin to transform who governs these assets so that they can burn clean energy so that they can get out of coal, that the profits can in fact, be used to reinvest in other community needs and to build community wealth.

So anyway that’s my favorite story. And I guess part of it is because I was able, recently, we did an energy tour of many of these local efforts that are taking place around the country and I got to visit a couple of these rural counties outside of Jackson, Mississippi to actually see people come to these meetings, for the first time ever in decades actually getting a dividend check, because of the word, I guess, has been going around that there’s a movement afoot.

They are getting checks for like 20 years. That may run from 1960 to 1980, but these checks were like for $50, $60. So there’s a lot of, you know, plantation politics still taking place in the south. Rural co-ops are all over the country and I think it’s part of what we’re trying to see or how we see energy democracy playing itself out.

John Farrell: One of the things I really liked in the book, and I think it relates to both of what you said, you already kind of introduced this discussion about PG&E, this big utility in California. But I think it matters as well related to the co-ops, is there’s this core thread about treating energy as a commons rather than as a private commodity. And I feel like we’re in this moment where this concept is really coming alive. So you mentioned community choice, the work of local clean energy alliance and millions of California residents and communities are exercising their right to have that kind of local control.

There’s a bill in the Maine legislature to make one of the largest electric transmission companies public because of how it’s kind of mismanaged the delivery of service to customers in Maine. And then you have this PG&E here, that’s the second bankruptcy of one of California’s largest electric utilities because of this mismanagement of its infrastructure. And you have, as you said, you know, a restructuring, you know, maybe even a public takeover in the offing. You know, is this where this notion of the commons really get started? You know, are there other examples that we should know about where this commons conversation is happening?

Denise Fairchild: Well in fact, John, these are really good examples that you highlighted about putting our energy resources into the hands of the public and the community. These are tools, you would have shared governance and resource management. In fact, what’s interesting is that the California Public Utilities Commission estimated itself that in five years or so, as much as 60% of California’s energy services will be in public hands through community choice aggregation.Now, as you can imagine, that’s being seriously fought by the investor-owned utilities, but it really does represent the sentiment about who, who should own it and who should control energy and how could it be best managed and governed. But I don’t think that just because we’re putting energy into it, that’s not where the commons came from. And I don’t, the idea of the commons coming from and, and I don’t think just putting our energy resources into the hands of government suggest that we are actually going to get to energy democracy.

In fact, if you sort of leverage your riff off of what I just mentioned about rural electric co-ops, you are essentially, you know, public resources that are being not used for public purposes. So the Commons has a sort of a deeper it, first of all, the idea of commons is core, is core to the energy democracy movement as we were trying to build it. And it’s really about our relationship at a deeper level to the environment and how we even achieve sort of this ecosystem balance. It’s really rooted in something more, more spiritual about how we value the gifts that nature offers as as a human species and our responsibility to respect nature, that nature actually belongs to no one. And we must not only like share it, but prudently conservative and regenerate it. But this, this is not a radical idea.

I mean there’s nothing uncommon about the idea of the commons. It’s really rooted a lot in traditional societies. Is is one of the reasons why it’s really important to bring the lived in cultural experiences of communities of color into this conversation about our clean energy future.

Indigenous communities here in America was really, a lot of the ideas of the Commons was, was really rooted in, you know, locally here and in our Native American communities about how we, when we fish, what days we fish, what we can fish, what trees we cut down, what trees we don’t touch. Again, a lot of it is, is rooted in, in a sense of the spirit world that these are, these are living entities in which elders may even be still living. You know, in another world.

I’ve interviewed over a dozen of my colleagues throughout the African diaspora, and tried to ask them what they recall of their own African experiences and you know, they saintly remember their culture where it says, these are resources that needs to be shared, protected in there are taboos about what you cannot do with this, these gifts.

But it’s also the idea of commons as part of the Magna Carta in the 13th century. It’s part of our modern public trust laws. It’s foundational to the new deal. In fact, rural electric collapse, milk collapse have all been sort of rooted in the idea of the Commons and our national parks, whether it’s Yellowstone or Grand Canyon, these are Commons. These are natural resources that we are holding in public trust and even our internet or, you know, hopefully we can keep it as our other open source system. So the Commons is fairly common and it really does require us to re-examine who we are, what kind of society we want to live in and what’s our relationship to the environment to capital into each other.

John Farrell: I want to take a step back to something, to sort of the bigger concept energy democracy, because I think this is really that conversation about the Commons are so interesting in the book, both the spiritual connection, the connection to indigenous communities, but also a lot of the, you know, political history that the white Europeans have brought as there is a fairly significant thread about the Commons and then you also have, is this broader concept of energy, democracy, so Commons as this core piece of it. I’m just curious, you know, how did you define in the book this concept of energy democracy, like what are the core principles in addition to the Commons that are important about it and then what does it look like when we achieve energy democracy? How has our system, instead of being, you know, parceled out with private ownership of energy resources, how’s that going to look different?
Denise Fairchild: John, I think that’s always the hardest question that people ask me is, you know, what, what is energy democracy. We’ve had a number of meetings. In fact, in two weeks I think about 40 energy democracy practitioners will be in Detroit and will be, again, sharing what each is doing and trying to find some of the sort of the common language and a common needs and challenges and begin to work together to help each other. But there is no clear, straightforward one line answer about what energy democracy is.But for me, I think it’s a way to reimagine, re-engineer, rebuild our economy. Again, it’s really about redefining our relationship to capital, to the environment, to each other. It sort of acknowledges the sort of intersectional relationship between the environment, economy and equity. And to recognize that, you know, fixing income inequality, fixing racism, fixing gender inequality, fixing environmental degradation really requires changing an economy that’s screwing up everything.

So it’s really a framework for understanding all that’s going wrong and an energy democracy perhaps being an antidote to all of that. Where we’re bringing in different that values and experience to the conversation. And we, there is no, we asked the authors of the book, for example, to put their values and principles together and everyone had a different set of values. They’re overlapping and it was some commonalities, but there isn’t like five values that we hold on to other than the fact that because we were bringing threads of different historic struggles into the energy democracy movement. So the struggle for land rights and civil rights and environmental justice and you know, correctional reform, all of this is finally moving into sort of a middle level social change movement for democratizing our economy through the energy sector. It lays out, you know, the principles that speak to how we democratize governance of the energy sector, how we democratize and liberate the environment and our natural resources from greed and commodification….how we democratize our economy. These are constructs, and in fact, we’re taking these constructs about what does a democratized energy economy look like and putting it into a scorecard, so we can begin to see how communities look from the extreme right, which is an extractive economy that is really about fossil fuels to the extreme extraction to one that is the vision of energy democracy. What does that really look like, and what are the policies that undergird that?

We’re in the process of envisioning this, and we’re using the voices and the experience of communities to animate this and to really define what that future is. We’re co-creating this, so I don’t have a clear, unfortunately, answer for you, but we have a framework around which we’re working.

John Farrell: Yeah, I should’ve asked this question in the context of… I wasn’t attempting to define it entirely, but tried to define it mostly in the scope of ILSR’s workbook, had three core concepts that we identified in the work that we do about what energy democracy means, and I think there’s a lot of overlap. One was around about the sources and ownership of energy generation being distributed widely.Another one was about the management of the energy system being governed with democratic principles, so that there would be more local and community-based governance, and that you would have wide distribution of power generation and ownership and that the access to both of those things would be not inhibited by race or socioeconomic status or the traditional barriers that we’ve seen.

I think there’s some pieces. There’re some bigger pieces that are in the book that I really appreciated and I think a little bit more historical perspective. But that’s one of the way we’ve tried at ILSR at least to define it, and I think more narrow terms just in the energy sector.

Denise Fairchild: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. When I talk about democratizing a governance, it’s really about this community engagement and community organizing and who sits at the table and who makes the decision, and where’s the local control about of that future. So, it’s democratizing governance. As I said, it’s democratizing the environment, which is rooted in the notion of the commons and the elements that how the commons are seen as a public good and how we look at strategies and tools for shared resource management.

It’s about democratizing the economy. So, we are actually decommodifying the energy resources and putting the profits, the wealth back into the hands of the community to build community wealth. So, those are the pillars of energy democracy.

John Farrell: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we’ll talk about the importance of decentralizing the economy, the parallels between the fight for energy democracy and the abolition movement, and how a bottom-up approach to clean energy can scale rapidly.
John Farrell: LER MIDWAY PITCH
John Farrell: So another key concept that I saw coming through in the book, and it was especially noted in the introduction, but before a lot of the stories, was this notion about a transformation from centralized to decentralized. I think that’s super important because it came about in terms of both the ownership of the system, but also the concentration of wealth.We’re seeing the downside of a centralized system, not just in environmental degradation and health impacts, but also in some spectacular failures of capitalism, like the recently mothballed V.C. Summer Nuclear Plant in South Carolina where poor management by these utility executives is basically going to cost energy customers in that region $9 billion for literally nothing. They have nothing to show for it. No energy was ever generated.

Can you talk a little bit about the different ways you see us needing to decentralize both in terms of the scale of energy generation, but also about these issues of management and ownership? What do you see as some of the benefits specifically in decentralizing control and ownership?

Denise Fairchild: Let me start with perhaps the benefits of decentralizing. First of all, let’s just recognize that there is an energy revolution underway, and it’s happening because of climate change. It’s driving utilities themselves to re-examine their business model, and it’s also being driven by the fact that new technologies, new energy technologies are coming to the forefront that is now cheaper than coal. It’s increasingly cheaper than gas and other forms of fossil fuels.The utilities themselves are actually moving to decentralize not only their source of energy, but also how they distribute energy into communities. It’s going to be to the advantage of their bottom line. So that’s one thing that’s going to happen. The question is how it happens. Again, the democratization of it, so that it happens in a way that communities benefit most. But the other benefit is that it’s about resilience. I mean, if people have a picture of anything, they have a picture of Puerto Rico and how the entire blackout of a country resulted as a fact that you had a centralized grid, and there was no redundancy in the energy infrastructure.

So, being able to have redundant, overlapping energy sources prevents that kind of overwhelming blackout in conditions of extreme weather and other climate hazards. So, it’s about resilience. The benefit is also about what you care about most in your members is local self-reliance and local control. I mean, you own and control a huge sector of the economy and be able to use it to good use to community purposes and community services. That is what a decentralized infrastructure provides you, which is very different from what a monopoly does. A monopoly is essentially controlled with a few people, and you just get to pay for the service.

A decentralized infrastructure really changes the algorithm for that as a way, and for our communities, it really is about how that those assets are then used for other community revitalization and other community needs and purposes and how we don’t just use it for profits in individual wealth building, but use it for community wellbeing. So, these are some of the benefits that I think the new infrastructure and the new clean energy decentralization is going to offer.

There are different kinds of decentralized infrastructure. There’s the rooftop, the solar. There’s solar plus batteries. There’s microgrid. So, I guess the technologies are quickly, quickly advancing, but it’s hard work. It’s expensive. There’s a lot of technical knowledge that’s required to really figure out how you put some of these community grids together in particular, and it’s particularly important for low-income communities and communities that… renters or people that live in apartments that really don’t have control or have the access to rooftop solar, the community grids, and really, virtual meeting becomes really important options for them.

So, how do you do it at a scale with communities that are already built out for people who don’t have ready access or not homeowners to be able to have access to this new clean energy resource? So, it’s expensive. There’s not enough technical resources and financing putting into this space that will allow us to move at the speed that we need to, but I believe that those are why we need to get there because the opportunities are there to re-engineer our entire infrastructure for community purpose.

John Farrell: I was really drawn to your conclusion in the book, and I want to come back to this issue about some of the financial resources. I have another question that I’m really interested in asking you in a minute, but I was really drawn in the conclusion, this comparison that you drew between the energy democracy movement and the abolitionist movement to end slavery. You explained in that section that abolitionists had to fight the three pillars supporting slavery: property rights, profits, and then power and privilege.

I frankly, I was just blown away by the similarities between the two and was hoping that you could explain a little bit about how a centralized fossil fuel energy system is supported by these pillars. What is an illustration of these three factors: property rights, profits, power and privilege in our current energy system?

Denise Fairchild: It’s interesting how I even got to that framework where it became very clear to me that our work that we’re all struggling to dismantle the fossil fuel economy is in fact analogous to what it took to dismantle the slave economy, and that was a 250-year struggle. My hope is that our struggle is either close to being 250 years, or we’ll get there faster either way. But bottom line is as a history buff and somebody who really cares about the history of my people, I do a lot of reading, stuff that you didn’t get in school about slavery and emancipation.

Part of it is understand where am I in this arc towards justice and the work that we do here at Emerald Cities. Am I in the struggle and what is that struggle? It became really clear that the struggle continues, and then it’s all around those same pillars as you examined where slaves were the source of energy. In the slave economy, we look at the fossil fuel as the new property, right? The access to land and natural resources and the right to own land and to commodify and to monetize it and the mass accumulation of… mass production and mass consumption and mass accumulation of wealth is all around this notion of ownership and individualism and property and that ownership and control. So that’s core.

We see that in the courts today where we’re struggling around, “Does the government have the right to lease public lands to mineral extraction?” We’re fighting this notion of private versus public, public land and public resources and public property. It’s around our water systems where people are saying, “You don’t have the right, Mr. and Mrs. Government, to tell us we can’t pollute our water systems.” So, it is about property. It’s about profits in the energy sector where the top 10 energy utility firms and the Fortune 500 companies, they make over a half trillion dollars in market value each.

They’re benefiting from a natural monopoly. They’re benefiting by the fact that they have an exclusive right to the energy infrastructure. They have huge subsidies that are coming from us, from taxpayers that are feeding into that profit, and they are not, or they fight to pay for the externalities that the cost of polluting our environment, the cost of the healthcare. So, the extreme profits in the energy sector is in the fossil fuel industry, particularly, is part of what we have to fix when we talk about energy democracy. We’ve got to take public subsidies out of the fossil fuel industry and put it in the hands of a clean energy future.

We’ve got to protect our natural resources and not make it owned by a limited 1% in the population because at the end of the day, what we’re doing is fueling the power and the privilege element of it, which is the inequalities that come out of that kind of capitalist structure where it’s social, economic and political inequalities. I mean, if you want to look at it one level, I mean, the CEOs of these fossil fuel industries… I think the recent study that showed that they make between 150 to 500 times that of the average American in terms of their compensation package.

But the benefits and burdens of that industry is unevenly distributed. They’re using those revenues to buy more privilege. So, they bought our politicians, and we have to find a way to make sure that we are taking back our government and taking back our politicians by taking money out of politics. I mean, we probably can talk an entire session just on the analogies, but those are the elements that energy democracy is really changing in terms of how used the property, how it used profits, how it deals with issues of inequities.

John Farrell: There are several authors in the book who talked about local decision making. You and I both have talked about local self-reliance. Strela Cervas and Anthony Giancatarino, in the book, describe, “local policy organizing has the flexibility to experiment with different solutions, allow for community participation and control in the decision making process.” At ILSR we use the term subsidiarity, which means decisions should be made closest to where people are affected by them. A question I get a lot about this notion of local self-reliance, local control is, the problems that we have are on a global scale, like climate change. Can we really scale up this model of energy democracy fast enough to address this global climate crisis, or do we have to rely on the big institutions, the big companies that have concentrated all the wealth to do this for us?
Denise Fairchild: I think this whole notion of local self-reliance, it’s happening. It’s working already. I mean, if you just look at it from the standpoint that 70% of Americans alone want clean energy and two-thirds of Americans believe in climate change, I think the barometer is obviously suggesting that what we care about, most people care about. I think our real challenge about scaling this is really about, again, getting back to the question about getting money out of politics, getting money out of the fossil fuel industry and getting the politicians out of the way so the investments that we’re currently making to prop up and allow profiteering to take place in the fossil fuel industry can be invested in decentralized, locally owned and controlled energy systems.

I mean, it’s just really a question of the imbalance and where we’re putting public resources. If we had the same kind of money and subsidies that we’re putting in the private fossil fuel industry and put it into this clean energy, energy democracy future that we’re talking about, we can get the scale and we can get the scale quickly. This movement is not limited to the United States. The global south, and as you can see in terms of the … Even the Paris accord, I mean, they have the same challenge because we’re all dealing with the same multinational fossil fuel industry. It’s a people struggle. It’s only through that 70% who wants clean energy and two-thirds who believe in climate change that’s going to make the difference to get politics out of the future that we all care about.

John Farrell: Denise, we often end our podcast by asking for a reading recommendation, but since we’re talking about your book, I’d like to first propose everyone that is listening should go read this book. It is a really crucial way to understand the challenges that we face in the energy sector and in our economy more broadly and how best to address them. You already alluded to this though, that you have a love of history and do a lot of reading on your own about this issue in comparison to other issues. I’m curious if there’s something else you’ve read that you think would help folks understand the idea and importance of energy democracy, or just that you think is important for people to read?
Denise Fairchild: Well, let’s see. There’s so many books, but you know what, I think what I’d love folks … because I think we’re so fixated on technologies that we are losing the sensibilities about what energy democracy really is about. I would probably recommend the book Think Like a Commoner. I’m sure you may even know about it. It was written several years ago by David Bollier, I think his name is. It’s a really important read about what does the commons look like and how do we think about our natural resources, the environment and our energy resources as a commons.
John Farrell: Well thank you very much, Denise. I just want to say thank you again for this book, Energy Democracy: Advancing Equity in Clean Energy Solutions. We’ll have a link to where folks can find the book from their independent bookseller on our show page, as well as Think Like a Commoner and some other resources related to our conversation. Thanks again, Denise, really appreciate your time.
Denise Fairchild: Thank you.
John Farrell: This is John Farrell, Director of ILSR’s Energy Democracy Initiative. I was speaking with Denise Fairchild of Emerald Cities Collaborative about her book, Energy Democracy: Advancing Equity in Clean Energy Solutions. For a link to buy the book from your independent bookseller, see our show page. Also check out examples of cities exercising their energy democracy muscles in ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit. And read more about ILSR’s working definition of energy democracy at ILSR.org. That’s I L S R dot org. While you’re at our website, you can also find more than 80 past episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast. Until next time, keep your energy local, and thanks for listening.

 

Telling Stories

The Emerald Cities Collaborative (ECC) was one of four organizations that brought together the Energy Democracy Project. As President of the Collaborate and co-editor of the book, Denise Fairchild’s work was integral to the process.

Fairchild describes the book as a collection of stories. Inside, 15 authors and the co-editors bear witness to local efforts for energy democracy. In the interview, Fairchild further describes her favorite story: the democratization of a rural electric cooperative in Jackson, Miss.

Though electric co-ops are more democratized than their investor-owned alternatives, they can be far from inclusive. In this case, Fairchild describes the lack of community participation in Jackson’s member-owned utility. Members did not know they were owners of an electric company, did not know about meetings, and were not receiving dividend checks. Meanwhile, the co-op was burning unhealthy coal and giving the profits to politicians the residents did not support.

I don’t think just putting our energy resources into the hands of the government suggests that we are actually going to get to energy democracy.

Through a true grassroots movement, led by the organization OneVoice, residents became educated and politicized. Knowing their rights as members of the cooperative, residents restructured the co-op so that it would serve their needs.

The book traverses over geography, generations, and cultures, but the tour does not end there. The Energy Democracy Project, with the groups involved in the book, organized an Energy Democracy National Tour. The tour brought attention to successful initiatives and invited leaders in the energy democracy movement to learn from each other. By creating this network of leaders, the movement strengthens and becomes more cohesive.

The tour began in Oakland, Calif., where attendees celebrated the publishing of the book. It concluded one year and 20 stops later. Events included celebrations, forums, summits, strategizing sessions, and trainings.

Electricity as a Resource for All

One concept from the book Fairchild and Farrell discuss in depth is the idea of energy supply as a commons. As Fairchild describes, the commons is not a revolutionary idea. It can be found in the Magna Carta, modern public trust laws, the New Deal, and the U.S. National Park system. 

There’s nothing uncommon about the idea of the commons.

At its core, the commons creates a system of value for shared resources. It is rooted in traditional societies, such as American Indigenous communities. For this reason, Fairchild emphasizes bringing culture into the fight for energy democracy. 

For Fairchild, the commons is more specifically about one’s relationship to the environment. It is a spiritual connection, but also a responsibility: the responsibility to not only share, but preserve the environment. She argues that energy democracy must structure this responsibility and this relationship:

[Energy democracy] is really about redefining our relationship to capital, to the environment, to each other. It acknowledges the intersectional relationship between the environment, the economy, and equity.

Defining Energy Democracy

Can energy democracy be defined in one line? Fairchild doesn’t think so. Rather, she summarizes it as the solution to a broken economy. 

She says that we need to “recognize that fixing income inequality, fixing racism, fixing gender inequality, fixing environmental degradation, really requires changing an economy that’s screwing up everything.” Energy democracy is just one avenue by which to do the work of a much broader democratization:

For me, I think it’s a way to reimagine, reengineer, rebuild our economy.


Click here to read ILSR’s definition of energy democracy, written in 2016


Decentralizing the Energy Industry

Fairchild says that the energy revolution is already underway. In the face of climate change and growing renewable technologies, utilities know that they need to change – but how? Fairchild hopes that the answer to this is energy democracy. It is the route that offers the most benefits, two of which sound familiar to those following ILSR’s Energy Democracy Initiative:

  1. Resilience. Having decentralized, localized energy economies will make communities more resilient in the face of many challenges. Price swings in fossil fuels and unpredictable, increasingly severe natural disasters can both be neutralized if the energy system follows the principles of energy democracy. Fairchild cites the destruction of Puerto Rico’s centralized electric infrastructure as an example of how a decentralized system could have accelerated recovery.
  2. Community Revitalization. Where there is local control, there will be localized benefits. Rather than the individual wealth that privately-owned energy builds, energy democracy provides opportunity to invest in and grow the community as a whole.

However, arriving at an energy democracy won’t be easy. Technical knowledge, financing, and community support are all necessary drivers of this crucial transition.

How to Get There

In her written conclusion for the book, Fairchild argues that “to dismantle the fossil fuel economy is in fact analogous to what it took to dismantle the slave economy.” 

She makes this analogy because in each instance, activists had to topple three pillars: property rights, profits, and power/privilege. She draws a parallel between the two economies by comparing fossil fuels to slaves: both represent the energy input to the economy. In both instances, benefits and burdens were unequally shared.

Photo credit: Hans via Pixabay

Combatting the environmental degradation and inequalities of the fossil fuel industry requires breaking down the same three pillars as in the slave economy. Since the three pillars are closely tied, they can only fall as a trio.

The first pillar, property rights, can be softened with the idea of the commons. Fairchild describes how individualism has resulted in commodification, monetization, and a mass accumulation of wealth. Now, she says, battles over  property rights have been brought to the courts: Who owns our water? Who decides what happens to our public land?

Without natural resources as property, there will be less extremes in profit, and the accompanying power and privilege. Fairchild discusses the cycle between profits and power that plays out in the fossil fuel industry, where companies are known to buy favor with politicians. The solution, says Denise, lies in reducing the political power of large fossil fuel companies by reducing their financial might.

To learn more, find Energy Democracy at your local independent bookstore and catch the full interview on Building Local Power.


Episode Notes

The book: Energy Democracy: Advancing Equity in Clean Energy Solutions, by Denise Fairchild and Al Weinrub.

Fairchild’s reading recommendation: Think Like a Commoner, by David Bollier.

For concrete examples of how towns and cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.


This is the 83rd episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update

Featured Photo Credit: Energy Democracy Project, art by Favianna Rodriguez

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Maria McCoy
Follow Maria McCoy:
Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a research associate with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.

John Farrell
Follow John Farrell:
John Farrell

John Farrell directs the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and he develops tools that allow communities to take charge of their energy future, and pursue the maximum economic benefits of the transition to 100% renewable power.