3 Forces Fighting Local Renewable Energy and How to Fight Back
By John Farrell
If you're reading energy news of late, you might have come across three new ways that forces are aligning against local renewable energy. State governments are increasingly pre-empting local authority on a range of issues, including energy. Utility companies are undercutting state regulation with their legislative lobbyists. And utilities are also bringing their monopoly market power to bear in previously competitive markets.
We'll detail examples of each of these three disturbing trends, and ways to fight back.
1. State Preemption
One of the most disturbing trends in politics is that of states preempting local authority.
Across many economic sectors, we at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance identify ways that cities can take charge of their local economy. In energy, that includes ideas like a city takeover (municipalization) of the utility, banning fracking or increasing franchise fees charged to private, monopoly utilities for use of public property to deliver energy services.
Unfortunately, some state legislatures have decided to reduce local authority to make these moves. Through municipalization laws passed decades ago, states preempted or limited local authority to take over utilities, instead favoring state regulation and oversight. State lawmakers In Colorado in 2016 passed a law that overturns local bans on gas fracking. In 2017, the Minnesota legislature considered a bill that would add complexity when cities consider changes to franchise fees, despite ample public notice and deliberation required by cities that have such fees.
While there aren't numerous examples of local energy policy preemption, we fear it may grow as states become more accustomed to preempting cities, or making it expensive for local governments to exercise authority. In Arizona, for example, differences of opinion in a variety of areas of regulation prompted the state government to threaten to withhold local government aid to cities that enact ordinances that conflict with the priorities of the legislature and governor.
States themselves are facing a preemption threat as well, with U.S. Energy Sec. Perry suggesting he may find ways to favor large-scale fossil fuel power plants over renewable energy producers.
The Many Reasons to Be Skeptical Over Rick Perry's Grid Study https://t.co/bZoNExl1Il @greenpeaceusa @DeSmogBlog @ClimateReality @foe_us— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1500560215.0
2. Utility Political Power
A second area of threat is utilities flexing their political power to avoid state regulation or boost their bottom lines. In Minnesota, for example, monopoly utility company Xcel Energy—and its nearly 50 lobbyists—successfully pushed through a bill in 2017 that removes Public Utilities Commission oversight of a proposed gas power plant. The plant had not been prohibited, but commissioners had been skeptical of its cost-effectiveness (for good reason). The utility also bullied this local nonprofit for creating a parody video that accurately depicted the gulf between the utility's public image and its efforts to build the gas plant.
Utilities have similarly flexed their muscle in statehouses across the country. In Missouri, monopoly utility Ameren, with 40 registered lobbyists at the state capitol, has stymied state efforts to reform the utility system.
In Michigan, monopoly utilities spent over half million dollars on lobbying in a year, and nearly $1 million more on an advertising campaign to oppose deregulation and warn of energy shortfalls.
In Virginia, "no single company even comes close to Dominion in terms of its wide-ranging influence and impact on Virginia politics and government," Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor and political analyst, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch earlier this year. Several candidates in the gubernatorial race are discussing rolling back a 2015 law that allows the utility to keep excess profits instead of returning them to customers. Dominion executives are contributing heavily to the candidates that oppose such a rollback.
In Florida, the four biggest monopoly investor-owned utilities collectively had one lobbyist for every two legislators, and spent more than $12 million in lobbying from 2007-14—along with $18 million in campaign contributions. They dropped more than $20 million in lobbying in 2015-16 alone, amid a push to pass a constitutional amendment that would have limited rooftop solar in the Sunshine State.
In North Carolina, Duke Energy is threatening to go to the legislature for changes to solar purchasing rules rather than wait for a conclusion to a regulatory process underway at the Public Utilities Commission.
Influence can be localized, as well. In San Diego, where public officials are considering a city takeover of electricity purchasing from the utilities, incumbent monopoly San Diego Gas & Electric has a lot of influence. The utility "donates to and lobbies San Diego's elected officials and has a strong voice at the Chamber of Commerce. So as the city decides whether to implement community choice, political leaders could take sides," according to an NPR story.
Utility companies ostensibly settled for public regulation as a condition of receiving a government-supported monopoly, but in many cases that public oversight is obscured by the utility's influence over its supposed overseers. As the City Pages article about Xcel Energy's bullying behavior in Minnesota noted:
"Minnesota should take cues from the meddling ad Xcel's lawyers so disliked, and introduce a dose of honesty. Stop calling Xcel a "regulated monopoly." That first word just became obsolete."
3. Utility Market Power
In most markets, utilities also wield a disproportionate amount of power over their potential competition. A recent report on distributed solar in the Washington DC explains many of those powers:
- Grid connection: "Pepco has significant control over this process, including the availability and clarity of information provided on its website, the ease of the application process, the responsiveness of its customer service, and the speed and accuracy with which applications are processed and the final approval to operate given." A recent study showed the slowest utility to provide interconnection pre-approval took 75 times longer than the fastest.
- Fees on customers with distributed generation: "Pepco also has some control over the fees assessed on DG customers, and the rate design that determines the value of their net metering credits." Though Pepco must ultimately secure regulatory approval for these charges, it leads the conversations with those authorities. In other states, utilities have won fee increases without providing evidence of increased costs.
- Grid capacity: "Pepco manages its distribution system and can propose to invest in new technologies or infrastructure upgrades to support additional distributed generation [and] Pepco has the ability to propose non‐traditional alternatives (such as greater distributed generation) to address the load growth. … However, non‐traditional alternatives to utility investments generally do not align with a utility's business model, which provides a rate of return on any capital investments."
- Customer trust: "Utilities are more trusted than retailers, manufacturers, and other service providers in helping customers optimize their energy consumption … utility‐provided information regarding options for distributed generation could help connect customers with DG providers and reduce customer acquisition costs."
- Lobbying: "Pepco can engage in lobbying for measures that support or discourage distributed generation."
In some cases, utilities wield this power to threaten market share of existing players. Two solar pilot programs in Arizona in 2015 were among the first to offer a utility-owned distributed solar program, which enabled customers to receive solar on their rooftop with a much lower upfront cost (and much less lucrative long-term return). With fair rules for competition (such as requiring utility-owned projects to be provided by subsidiaries rather than the incumbent monopoly company, and preventing utilities from exclusively advertising their own product in customer bill inserts), this might be fine. But in the case of both Arizona utilities, the utility offerings are a complement to lobbying efforts to reduce the value of distributed solar, for example by cutting net metering.
The efforts to reduce competition aren't limited to investor-owned monopolies. The municipal utility serving San Antonio began offering a "roofless solar" subscription and a solar roof rental program over the last two years. The rental program is nearing 5 megawatts of installed capacity, and was pitched as a way to reduce the supposed "cost shift" in benefits from non-solar owners to solar owners. (In fact, there's plenty of evidence that the cost shift is largely a utility-sponsored myth at today's level of solar capacity).
Of course, interest from utilities in this market may not translate to solar installations. A foray into distributed solar by investor-owned monopoly Georgia Power has netted just five installations out of more than 10,000 inquiries.
How Utilities Are Trying to Slow Down Rooftop #Solar https://t.co/ZpsBArRf89 @SierraClub @350 @SEIA @DeSmogBlog @greenpeaceusa @TEDTalks— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1500298794.0
How to Reclaim Local Power
Fortunately, there are ways to fight back against these pressures and reclaim local power. To battle preemption, the solution has been forming alliances of cities. While cities may not all agree with one another on policy issues from wages to sick leave to energy, they tend to be in agreement that they don't want a state power grab. Pressure from the League of Minnesota Cities helped undercut legislative preemption proposals, and such pressure has worked in other states as well. In addition, cities sometimes adapt their strategies to work around preemption. When the state of Minnesota preempted a plastic bag ban in Minneapolis, the city announced it would look for alternatives to the ban that could still reduce plastic bag use.
Utility political power can also be reduced. Terrific research from the Energy and Policy Institute has uncovered how utilities use ratepayer funds for their membership in trade organizations that often oppose their customers' interests. This revelation has led some state regulatory commissions to disallow the practice (in full or in part), by instead requiring utility shareholders to pay for such memberships that primarily benefit themselves. And even when utilities continue to swing a heavy bat, they may lose, as did Florida Power & Light in its attempt to amend the Florida Constitution in order to fortify its monopoly.
Utility market power is a legacy of 100 years of monopoly control, but it's weakening, thanks to technological shifts. The advent of affordable solar plus storage may not let utility customers "cut the cord," but it will give them crucial leverage to demand fair treatment in the distributed energy marketplace. Already, states like New York are exploring ways to transform the grid into a platform for transacting energy rather than a skewed monopoly playing field. Key rules include community shared renewable energy and net metering or fair value of solar, among others. Cities can help by setting up bulk purchase programs for customers to buy solar, energy storage, or make energy efficiency upgrades. They can also encourage adoption of inclusive energy financing to make energy savings more accessible.
There's no question that there are threats to local power, but as the economic and technological transformation continues toward decentralization, communities will find they have more power at their disposal to fight back.
This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
2. Public Trust: The Fight for America's Public Lands<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5338f7a2931e356910026e5fd76fac56"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jsKMTAaj_wQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: YouTube</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 25, 2 p.m. EDT </strong></p><p>This <a href="https://www.patagonia.com/films/public-trust/" target="_blank">award-winning documentary</a> tells the stories of Indigenous activists, journalists, whistleblowers and historians working to protect America's <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/public-lands" target="_self">public lands</a>. The film focuses on three political struggles: the shrinking of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/bears-ears" target="_self">Bears Ears</a> National Monument in Utah, the mining of Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and the opening of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge" target="_self">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> to fossil fuel exploration.</p><p><em>Public Trust</em> was directed by David Garrett Byars and produced by Jeremy Rubingh. Patagonia Films, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Robert Redford are executive producers. It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.</p><p>"Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations," Redford said. "Sadly, these lands that belong to you and me are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations, eager to weaken restrictions in the pursuit of profits. Many of our current politicians are also to blame. <em>Public Trust</em> tells the story of citizens who are fighting back. It's a much-needed wake-up call for all of us who want to preserve our unique and wild cultural heritage."</p>
3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
- Sir David Attenborough Set to Present BBC Documentary on ... ›
- 7 of the Best New Documentaries About Global Warming - EcoWatch ›
- Movies to Watch This Earth Day: EcoWatch Staff Picks - EcoWatch ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The world's largest online retailer is making it slightly easier for customer to make eco-conscious choices.
- Employees Are Fighting for Climate Change at Work - EcoWatch ›
- Amazon's Carbon Footprint Rises 15% as Company Invests $2 ... ›
- Jeff Bezos Pledges $10 Billion to Fight the Climate Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- Budweiser Re-Labels As Climate-Friendly Beer - EcoWatch ›
The Trump administration's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a risk assessment for toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos Tuesday that downplayed its effects on children's brains and may be the first indication of how the administration's "secret science" policy could impact public health.
- Democratic Bill Banning Toxic Pesticides Applauded as 'Much ... ›
- Trump EPA Won't Regulate Toxic Drinking Water Chemical That ... ›
- California, Nation's Top User of Chlorpyrifos, Announces Ban on ... ›
- Wheeler's EPA Keeps Brain-Damaging Chlorpyrifos in Food ›
- Entire Pesticide Class Must Be Banned to Save Children's Health ... ›
By Maria Trimarchi and Sarah Gleim
If all the glaciers and ice caps on the planet melted, global sea level would rise by about 230 feet. That amount of water would flood nearly every coastal city around the world [source: U.S. Geological Survey]. Rising temperatures, melting arctic ice, drought, desertification and other catastrophic effects of climate change are not examples of future troubles — they are reality today. Climate change isn't just about the environment; its effects touch every part of our lives, from the stability of our governments and economies to our health and where we live.
<p>Why environmental refugees flee their homes is a complicated mixture of environmental degradation and desperate socioeconomic conditions. People leave their homes when their livelihoods and safety are jeopardized. What effects of climate change put them in jeopardy? Climate change triggers, among other problems, desertification and drought, <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/deforestation.htm" target="_blank">deforestation</a>, land degradation, rising sea levels, <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/flood.htm" target="_blank">floods</a>, more frequent and more extreme storms, <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/earthquake.htm" target="_blank">earthquakes</a>, <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/volcano.htm" target="_blank">volcanoes</a>, food insecurity and famine.</p><p>The September <a href="http://visionofhumanity.org/app/uploads/2020/09/ETR_2020_web-1.pdf" target="_blank">2020 Ecological Threat Register Report</a>, by the Institute for Economics & Peace, predicts the hardest hit populations will be:</p><ul><li>Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa</li><li>Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Chad, India and Pakistan (which are among the world's least peaceful countries)</li><li>Pakistan, Ethiopia and Iran are most at risk for mass displacements</li><li>Haiti faces the highest risk of all countries in Central America and the Caribbean</li><li>India and China will be among countries experiencing high or extreme water stress</li></ul>
- Think Today's Refugee Crisis is Bad? Climate Change Will Make it a ... ›
- Climate Change Forces 20 Million People to Flee Each Year, Oxfam ... ›
- Meet the World's First Climate Refugees - EcoWatch ›
In his latest documentary, My Octopus Teacher, free diver and filmmaker Craig Foster tells a unique story about his friendship and bond with an octopus in a kelp forest in Cape Town, South Africa. It's been labeled "the love story that we need right now" by The Cut.
- You're Not So Different From an Octopus: Rethinking Our ... ›
- 'Eating Animals' Drives Home Where Our Food Really Comes From ... ›