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Monday, February 25, 2019

The Green New Real


I am gratified and honored by the inclusion of Community Choice Aggregation in Bernie Sanders' Green New Deal, drafted by UMASS Amherst economist Robert Pollin, under the third bullet list of actions that Bernie will undertake when elected: "We will end greed in our energy system:"

"The renewable energy generated by the Green New Deal will be publicly owned, managed by the Federal Power Marketing Administrations, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Tennessee Valley Authority and sold to distribution utilities with a preference for public power districts, municipally- and cooperatively-owned utilities with democratic, public ownership, and other existing utilities that demonstrate a commitment to the public interest. The Department of Energy will provide technical assistance to states and municipalities that would like to establish publicly owned distribution utilities or community choice aggregation (CCA) programs in their communities. Electricity will be sold at current rates to keep the cost of electricity stable during this transition" (emphasis and acronym added - source).

I am a fervent supporter of this policy, and believe the Green New Deal to be the federal concomitant of leadership at the local level in 1500 American cities and towns through Community Choice Aggregation. In order to answer the United Nation's recent eleven year time frame for a "profound transformation of energy," America's economy must transition to new ways of surviving, based on more local resource orientation, local resilience and new forms of economic development, top among them the way we use energy for power, heat and transportation. The rapidly expanding movement for climate action through CCA throughout the United States would be a natural administrators of contractors and program staff involved implementing local and regional "climate works" projects.

It is crucial to act locally while supporting global and national initiatives: not to be lulled to sleep into a political daydream, and recognize the urgency of the United Nation's March 2019 warning that the world has eleven years to undertake a profound transformation of the energy industry in order to avoid irreversible damage to our planet. It is important to place a shake of salt on the matter, which is the likelihood of federal leadership within the UN's eleven-year time frame.  

It is also crucial not to view the present in terms of recent decades, and place all your eggs in one political basket. We have been here before, after all. The Green New Deal is not new. That was 2005. I gave a speech calling for it in Marin County then (click on video to view), to get San Francisco, Marin and other Bay Area cities to launch energy plans to solve climate change in a single public works project, "the scale of a bridge," through decentralized local energy technologies. Then in 2008, when Obama was elected, I and others called for him to implement a Green New Deal to solve climate change. My proposal was called "Climate Works" using federal "Climate Bonds." Obama's staff didn't bother to reply (nor Waxman/Boxer). The political conditions of the New Deal (a radicalized Congress), were simply not there for doing important, huge, things. 

The proposal, through popular, didn't happen in Washington, first because of Bush's natural enmity, but then because Democratic Obama couldn't get his own party to prioritize it during the first two years of the administration while it had a Congressional majority. Meanwhile, from 2005 to 2009 and 2013, Marin Clean Energy and CleanPowerSF were launched, and the rest of the Bay Area and most of California soon followed, all focused on systemic carbon reduction. "Community Choice Aggregators" are now approaching half of California customers, and also across the Midwest and Northeast US. The US is a big ship to turn, but thousands of smaller ships turn more quickly, while appearing slow. As thousands of cities and towns change, the market changes, barriers are removed, costs are lowered, and more energy systems transformed. It is like the tale of the hare and tortoise. 

Today, we dreamily re-ruminate a dream of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but in reality the federal government has been good for little for many decades. Yet psychologically, the national ritual of federal debate and legislation creates the illusion of achieving something as if through gesture or catharsis (as if to reform public morals!). 

Local governments mostly do things, actually - unlike state politics, which "achieves" things in brief spectacles followed by national nap and a nice glass of amnesia. With local government, doing things takes time, but something actually happens: only the the tortoise can actually make it to the finish line. I'm glad Bernie's version of the Green New Deal recognizes the central role that CCAs and traditional municipal utilities and cooperatives play in designing and implementing projects that the federal government supports.  

A transformation of energy and other infrastructure requires planning, design, and purposeful coordination of local public agencies. The original New Deal, I said in my speech before Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s anti-coal keynote at the Marin County Municipal Auditorium, was entirely based upon the municipal leadership of the Huey Longs of Winn Parish Louisiana, a Socialist/Populist Bastion; or the "power broker" Robert Moses who organized the planning of steel bridges in New York City, quickly copied by cities worldwide -  locally implementing a vision that had originated in the Populist, Progressive and Socialist movements of the late 19th century. Today, our Cold War mental image of public works is federal with Roosevelt's face on it, but in reality municipalities do this job. The New Deal was in this sense an emulation, co-optation or standardization of municipal public works that were already underway, asserting federal control over such projects, trading cooperation for federal funds: and postwar America was born. 

In this sense the New Deal was a watering down of a more radical municipal trend. On the one hand, the striking factor of the New Deal was its highly competent administration, scalability/impact, and cost-effectiveness in employing people during the crisis. It had to re-standardize the economy under a federal system, fundamentally marginalizing state and local governments. On the other hand, the system it created manufactured a yawning political complacency in American civil society. As America got rich with massive growth in the postwar years, many municipalities even granted their energy utilities "perpetual franchises" during these decades of corporate utopianism and the peaceful atom, reflecting the la-la land quality of political leadership concerning the energy sector, which was the focus of intense anti-communist propaganda campaigns of both the U.S. Cold War complex and Madison Avenue.   

The New Deal was thinkable and possible, because the broader civil discourse had moved so far left after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that a deal was needed to get socialists to compromise with millionaires, and a regulatory state (not socialism) was thus established and continued through the 20th century. It was, ultimately, a kicking-of-the-can down the dialectical sidewalk. A growing chorus of market fundamentalism between the Democratic and Republican party cabals since then has resulted in a toxic bipartisanship in recent decades, with a consistently inadequate commitment to addressing climate change or any other serious mega-threats, like mass extinction and endless wars.

So much of politics depends upon metaphor. When we think of public mobilizations to face a disaster, the War Production mobilization in WWII comes to mind, and the trip to the moon. "The Apollo Alliance" which most notably promoted the Green New Deal in the Obama era, and after failing was absorbed by the United Nations as the "Global Apollo Program,"  was fixated upon this Kennedy-era metaphor. Today, the Climate Mobilization calls for a Godzilla-style "WWII style mobilization" on climate change. We naturally look to the past (or to fictional archetypes), to grasp for a precedent, when in fact we need to do something new, and in a new way

It is no less imporant to recognize that transforming energy must (1) redevelop the private sector, which consumes 95% of energy, and (2) reduce dependency on grid resources, not merely add green power to the grid. In my 2005 Marin speech, the New Deal metaphors were steel bridges and water and sewer systems/plumbing: these are precedents for the kind of infrastructure change climate change demands. Bridges cross the municipal with scale, but the precedent of plumbing and sewer systems connects small private systems to large public systems, and is closer in this respect to the way in which carbon emissions can be reduced through an integrated powering down of grids and pipelines.  I joked to the audience about how controversial plumbing had been in the time of Cholera debate in the late 1800s, the fear government pipes crossing the lawn, and a residual public denial of the idea of contagion: that Cholera was spread through water contamination. "Today, everyone has a toilet. The idea was extreme at the time. Queen Victoria at one time owned the only Crapper in the world."

Today, though this great hulk of the New Deal was designed to terminate, and did terminate, the 20th century federalized the entire country, converting a formerly local political culture based on newspapers and actual political communities in cities to a national/imperial audience based in T.V., in an era of mass suburbanization, which is is obsessed with the Presidency/Emperor, while neglecting all other forms of democratic participation.

Starting in the late 1970's and rising to a crescendo in the 1990's, industries were deregulated and off-shored, welfare "reformed," millions of drug addicts incarcerated, and unions bypassed. Globalization, or foreign investment-oriented trade agreements  have replaced the regulatory state - a replacement that in energy and other heavy industries, failed in  terms of delivering innovation in energy or transportation. Federal regulatory agencies have long systematically failed to protect the food supply from pesticides and GMOs, which aren't even labeled and hardly regulated, with even point-of-origin labeling efforts under a ban. Under this system, America got the McHorrible food system we have.

It's important to remember the downside of war mobilization and the command-and-control economy. During the regulatory state, the American population was exposed to radiation and minorities sterilized. Socialists,  communists, anarchists and libertarians (anybody with their own ideas) were hounded out of universities and important jobs (and off Hollywood and TV), a fact that persists today in America. The regulatory state was Pax Americana to the world in the postwar decades: America, Inc.. By the time of energy industry deregulation in the 1990's, it was an undeniable fact that the depression-era Wall Street solution called utility regulation had amounted to a manifest failure, and that deregulation was necessary to break the mold and start over. The postwar party was over, growth slowed down to a snail's pace in the early 1970's, and the industry itself began to talk about restructuring.

Changing the basic structure of the economy is routinely achieved by big business but is ultimately the natural province of the municipality. The restructuring of the energy industry since Jimmy Carter is the reason why we have done so little about climate change. We cannot go back, or we'll just get the sorry handmaidens - the California Public Utilities Commissions of the world - which are empty husks of their former selves, and serve as blank check machines for the energy mafia.

When you propose to transform energy, this is what you are trying to transform. It is a political force that has controlled the policy discussion for thirty years. Achieving transformation of this industry requires a specific, leveraged direction of approach, with known mechanisms, so that decisions may be made, partners signed and projects built in a timely manner.

We believe, with Schumacher, that Small is Beautiful, and propose, not a federal model of action, but the only reason Green New Deal is increasingly thinkable, pursuant to the last election: a nation-wide movement of local municipalities to implement energy localizations through Community Energy platforms known as Community Choice Aggregation or "CCA." Alongside the growing list of American cities committing to 100% renewable energy (implying intent to aggregate), these are achieving massive carbon reductions at no cost to taxpayers, building their Climate Works programs locally in their communities, as mutual associations, under city council management. 

These cities developing regional renewable facilities, numbering in the hundreds, join over a thousand nationwide that have already taken local control of their energy decision making. They are led by dozens that are well beyond this and into transforming the energy business model through localization and demand reduction.  I am working with several to focus development behind-the-meter in people's homes and businesses, de-growing the grid load from the bottom up.

De-growth is an urban re-development strategy! Giant wind farms and Megagrids ain't!

It is replacing a power plant with a thousand small facilities and building retrofits. In terms of cost center, it replaces fuel with labor and logistics. We are working with cities to help them hire local residents and employ local businesses. 

This is Green Public Works, Green Private Works too, being primarily customer-owned.

De-growth of power replaces the Green-the-Grid model of the Green New Deal and the status quo generally, with a strategy of downsizing the Grid through localization. Technologies are off-the-shelf, and already competitive in price with conventional resources. Microgrid-enabled, solar/onsite renewables, appliance and heating automation, shared Vehicle-to-Building (V2B) Electric Vehicles, and other onsite power and heating technologies embody a strategy not only to localize technology, but localize ownerhsip. Urban areas and  rural areas would follow slightly different models, but, depending on local conditions, you should be able to to provide most of your energy from within 20 miles of City Hall, much of it within 10 miles, based on adaption of efficiency, renewables, and flexible EV storage.

Moreover, unlike the New Deal, Green Public Works is not just about government ownership, but rather customer ownership and community economic benefits.

Rather than building a national grid for wind power, cities make investments to cool down utility substations throughout their jurisdictions, while offering residents a universal equity path, based on the proceeds: a kind of solar retirement fund. Economic benefits would be localized, not off-shored to Wall Street. Rather than raising taxes to pay for more federal workers and enrich the bankers, we would pay for more local workers, working for municipal contractors, and enrich ourselves. These new services, which municipalities manage, provide the funding to run the programs, so you don't oppress the people with unnecessary taxes to pay for it all.

I know we need important election issues, and the Green New Deal is attempting to address the most pressing threat to Americans and all people everywhere. But the how of it matters. The idea of a Green New Deal is to do something big and different. However, the gigantism of it makes Green New Deal somewhat stuffy, standard-issue federal gruel.   It is the classic error of leftists to forget that the state sucks, too. Disruption is more effective than planning. A bit of anarchy can be a good thing in a world of cartels and monopolies presiding over a captive institution: municipal anarchism, not central planning, is the responsible path to Climate Action.

Top-down policy platforms have inherent flaws: as Schumacher said, of gigantism.  In localizations, the city councils give orders to the town administrator, who directs staff managing town contractors. This simple, local democratic milieu presents the millions of  concerned Americans, who support Green New Deal because it is at least on the menu in Plato's cave, with a practical, achievable, scalable local path to a Climate Solution.

And without needing to lob an improbable pass over the U.S. Senate and President, nor resort once again to the passion play for endless marches and public vomiting of cultural outrage. What demonstrations, these? Occupists? It carries the other-worldly scent of religion. We need real demonstrations of Green Public Works to spread nationwide. If we need federal support to do this, it is targeted support we need: backstopping for Solar Bond financing and credit/collateral assistance on power contracts to have better control. We would ask that it actually be adapted to existing municipal activities, not sprayed down from above. There is real work to be done here, not just bragging about how much public money you will spend or threatening draconian measures like travel bans. It didn't work for Syriza in Greece, nor Podemos in Spain, and it won't work in the U.S. What will work is municipal public works.

The 2005 speech introduced California's new Community Choice Law, and the Solar Bond authority that I had recently written and passed in the state legislature and by voters to San Francisco's City Charter (the world's first Green Bond). These two new local powers would be combined, repurposing the kinds of revenue bond investment in toll bridge authorities and public infrastructure, to build wholly new, modular, diverse miniature technologies in the basements and rooftops of the City: the private sector, which consumes 95% of energy. 

It is hard to awaken the Eternal Ones of the Dream from their sleep of a national glory. In the speech I reminded the (very enviro-) Marinites that Germany's celebrated solar program was also created by one city, spread by osmosis to neighboring cities, and to the local state, and only much much later to the catchment of national government. This is how real things happen.  One single city, Aachen (home of Charlemagne, mind you) imagined and created the example that inspired 27 surrounding municipalities, then the state legislature of Schleswig Holstein, then several other legislature solar buyback programs. 

People often forget the upward impact of a municipal policy on officials representing those municipalities at the state level. Here is a principle of cooperation more powerful than the human will. No federal law would have been possible, and would not have happened at all, without the initiative of Aachen's local government with no state support whatever. This dynamic outlines the thinkable and politically feasible where city councils have been enlisted to do battle. Those who said think globally act locally missed an important opportunity to think locally: and to act, not from begging change from the emperor, but articulating and demanding it at home, in City Hall, built from the ground up. 

(The ironic thing is, some Green New Dealers will think me an opponent, and probably say I am too idealistic, or that it will take too long and we need a global solution to bring it to scale! Yawn. Welcome to climate politics, Rip Van Winkle....) 

                                                           (updated October 1, 2019)

1 comment:

Bradley Morrison said...

Hey Paul,
Good to talk to you just now, here is the article from TURN that reposts the SF Chronicle article "Why hedge funds are fighting for control of PG&E — and what it means for you": http://www.turn.org/in-the-news/why-hedge-funds-are-fighting-for-control-of-pge-and-what-it-means-for-you/
The hedge funds seem to be mostly based on the east coast, much like you are now and their plan is competing with the PG&E shareholders plan and maybe some other pans will be tossed in or developed. Much like the legislative process, a bunch of ideas come together into a set of rules/laws during lots of conversations/discussions.
Thanks for talking with me, good luck on the CCA work in MA!
Brad Morrison

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