ILSR’s Year in Review: Shaping Policy to Empower Communities — Episode 142 of Building Local Power

Date: 23 Dec 2021 | posted in: Building Local Power | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

On this episode of Building Local Power, host Jess Del Fiacco is joined by John Farrell, ILSR Co-Director, and Ron Knox, Senior Researcher with ILSR’s Independent Business initiative. They take a look back at ILSR’s work in 2021 and share big wins, challenges, and interesting trends from the year.

Highlights of their conversation include:


“We’re seeing some really encouraging signs that things are being taken seriously around the idea of monopoly and market power. Especially at this moment, we have so many awesome ways that we can generate energy and supply services to our electricity system in a way that’s cleaner, that can employ people who’ve been left behind, that can lower their energy bills. You name it.”


“Lawmakers have really started to listen and have really started to understand that this consolidation that’s gone on over the past several decades, half century let’s say has hurt the economy. And that in order to undo some of the bad policies and the bad legal precedents that have created this issue, the laws themselves ultimately need to change.”


Jess Del Fiacco: Hello, welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast dedicated to thought provoking conversations about how we can challenge perfect monopolies and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, the host of Building Local Power and communications here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For more than 45 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving, equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands.
Jess Del Fiacco: And hi everybody. I am joined today by my colleagues Ron Knox who’s a senior researcher with our Independent Business Initiative, as well as John Farrell who directs our Energy Democracy work and is one of ILSR’s co-directors. Our other colleague Brenda Platt was going to join us, but she’s unfortunately sick. So I am going to be sharing some highlights from our composting team as well as we go through things here. So welcome to the show, Ron and John.
Ron Knox: Hey Jess. Good to be here. Thanks.
John Farrell: You know, if you welcome us together, it’s Ron John. And then we’re just a surf shop instead of policy-
Ron Knox: Just a Tampa area surf shop. Nothing more. [crosstalk 00:01:09] which is a good, strong, Independent Business by the way, Tampa area surf shop.
Jess Del Fiacco: This is also our very last Building Local Power episode of 2021. So that’s why we’re celebrating it with the Hawaiian shirts.
Ron Knox: Right.
John Farrell: It’s amazing how comfortable this Hawaiian shirt is in my cold basement in Minnesota.
Jess Del Fiacco: So we’re going to talk about some highlights from our work this year. And I wanted to start by, I’m looking at some of the work that we did at the federal level, which may not be the first thing you think of when you hear the name the Institute for Local Self-Reliance is us working at the federal level, but we were advocating for policies that center local and distributed solutions. So maybe starting with John, you want to talk about what your program did at the federal level this year? How did you work to shape federal policy for local priorities?
John Farrell: Yeah, thanks Jess. I often talk about the Institute for Local Self-Reliance as a national local organization that we have have always had this national focus, but are really intent on prioritizing the opportunities for local communities to have more decision making power. And as it turns out, there are opportunities for the federal government to actually help in that work from time to time. And not just by getting out of the way, but by doing things.
John Farrell: So our big project from our Energy Democracy initiative was called 30 Million Solar Homes. It actually launched back in 2020. And in a way in a response to all the shit that was hitting the fan in 2020, around racial inequality with the pandemic, the economic insecurity of the pandemic. And of course the ongoing threat from the climate crisis. And the idea was can we articulate something that’s meaningful out of our energy program that addresses all of these things?
John Farrell: And the idea was let’s create a program, a broad federal program to prioritize rooftop and community scale solar that could help people by reducing their energy bills directly, could employ millions of Americans in installing rooftop solar. And that we could specifically target towards folks who have not often seen the benefits from the transition to the clean energy economy, or who have suffered particularly harshly under the fossil fuel economy.
John Farrell: We worked with over 300 organizations that joined in a coalition that we were in a partnership helping to lead. And we did some advocacy and some education with folks at the federal level about why their focus on climate and clean energy should not just be over the rewards of the clean energy economy to a bunch of utility companies. And that it should really also focus on deploying energy at a scale where everybody can benefit on rooftops of homes, on the roofs of churches, small businesses, etc.
John Farrell: And we’ve really seen a remarkable amount of the policy program and recommendations that came out of that 30 Million Solar Homes effort into a number of federal policy proposals, most directly in the Build Back Better legislation. There’s a whole slew of things I could spend 10 minutes, frankly, just reading through all the different items. But I’ll just give a few of the highlights not just in terms of what the policies were that were included, but how they actually reflect that kind of triple goal of addressing racial inequality, the climate crisis, and the economic insecurity from COVID.
John Farrell: One of them is just the federal tax credits for solar. We’ve had them for over a decade. Just gives you a discount on your solar installation and you get it back at tax time. But the problem is of course that if you don’t have a lot of tax liability, you can’t get a tax credit. So the bottom 50% of Americans basically couldn’t take advantage of this tax credit. Nonprofits or schools, community institutions, churches, other houses of worship couldn’t take advantage of this tax credit because they don’t pay taxes. So one of the biggest successes in the Build Back Better legislation is incorporating rules that would change this to be a refundable tax credit number one, which is very important in terms of allowing all of these folks who couldn’t previously participate. But the second one is doing what’s called direct pay, which means that you could actually get the payment without having to wait until April tax time. If I installed the solar in July, I could get the payment from the federal government in the next couple of months, instead of waiting all the way until next year. Which is also really important, especially if paying for a several thousand dollars solar array isn’t something you can just do easily out of pocket so maybe you can get a short-term loan to float you until that payment comes in, for example. So that’s a big deal.
John Farrell: Another thing that is included in the bill is a huge increase in money for the Rural Energy for America Program, which gives grants to small independent farmers, rural small businesses, rural individuals to do deploy clean energy. There’s so much clean energy resource in rural areas from the sun, from the wind. It’s a great opportunity to continue to tap into that.
John Farrell: And then there are a number of special programs that specifically target like we mentioned, people who haven’t had access before. So programs in Housing and Urban Development that would support affordable housing units being able to do solar and renewable energy, bonus credits as part of the solar tax credits for projects that are located in low-income communities or that specifically serve low-income individuals. And also some big loan guarantees and grants for trial communities who again often have enormous renewable energy resources on tribal lands, but don’t have the capital needed to make those investments.
John Farrell: So it’s really exciting to see all of these different components. Broadly across the Biden administration they have what’s called their justice 40 initiative as well, which reflects this idea that at least 40% of the benefits of federal clean energy investment should go to communities that have been historically marginalized. So I’m just very excited because there’s something in there for everybody. There’s extensions of tax credits, there’s loan guarantees, there’s money to support distributed solar rooftop and community solar. And there’s a real focus in making sure that even folks who haven’t been able to get access before will be able to.
Jess Del Fiacco: Wonderful. Thank you, John. I would love to hear some highlights from Independent Business’ work over the last year. I know you’ve got a few things that happened at the federal level.
Ron Knox: Yeah, we have. Thanks Jess. And John, it’s really great to hear about the work you guys are doing. I was lucky enough to hear about all that work very recently, and I think it’s just fascinating. And I think it’s really, really excellent and a real change maker. So for the Independent Business Program, I mean I think the focus on the federal level isn’t really a new one for our program, but it certainly was a major focus over the past year. We’ve known and we have been saying for a long time that the enforcement of the laws that regulate monopolies and that corporate concentration at the federal level have been broken in this country for a long time. They’ve been broken by these very specific policy choices that regulators and lawmakers have made and that the judges and courts have upheld over the past 40 years or so.
Ron Knox: And these are policies that have allowed big, powerful companies to get even bigger. They’ve allowed many industries to consolidate. And that’s all happened at the expense of Independent Businesses, and of workers, and of shoppers, consumers.
Ron Knox: So over the past year, and honestly over the past two or three years, lawmakers have really started to listen and have really started to understand that this consolidation that’s gone on over the past several decades, half century let’s say has hurt the economy. And that in order to undo some of the bad policies and the bad legal precedents that have created this issue, the laws themselves ultimately need to change. And they need to change in particular to address the rising power of the big tech monopolies like Amazon, and Google, and Facebook, that have ultimately come to control so much of the modern economy. So with that momentum underway, our work has really focused on trying to make some of those changes a reality.
Ron Knox: And I’ll talk a little bit later about those bills specifically, some of the proposed laws that we’re seeing that we’re really excited about. But I want to add that the recognition of the harms of monopoly power aren’t just happening at the federal level. Although a lot of our work is focused there, right? But over the last year, we’ve seen a crucial new anti-monopoly law introduced in the New York state house. And that has passed out of the Senate there. We advocated for that bill. We testified on its behalf. And now, we’re part of a coalition called New Yorkers for a Fair Economy. That includes labor groups, and small business groups, and others who are all pushing for this bill’s ultimate passage into law. So lots of work on the federal front, but it certainly doesn’t end there.
Ron Knox: I also want to talk a little bit, just take to the federal picture because it is so important to some of the work that we’re doing, trying to push back against monopoly power and corporate concentration. Some things we’re really excited about are really strong leadership that is now in place at both of our antitrust agencies, right? We have Lina Khan who is now the chair of the Federal Trade Commission. And Jonathan Kanter, who is the head of the Antitrust Division at the Department of Justice. They’re both really deep critics of outsized corporate power. They’re champions of competition. And they’re champions of the kind of competition that would allow Independent Businesses to compete and to thrive in the economy, and that would build worker power and so on. Lina Khan was appointed in the spring. Jonathan Kanter took off as just this fall, but we’re already seeing a lot of progress within those agencies in really refocusing and changing the mission of those agencies so that they work better for the economy and for people.
Ron Knox: Look, at the FTC, I can talk about I think what is a strong new lawsuit against Facebook. One that was filed by the previous administration, refiled by Lina Khan in this administration. I think it’s much stronger now and really calls out the abuses of Facebook in acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp. We’re seeing blocked mergers. We’re seeing all of these things that you expect to see from an aggressive antitrust enforcer.
Ron Knox: But the work of the agencies has gone really beyond that, which is really exciting for us. At the FTC, the agency revised its entire mission statement basically, and its long-term plan that really refocused the FTC’s competition protection work from this very narrow view of consumer prices and output to a much broader welfare standard where consumer concerns live alongside those of small companies of workers, of suppliers in the broader economy.
Ron Knox: We’ve seen big and really significant investigations happen at the agencies. There was just a joint workshop on the intersection between labor, workers rights and antitrust issues. There’s a really sweeping investigation to look at problems in supply chains and whether the power of big retailers has worked to increase prices, reduce supply, and make those supply chain issues worse.
Ron Knox: The FTC has changed some rules around mergers, really hoping that those changes will stem an unprecedented wave of corporate tie ups. So some real, significant progress there. I think it’s something that as small business owners, as workers and as shoppers in the economy, we can all be excited about. And it’s certainly things that we’re excited about.
Ron Knox: Real quickly, I want to point out that these issues are the issues that we on the Independent Business team here at ILSR have worked on hard over the last year. We advocated for Lina Khan and Jonathan Kanter to be appointed and to be confirmed by the Senate. That’s obviously happened. We wrote really significant articles about some of the harms that happen when you allow a lot of corporate mergers to take place. We’ve written about the need for an alliance between small businesses and the labor movement. And of course, we’ve released our comprehensive Amazon toll booth report that we hope will enlighten policy makers to how Amazon exploits small businesses in order to grow its power in the economy. So we’re feeling good. It’s been an important year. There’s more to do, but it’s been a good 12 months.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah. It’s so exciting to be such a significant part of what’s an actual sea change across policy.
John Farrell: Yeah. I would just love to ask speaking of a sea change, I feel like one of the most significant accomplishments in ILSR’s workaround antitrust and monopoly has been this shift in the perception of whose side small businesses on, or kind of where small business lines up. I feel like five or 10 years ago, the only time I heard about small businesses in the context of federal policy was get rid of red tape, make it easier for businesses to act at the state level. Get rid of taxes and regulations. And here instead, I feel like over the last year and what’s amazing is it’s not just a slogan, right? There are many, many small businesses part of the work signing up to testify, signing up to talk about it. Can you explain a little bit, why the shift? What was happening before with small businesses and why are they speaking up so strongly in favor of the anti-monopoly, antitrust action that ILSR has been talking about now?
Ron Knox: So I’m going to try to be nice about this. Let me say that for a long, long time, many, many years in this country, there was this kind of falsehood that was pushed as a narrative around the economy. Where small businesses became rather than this thing that we really needed to preserve in order to have a vibrant economy, vibrant local communities, local power, local control, all of these kinds of crucial things. They became this kind of vehicle for unfortunately, a lot of conservative talking points and the conservative economic movement in general in this country over the last 50 years. What was actually behind that was this real push for increased bigness in the economy. So all of the deregulation efforts of the late ’70s and ’80s on and on through all of the various presidential administration since then has really created this environment where bigness is not only welcome in the economy, but was thought of as very much a good thing.
Ron Knox: The problem when that happened was when you’re promoting bigness in the economy, you’re getting away from small scale. You’re getting away from a small scale businesses and small scale economies, and the Independent Businesses that really make up main street and that were the lifeblood of a lot of communities.
Ron Knox: And I think we’ve just hit this moment. Maybe it started with the Great Recession a decade ago, and it’s certainly become hyper-focused now in the pandemic economy. But I think small business owners hit this moment where you said, “You know what, you’ve been talking a lot about us. But the policies that you’re actually pushing and that you’re actually implementing, they’re not about us. They’re favoring the big guys, and they’re favoring bigness, and they’re favoring concentration. You’re allowing these mergers to happen that concentrate our supply chains, create these bottlenecks. You’re allowing these predatory middlemen operations to run rampant over us, over our businesses.” And I think we’ve just hit this tipping point where small business owners said, “This isn’t true. So now we need new answers. So now we need the truth. And we need a movement that’s really going to focus on us.” Not us as a political talking point, as a chip to push around a poker table. You know what I mean? But us as independent actors in this economy with every right to compete and to succeed as anyone else, no matter what the size. I just think we’ve hit this moment, and it’s been really refreshing to see.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you Ron. And I’m a poor substitute for Brenda, but I will share, the composting team had some exciting progress this year at the federal level as well. So I do want to share a couple of their updates. ILSR is a founding member of the U.S. Composting Infrastructure Coalition. And this coalition really played a pivotal role in the development of the federal COMPOST Act. That’s C-O-M-P-O-S-T Act as an acronym, of course. And that act was introduced this year. And it’s really important because currently, there’s no federal policy that exists that really provides any resources for a national composting movement. There’s just not any existing federal policy on that. So this act would provide quite a bit of funding through 2031, that’s about $200 million for composting projects. And we helped advocate to include small scale projects like on farms, or in communities, or even at the household level to qualify to receive that funding.
Jess Del Fiacco: So that was certainly a big win. And we’re also just excited to see recognition that composting is important in other pieces of legislation, a Build Back Better bill. And the Infrastructure Act, which happens to have almost 80 million in funding that’s around recycling and composting included in it both acknowledged the importance of composting.
Jess Del Fiacco: Our dedicated listeners may have heard a recent episode where we talked about our advocacy around recycling at the federal level. You should definitely check that out if you’re curious to learn more about that side of things. That’s with the Recycling Is Infrastructure Too Campaign. So very exciting inclusions of recycling and composting in many pieces of federal policy this year. So with that, I did want to give both of you the opportunity to maybe talk about different wins or progress that you saw, whether it’s also at the federal level or local level, that you wanted to highlight from your programs this year.
Ron Knox: So look, I think we’ve seen some really significant wins so to speak over the last year. And I’ll start at the federal level, then I’ll talk a little bit about some local initiatives that we’ve had some success with. But I think the main thing are the big tech focused antitrust bills that were introduced first in the house. We had six of those bills introducing the house after some really significant work on our part, but on behalf of the lawmakers or staffs, advocacy groups and so on. Those bills all passed out of House Judiciary Committee, and they are now ready for a vote by the full House of Representatives. So that’s extremely exciting. Two of those bills, kind of the most crucial bills now have companion bills in the Senate. One of those is a bill that would restrict big tech companies from buying out smaller rivals or making other acquisitions that reduced competition. And then the other bill would prevent Amazon, Google, and other big tech companies from self-preferencing. And that just means for example, it’s like Amazon forcing third-party sellers to use Amazon’s own shipping warehousing service in order to earn the Prime badge and to be visible to shoppers on the Amazon site.
Ron Knox: So those are really exciting bills. All of those bills are bipartisan. They all have a lot of public support. Not just on the Hill, but out in the world as well. ILSR and other advocacy organizations have been working hard to make sure that lawmakers and others on the Hill really understand the harms of the big tech companies. And to really hear the voices of the small businesses that are struggling under the power of the big tech giants.
Ron Knox: So really to help make that happen, this year, we launched Small Business Rising. It’s a coalition of social that represent more than 150,000 small businesses around the country. We think that Small Business Rising has been crucial to giving a lot of Independent Businesses a voice in the halls of power that they didn’t have before, and where their stories really need to be heard. Again, so that the people who are crafting policy, who are making these extremely crucial economic decisions understand the harms that are actually taking place out on main street. Not in a theoretical way, but in a real tangible, hands-on way, because that’s exactly how these harms really transpire. So we think the bills are really evident that that work is paying off. So we’re excited about that.
Ron Knox: On the local level, ILSR, the Independent Business team has been pushing back for a long time now against the rapid expansion of dollar stores, these kind of predatory dollar stores that pop up in communities around the country, often in small towns, and in urban areas. Places that lack this kind of economic power to begin with. And they offer essentially worse service, worse products. They push out local Independent Businesses that were already there that maybe offered healthier food for example, more high quality products. And instead they come in, and they’re sponges for the wealth of a community. And they take that wealth, they move it back to corporate headquarters, and they leave these communities far worse off.
Ron Knox: This year, we’ve seen communities really across the country. Big towns, big cities, smaller places implementing policies that either ban the expansion of dollar stores outright, or that reconsider their zoning to limit the expansion of those dollar stores particularly in communities, Black and brown communities, often in urban areas, poor rural communities where these predatory dollar stores like to set up and their kind of extractive, monopolistic business model can really take hold.
Ron Knox: This has been crucial work during the pandemic, because we’ve seen dollar stores rapidly, rapidly expand. The fastest growing brick-and-mortar business in America by a long shot. A lot of our behind the scenes advocacy work with local elected officials, local front lines advocacy groups has been really crucial to getting some of those bands put in place. So we are excited about that work too.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you, Ron. And I feel like it’s easy to, you kind of think okay, they’re rapidly expanding. There’s lots of dollar stores. I get it. But how extreme it is is really difficult to see unless you live in those neighborhoods or those towns. I mean in the neighborhood that I live in right now, I don’t see any dollar stores really. I’d have to drive a little ways and then maybe I’d see one. But in my hometown, a small town, literally you’ll see a dollar store across the street from the same dollar store. It’s extreme just how fast they’re expanding and taking advantage of those communities. So thank you for that. John, I don’t know. Anything you want to add here?
John Farrell: I think when we think about the big wins for the Energy Democracy work, I really think about it in terms of changing the broad perception of what it is that we need to be addressing in the energy economy. There has been obviously driven by environmentalists and by climate advocates this idea that the most important thing we need to focus on in the energy sector is on reducing carbon emissions, and that the means of doing that doesn’t matter. And I think we’ve really turned a corner in terms of people saying, “Actually the means do matter. Because in fact within the means, we might be able to get to our goals faster if we are approaching this from a way that analyzes the power structures in the system.”
John Farrell: So I think you see that in the 30 Million Solar Homes. I mean, this is one articulation of many different folks who are out there saying, “Actually, if we want to get to our climate and clean energy goals, we need to be thinking about how do we let individuals invest their own money into this. How do we do it in a way that says let’s create as many jobs as possible and allow people who’ve been locked out of the clean energy economy into the clean energy economy?”
John Farrell: Just one illustration of this is in some conversations about how we incentivize and pay for solar that are happening in California right now in the regulatory space, California has about 1.3 million homes and businesses that have solar installed on them. And folks made the decision to do that for a lot of different reasons, but many of them did it just because it made financial sense to them. So they put their own money at risk to add clean energy to the grid system.
John Farrell: And in fact, they have done so. We just did some sort of back of the envelope calculation, but somewhere around 35 to $40 billion have been invested collectively by these California customers to put power generation onto the grid system, which is actually equal to about the entire market cap of one of their biggest investor utilities, Pacific Gas and Electric, which most folks might have heard of in the news in the last couple of years because of course of their negligence in causing some of the biggest wildfires in California history.
Jess Del Fiacco: I feel like we need a buzzer or a sad noise to play whenever you say their name.
John Farrell: Yeah. And I just think that is the kind of, when I think about the success that we’re having, it is in that kind of transformation. And you can see little bit actually in an editorial that was written by, it was by the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle this week. So like I said, there’s this debate going on about solar compensation. And the editors of the Chronicle essentially said, “Before we get into the weeds about how much we pay solar customers, maybe we should be asking the question why is PG&E still running our electricity grid after this?” They’ve gone bankrupt twice in 20 years. They’ve been shown to be negligent, to have diverted money from basic maintenance to shareholder dividends, which is part of what caused the wildfires, was failing to for example trim trees away from the power lines. And yet we still allow them to not only operate, but to operate as a utility corporation, as the sole owner of the electric grid. With no competition, with no option for others to be a part of that business. And I think that that kind of questioning is becoming more widespread, which is really exciting. And we can talk about that a little bit more later too, when you talk about some of the trends broadly that we’re seeing across the country.
Jess Del Fiacco: Now I’m going to put my composting hat back on, my Brenda hat, and share another update from their team.
John Farrell: Is a composting hat also compostable?
Jess Del Fiacco: Sure, it’s like a newspaper hat, you know? So for years, their team, ILSR has been working with Maryland state officials and legislators to move forward on composting, organic materials. And this year they had some really exciting legislative wins. I’ll link all the details in the show notes of this episode, if you want to see the specific laws. Because I don’t think anyone wants to hear me botch any of that language. But there was four laws that were enacted, which will help advance composting in the state of Maryland. And there’s also a new bill that’ll be introduced in January in 2022, which is shockingly just a couple of weeks away now. Which is a bill that we ILSR drafted and we’re going to be leading on. And that would create really major funding for waste aversion and on-farm composting in Maryland. So there’s exciting stuff happening there. Before we cut to our ad break in quotation marks, are there any interesting trends or surprising shifts in conversation that you all saw in your programs this year?
Ron Knox: I mean yeah, lots. Lots. I mean I think like I said kind of at the top, I think over the last few years, we’ve seen this. We’ve seen this kind of change in the way policy makers and even the way regular folks kind of think about and recognize the problems with corporate bigness. We think of it as monopoly power. I’m not sure your average Joe on the street, that word crosses their mind. It’s not really a part of the American lexicon at the moment. But I think they do look at these massive kind of unavoidable companies in their lives and they have serious concerns about them. And now we’re starting to talk about them. And again, at the policy making level, both at the federal level and on down, we’re starting to see a lot of attention paid and this issue being taken really seriously, and seeing a lot of action around it. And that’s massively different. Maybe not from exactly 12 months ago, but certainly from three, four, or five years ago. It’s an actual sea change.
Ron Knox: Look, Lina Khan, and Jonathan Kanter, and people like not only them themselves, but what they represent, the philosophy that they represent, and the place that they’re coming to the agencies from, which again is a place of great concern and criticism about the extent to which our economy is controlled by corporate power and by monopoly power. That is so unbelievably different than not only from 12 months ago when we had differently leadership of the agencies under a different administration. But from 10, 20, 30 years ago, where we’ve seen this kind of rotating cast of corporate lawyers coming from big law firms. Promoting corporate power, be at the helm of these agencies, and just not really take the threat of consolidation very seriously at all. So anyway, it’s been a crazy year. It’s been a crazy year, and it’s been very, very different from anything certainly I’ve seen.
John Farrell: I think Ron’s definitely got his finger on this. And it’s actually something that’s been unexpected to see in the energy side of our economy. 100 years ago, even more than 100 years ago, we essentially a deal with the devil to allow utility companies to be monopolies because we saw it as the most likely way to organize capital in a way that would bring electricity access to everybody. It already failed even back in the 1930s. We had to use the federal government to electrify the rural parts of America with the Rural Electrification Act. But for the rest of us who lived in urban areas, and I suppose I should say who live in urban areas because I wasn’t around back then, living in an urban area. But for the rest of us, it worked fairly well. The price of electricity actually even adjusted for inflation actually went down for almost the first 50 years of the industry. So that monopolization of the industry was successful from the standpoint of providing efficiency and cost reductions for folks.
John Farrell: But that sort of ran out 50 years ago, and it’s almost taken 50 years for people to really appreciate and to see some transformative policy initiatives take root. But for example, the Center for Biological Diversity is doing an actual antitrust filing against SRP, a big utility in Arizona about their mistreatment of solar customers. So they’re actually using this language of antitrust and anti-monopoly that has been foreign to the utility business, despite having actual formal monopolies. It’s all of a sudden bubbling up. There’s a petition in front of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to disallow these utilities to for example charge their captive customers for their lobbying dollars and their participation in trade associations, which almost universally lobby against things that most customers want, like clean energy and rooftop solar. And it looks like the federal regulators are taking that seriously.
John Farrell: A transformation for me actually this year was in reading an article that was written by Ari Pesco. He’s at Harvard Law, and he wrote this piece called Is the Utility Transmission Syndicate Forever? And for people who are not familiar with the term syndicate, it means the same thing as a cartel or a bunch of monopolists basically. And the idea essentially is that utilities have gamed all of the efforts that the federal government have made over the past 20 years to make transmission line development more competitive. So these are the big power lines that you see along freeways when you drive from city to city across the United States.
John Farrell: And there’s a lot riding on it in the sense that many people think that our success at fighting climate change, our success at bringing clean energy under the grid relies on transmission development. Which has put them directly at odds frankly, with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which has always talked about, “No, we need to do in more investments in local things like rooftop solar, like energy storage, etc.”
John Farrell: And what’s funny is to realize in reading that piece, we have a common enemy. Those of us who care about clean energy deployment, the monopolists are the problem. Whether it’s wanting to put solar on the rooftop of the ACE Hardware in my neighborhood, or whether you want a transmission line built from windy South Dakota, to Minneapolis, to Chicago. Either one of those things, it’s not about this or either or, big or small. It’s monopolist or not monopolist. And the monopolists frankly have been with that fight for a long time because we haven’t even been willing to recognize that they’re the problem.
John Farrell: So I’m seeing that change. You’re seeing that in a legislation that passed in Maine. Unfortunately, it was vetoed by their governor. That would’ve done a public takeover of the distribution of transmission utilities there, and would’ve turned them into a consumer owned, but open access network virtually unheard of. An electricity business, a proposed merger of an electric utility in New Mexico was unanimously rejected by the state’s regulatory commission. I mean, there’s basically been unfettered mergers of utility companies since they revoked the law that had prevented it in 2005. A law that by the way, dates back to the 1930s when many of our other antitrust legislation originated.
John Farrell: So we’re seeing some really encouraging signs that things are being taken seriously around the idea of monopoly and market power. Especially at this moment, we have so many awesome ways that we can generate energy and supply services to our electricity system in a way that’s cleaner, that can employ people who’ve been left behind, that can lower their energy bills. You name it.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you to both of you. I just wanted to switch gears very briefly. Normally, this is when listeners would hear me cut to an ad break where I ask them to support the show by making a donation. But instead of breaking up the conversation, I wanted to make this a little bit more personal and ask you both to talk about the direct impact that donations have on your work. So how do donations make your work possible?
John Farrell: I have something just teed up from something that Jess actually passed along to me earlier today, which was we’ve done a survey of our Local Energy Rules podcast listeners. And we got this back from someone. “As a city employee. I rely on this podcast more than any other resource for staying apprised of what other cities are doing to encourage local renewable deployment.” So your money, your donation to ILSR helps fund the production of that podcast at the time it takes to go out and find those great stories of what cities are doing to lead on clean energy development, to do our background research, to identify the right person to interview, to record and produce that podcast so that folks across the country can learn from each other about what’s going. Because the truth is not only are these challenging problems we’re trying to solve around our economy, around racial justice, around the climate crisis. But a lot of cities, even if they come up with some good ideas maybe aren’t comfortable being the first ones doing it.
John Farrell: So they look to these kinds of stories that we produce in order to identify what is it that we can do and who can we learn from so we’re not reinventing the wheel every time do this? And as you can see from that, we are reaching people. The folks that we want to reach, the folks that are helping to lead on this. Staff folks, sustainability staff, staff for city council members across the country are listening to our podcast and relying on that is a way that they can get that information they need. So that’s one way that your donation can help us do the work here at ILSR.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thanks. Ron.
Ron Knox: I’m going to try to run a thread through one thing to another thing here. So I mentioned earlier that we started this organization, we helped to found this organization called Small Business Rising. And of course we did it in partnership with lots of great business associations and lots of amazing, hardworking members. But we start this organization. And we’re doing this advocacy work on the hill, in Washington, in the capital, trying to get some of these important, big tech, anti-monopoly laws passed.
Ron Knox: So there’s a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee about these bills. And Representative David Cicilline from Rhode Island, he’s speaking during this marathon session of the judiciary committee. It had gone on for 36 hours, essentially without stop. And he’s giving his last and best pitch to get these things passed. And he pulls out a list of facts and a list of information paired by the folks at ILSR and in Small Business Rising talking about the ways that big tech monopoly power hurts small business and impacts small businesses.
Ron Knox: And this is correlation, not causation. But it was his best swing. He was swinging for the fences with this. Because when you start talking about small business, you’re talking about the heart of the economy, and everybody knows that. And eventually, these bills get passed out of committee. And now they’re ready for a full vote by the House of Representatives.
Ron Knox: Why did that happen? That happened because we had the money, because donors are generous enough to us to allow us to hire extraordinarily talented people. I’m going to name names. Allowed us to hire a small business organizer named Mary Timmel who’s amazing and a policy advocate named Katy Milani who’s amazing. And they’re the ones that put this together that helped to help to organize these small businesses, to do this advocacy work, to get these bills moving, to try to help the hundreds of thousands and millions of small businesses in America get out from under the thumb of big tech monopoly power. It couldn’t happen without donors. It couldn’t happen without you. This is literally the crucial stuff. So anyway, thank you. And let us continue the fight. We want to keep fighting.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah, we’ve accomplished a lot. We couldn’t do it without you. And we are proud to be in community with our listeners and our donors to make change happen. So if you’re able, please consider heading over to to make a contribution. And even if you can’t donate, you can still support us in other ways, like sharing this podcast podcast with a friend or reviewing us on Apple Podcasts, sharing this on social media, talking about is ILSR’s work. It’s all great. So as always, thank you for your support.
Jess Del Fiacco: John, I’m curious about your perspective since you’ve been at ILSR a little bit longer than Ron and I. If you were to compare this last year to five years ago or 10 years ago, how have you seen our impact as an organization change?
John Farrell: I think the key element here is that we have always been known for our entire existence among the network of community level and local advocates as this valuable resource for how you can do things more effectively. But where we’ve really upped our game and I think the moment that we’ve been able to seize is this realization that the rules at the top of the system, the federal rules, the state level rules are often rigged against the small guy. That’s really what it comes down to. And when Ron is talking about the anti-monopoly fight, and what I’m talking about that as well, we’re talking about this realization that we have to fight both at the same time. It’s about Building Local Power, and it’s about fighting corporate power. And I think we’ve really managed to successfully articulate to people why we have to care about that broadly. It’s why we’re seeing Congress debate these bills about antitrust and breaking up tech companies. It’s why we’re seeing the rise of anti-monopoly conversations in energy, and in waste, and in broadband. We’ve really managed to I think start to have an influence and help people understand that it’s not just about what we can do locally, but what we also need to do collectively at a higher level to make sure that the playing field is more level for local economies to succeed.
Ron Knox: I want to add onto that. I think that’s extremely important. I’m going to paraphrase this tweet. It’s literally a tweet. It’s a tweet that I read. So this is not my original idea, but I thought it was so important. And it basically said if you begin from a place of not wanting to destroy economic power, but wanting to disperse economic power equally throughout the economy to everybody, you’re setting yourself up for much more success on a policy level. And that to me is the core of what ILSR does, because that is our philosophy. That’s the reason that’s led to all of this success that we’ve had over the last year and I think the success that we’re going to have in the future. So that’s that. There you go.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you both. I have one final question, which is just look ahead to 2022. It’s almost here. What are you excited about? Whether it’s a project or what you see coming down the pipeline in terms of policy or anything.
John Farrell: I’ll say that I’m just really excited about in my own specific work within energy, the continued rise of this conversation and the confrontation of monopoly power. I am so excited that we are seeing some recognition of that. A growing coalition of folks that are interested in working on it from that perspective. In some ways, I feel like I’m following in the footsteps of the excellent work from our Independent Business team at bringing that attention to the broader economy and to bring it directly into the electricity sector.
Ron Knox: Well, thanks John. I appreciate that. I mean look, we’re all in one boat. We’re all rowing in the same direction. Look, I’m excited to see the continuation of all the things that I’ve had a chance to talk about on this show. I feel like the anti-monopoly movement both on a kind of federal policy level and on an everyday level is a snowball rolling down a hill. And I just want this thing to keep rolling until it gains to kind of steam, and size, and power that it needs to make change in the economy that’s going to benefit everybody’s lives. So one year down, but lots more to go. I want to see these bills become law. I want to see the agencies continue their good work. And I want to see these things take effect.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you so much to both of you. That’s it for today.
John Farrell: Thank you for coordinating us and making sure this happens. I really appreciate it.
Ron Knox: Yes. Thank you Jess for all of the good work you do. Not only on this, but on everything.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to everything discussed today by going to and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s While you’re there, you can sign up from one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. We hope you also take the opportunity to help us out with a gift that helps produce this very podcast and supports the research and resources we make available for free on our website. Finally, we ask that you let us know how we’re doing with the rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcast. This show is produced by me Jess Del Fiacco, and edited by Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is [inaudible 00:45:28]. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Jess Del Fiacco. And I hope you join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power,


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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: Institute for Local Self-Reliance

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