Whose Grid? Our Grid! Chicago’s Campaign to Put Electricity Under Public Control
By Alex Schwartz
Among the many vendors at the Logan Square Farmers Market on Aug. 18 sat three young people peddling neither organic vegetables, gourmet cheese nor handmade crafts. Instead, they offered liberation from capitalism.
Representatives of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (CDSA) engaged marketgoers in discussions about the campaigns they are involved in, from lifting the ban on rent control to establishing single-payer healthcare. But one effort in particular seemed to catch the most attention.
"We're trying to bring ComEd under municipal control," CDSA member Matthew Cason told Patrick Petranek, a Logan Square resident whose eyes lit up at the prospect of Chicago's largest electricity provider, Commonwealth Edison, being taken over by the city. Petranek said he supports more transparency around fees and signed a petition in support of the campaign.
ComEd's franchise agreement with Chicago is up for renegotiation at the end of 2020. The agreement, established in 1947, allows ComEd to access the city's public areas to build electric infrastructure — and form a practical monopoly over Chicago's electricity.
"Electric power is a critical function in everyday life, and we can't go without it," Cason told In These Times. "Yet, it's controlled by a private monopoly, and that private monopoly is minimally accountable, not transparent and just is outside of our public control."
Cason argues that a democratically controlled utility would help Chicago reach its goal of 100-percent clean and renewable energy by 2035, which City Council set in April. If the city — not a profit-driven corporation— is responsible for sourcing its own energy, Cason says, it will make decisions to satisfy its residents instead of investors.
CDSA launched its #DemocratizeComEd campaign in June, part of a wave of municipalization efforts heating up across the country. DSA and other grassroots organizations are mounting campaigns from San Francisco to Maine. In July, after a heat wave forced two power shutdowns in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio floated the idea of taking over ConEd, the city's investor-owned electric utility.
In late July, Chicago alderman and CDSA member Daniel La Spata introduced a City Council order calling for a feasibility study to examine the potential impacts — environmental, social and economic — of bringing ComEd under public control. Cason expects the proposal to easily pass through the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy, after which it would be up for review by the whole Council. The study, due to come out in December if authorized, would then outline paths to municipalization.
Twenty-two of Chicago's 50 aldermen have indicated support for the study so far. While a plan for Chicago's potential ComEd takeover would be detailed in the study, Cason points out that Illinois makes it particularly easy for local governments to municipalize utilities. One way is through a Public Utility Certificate, a special low-interest bond that enables cities to purchase utility assets, including equipment and infrastructure, while paying back the loan only with revenue generated from the utility. ComEd's assets would then be managed by a board of elected officials, rather than answering to profit-driven shareholders.
Johanna Bozuwa, co-manager of the climate and energy program at The Democracy Collaborative and an advocate for municipalization, allows that "publicly owned utilities have [not] always been perfect" — for instance, poor power infrastructure will cause blackouts regardless of who owns the utility. But, she adds, democratizing utilities creates "many more levers in order to enact change in a way that we can't do in a corporate monopoly entity." Public utilities can prioritize community over profit, she said. "We have agency in a way that we may not otherwise."
Burlington, Vermont, for instance, used its public power grid to become the first U.S. city to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy. Red-state Nebraska is currently the only U.S. state with a completely publicly owned power system — and has been since the 1940s, when private utilities thought powering rural areas was too expensive. Today, Nebraska residents pay some of the lowest electric rates in the country.
Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, also a CDSA member, made a case for municipalization on the public TV show Chicago Tonight in early July, noting there is local precedent: In 1947, Chicago took ownership of the private train lines that made up its famous "L" mass transit system, democratizing public transit.
"We want to make sure we're pushing forward the socialist cause," Ramirez-Rosa said. In addition to tabling at the farmers market, CDSA is canvassing neighborhoods and talking to City Council members to generate support for municipalization. Cason says talking to Chicagoans about the effort has been surprisingly easy. "Everyone knows what ComEd is," Cason said. "Everyone knows what electricity is. Everyone has a power bill."
But what most speaks to people he canvasses, Cason says, is the principle of having a basic necessity managed by an entity beholden to Chicago residents, rather than profit.
"We believe that critical public and social functions should be under public control," he told In These Times. "You don't want to leave something you need up to the whims of private shareholders, private investors … things that are not accountable to the public."
This story originally appeared in In These Times. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Maryland will become the first state in the nation Thursday to implement a ban on foam takeout containers.
- New Jersey Legislature Passes 'Most Comprehensive' Plastics Ban ... ›
- Canada to Announce Ban on Single-Use Plastics - EcoWatch ›
- The Complex and Frustrating Reality of Recycling Plastic - EcoWatch ›
- Dunkin' Says Bye to Foam Cups (But Bring Your Own Thermos ... ›
- Maine and Vermont Pass Plastic Bag Bans on the Same Day ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Ajit Niranjan
Leaders from across the world have promised to turn environmental degradation around and put nature on the path to recovery within a decade.
- Destruction of Nature Is Triggering Pandemics, Say Leaders of WWF ... ›
- The UN Wants to Protect 30% of the Planet by 2030 - EcoWatch ›
- New WWF Report Calls for Protecting Nature to Prevent Future ... ›
Just days after a new report detailed the "unequivocal and pervasive role" climate change plays in the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires, new fires burned 10,000 acres on Sunday as a "dome" of hot, dry air over Northern California created ideal fire conditions over the weekend.
- California's Iconic Redwoods Threatened by Wildfires - EcoWatch ›
- California Wildfires Destroy Condor Sanctuary, at Least 4 Birds Still ... ›
- 7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and ... ›
- David Attenborough Calls For Ban on Deep-Sea Mining - EcoWatch ›
- Sir David Attenborough Set to Present BBC Documentary on ... ›
- David Attenborough Gives Stark Warning in New BBC Climate ... ›
Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
- Overlooked Flood Risk Endangers Homeowners - EcoWatch ›
- Florida Coastal Flooding Maps: Residents Deny Predicted Risks to ... ›
- Flooding Risk for U.S. Homes: Millions More Are Vulnerable Than ... ›