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Friday, April 21, 2017

Don't Think of a Windmill

Activists from the West Coast to the East are awakening to the necessity of local action to transform the energy system. This has put new wind into the sails of the Community Choice movement, and with it a whole new level of purpose and meaning.

Next month, the Center for Climate Protection will host its annual California CCA conference in Long Beach: the Business of Local Energy Symposium. Like similar events going on around the country where CCA laws are in place, this year's Business of Local Energy Symposium is conspicuously focused on the theme of energy localization, "distributed energy resources," or CCA 2.0: on how CCAs can be the vessel for a bigger idea about change.

In part, the trend towards local action comes from widespread disappointment with President Obama's performance in battling climate change over the past eight years. An already growing awareness of the shortcomings of national politics in addressing climate change is reinforced by now-President Trump's effortless unravelling of Obama's modest gains. What little progress was made in the past eight years, was so easily unmade: hardly a recipe for stopping climate change.

In another respect, there is also growing awareness among people committed to climate action that the goal-setting paradigm of state and federal energy policy is simply inadequate. There is a growing awareness that it is easy and misleading to pretend to solve problems by setting targets for carbon reductions or green power levels twenty or thirty years into the future when future governments may un-set them. More people see now that greater strides and more permanent changes are needed. Creating new targets, incentives and trading schemes that can just be unchanged by the next politicians are just another form of kicking the can down the road.

Energy policies that don't actually change the energy system, but merely set targets, provide funding, adjust incentives or subsidies, or trade carbon credits, have inherently limited horizons that "real" change can and must transcend before we can declare victory.  Another form of this can-kicking, widely adopted by policy makers of all stripes until recent years, is also increasingly scrutinized by activists: renewable energy certificates (RECs).

From the time that Climate Change became a generally accepted phenomenon in U.S political discourse in the 1990's until today, the governing paradigm of public policy has been neoliberal, in the specific meaning that the government's role is implicitly defined as creating and/or tweaking markets in which incumbent corporate interests compete. Under neoliberal policies, governments do not do anything directly, but merely create market mechanisms so that market players will do it. This is the origin of carbon trading, renewable energy certificates, and similar policy frameworks.

Today, many activists and elected officials have come to recognize that deliberate, controlled actions by governments are required to ensure that significant greenhouse gas reductions are achieved and endure into the future. This cannot be under carbon credit and renewable energy credit trading, which are a form of "rented" green-ness that can disintegrate tomorrow when the natural gas market shifts.

In so many ways, neoliberalism has met its match in climate change. Much as Bernie Sanders called broadly for a "revolution" in American politics, many climate activists now see that structural change is needed to deliver a new business model in energy, and not just greener behavior by the same players. Many Americans now recognize that we need physical change in the energy industry, not trading schemes and meaningless goals and targets: a different way of doing energy, not just mitigations and marginal improvements.

We seem to have passed beyond a secret threshold, in which bigger ideas about change may now be considered. And we have come to a greater commitment to ensure that the policy solutions we work on are themselves sustainable into the future.  The epiphany that engages more and more Americans with each passing year involves a shift from the idea of "green power" to the idea of "local power," and from a paradigm of renewable energy certificates to a to a paradigm of physical change. The benefits of physical change, from de-growth, customer- and community-ownership, to grid and fuel independence, rate stability, to local green jobs and local economic development, offer ten-fold more compelling reasons to implement CCA compared to increasing renewable energy credits, as so many early CCAs limited themselves to doing. In this emerging view, environment, prosperity and social justice are not competing for crumbs, but combining into a single purpose.

As with Bernie, it was the "vision thing," that mattered: the people are not to be spoken down to with simplified fictitious renewable energy certificate schemes, but talked up to with palpable, enduring investments in a completely new energy, community-scaled system. This shift in emphasis is paradigmatic. It is a shift from thinking about making energy greener to reducing dependency on the grid: from green consumerism to energy independent communities.

In my view, the recent surge in CCA proliferation is the direct result of the successful realization of the CCA 2.0 vision to deliver a "revolution in power," starting with the Bay Area CCAs and spreading South and East to inspire climate activists who simply did not see the opportunity to use CCA in this way. As a result, the constituency for CCA is growing rapidly, and the trend towards innovation in iDER approaching a critical mass. We appear to be on the cusp of a national movement for energy localization.

Today, the realization of CCA as a platform for fundamental change is reaching  a shift from the conventional utility-based conception of renewable generation and energy efficiency programs to a more specific technological concept of integrated Distributed Energy Resources (iDER): of  technologies like microgrids, storage, load control, and islanding that when integrated provide a complete change from, and vastly increased independence from, the old system.  The maturation of technological integration has been matched with increasingly mature community-based energy mechanisms. Since the advent of Solar Bonds, an army of DER financing industries has developed which, in conjunction with key program design elements such as shared renewables, solar co-operatives, on-bill financing, and blockchain (non-utility) billing systems, provide ample opportunity for CCAs to organize and finance iDER.

From day one (22 years ago) CCA was designed to be a platform for this change, which has been a long, long time coming. The time has come to put down those credits, and pick up a shovel!

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