Sunday, November 19, 2023

National Renewable Energy Lab: California CCA 2.0 Programs Beat the Nation's Utilities for 9 of 10 Top Spots for Green Power, and 10x the next ten

Got market structure? If not, your climate pathway is fatally flawed. There's a reason that California's CCA 2.0 model, though new, has already beat every utility in the nation for number of customers served green power above state requirements. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory's latest annual ranking showed that nine California CCAs were ranked in the top 10 nation wide, beating utilities with hands down, as summarized by CalCCA.

California's CCA 2.0 model, though realized in just the past decade, has already beat every utility in the nation for number of customers served green power above state requirements. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory's latest annual ranking showed that nine California CCAs were ranked in the top 10 nation wide, beating utilities with hands down, as summarized by CalCCA. These top nine are 4.6M customers, compared to the next ten on the list, which together total 650K customers. Cape Light Compact, the nation's first CCA, made 12th in the nation at 150K, which if added to California CCAs makes it 4.75M customer vs the utilities' 650K customers. This makes CCA hands down the US green power winner when it comes to exceeding the minimum standard of green power set by regulators. Not only is CCA almost ten times as successful, but it achieved this in just a few years of existence whereas the utilities have had decades to do it and have not. The CCA 3.0 model will, we believe, take an even greater leap in terms of accelerated energy transitions by upgrading an already proven model with new depth based on customer engagement in voluntary investment in energy localization and breadth across all addressable carbon - power, heat, vehicles and waste: another 10X is is coming soon!

You can get NREL's report here.

Friday, November 17, 2023

The Great Orange County CCA U-Turn

Great news this week, Local Power's 2022 audit of the performance of a California CCA program claiming benefits to consumers, green power and decarbonization has prompted a major U-Turn by the agency. According to staff reports last week, the Orange County Power Authority (OCPA), a recently formed CCA, has made major changes in both top staff and board members, and is realizing its mission to decarbonize and lower costs for consumers. Back in March, following Local Power LLC's report and recommendations regarding its operations, policies and procedures, which were subsequently backed by internal County and State Audits, the Orange County Power Authority publicly presented an improvement plan and announced changes already made and others in the works. Since then major changes have been made in staff, board membership and policy.

“We have undergone several audits over the past six or seven months and numerous hours responding to these audits and reports,” Joe Mosca, OCPA’s director of communications and external affairs, told its board of directors Wednesday. “What we have for you today is an improvement plan that captures all the recommendations ever made and how we are going to address every one of those audits,” in an article by the Orange County Register last week, which contains a links to the original article about Local Power's investigation for the Orange County Administrator. 

Criticism is essential to good government and indeed the long-term success of CCA. What could have ultimately discredited CCA as a concept in Southern California can now be a demonstration how local democracy outperforms corporate governance in so many ways. OCPA's turnaround consisted of removing top level management and board changes, resulting in the major policy and program design changes that have now followed. Orange County may be the biggest turn around of a CCA yet, and should serve as a lesson to CCA supporters and opponents alike of the unique ability of a democratic process to tackle important changes and challenges like climate change or energy crisis. CCA is a means to an end, and not an end in itself, requiring leaders and followers alike to be more critical and more positively involved in CCA as a process that takes years rather than the flick of a policy switch. Addressing climate change requires not just active consumers, but active local citizens. It's also important for elected officials and CCA managers to remember that citizen advocates of CCA formations are the reason it ever happened, and deserve be respected whether as critics or champions. The reason Orange County asked Local Power LLC to perform this audit of OCPA was the result of a longstanding margnialization of OCPA's founding advocates by OCPA staff and the OCPA board. This behavior is actually typical in government, and where CCAs do it, make for mediocre CCA programs with marginal benefits, but in the case of Orange County Power Authority led to poor policy decisions, procedures, and benefits to ratepayers and the environment. CCA is a tool that still requires skill and discipline, not an automatic fix: and criticism brings refinement and clarity.

Staff said OCPA had already implemented greater inclusion of a Community Advisory Committee in oversight and board meetings. Regular meetings will be held and a member of the committee will be present at board meetings from here on out. The agency has also amended how it tracks its agendas and meets notification requirements, including time stamping when they go online to improve transparency, which Local Power LLC had strongly recommended.

“We have gone through so many challenges particularly to the dynamics within our jurisdictions, but it doesn’t mean that we’re not accountable to the public; it doesn’t mean that we aren’t trying hard to restore that trust that has been knocked down in the last two years,” said Jose Castaneda, OCPA board member and Buena Park council member according to the Orange County Register. “I appreciate the opportunity to memorialize our improvements.”

So do we! Turnarounds like this are not typical of either electric utility or deregulated supplier corporate boards, even those convicted of criminal activities. Local governments can do better because they are open to criticism from the public. Advocates had to struggle alone for years in order for the correction to be finally made. One of them, indeed, now sits on the OCPA board. This is how democracy can work.

OCPA implemented not one but many of our recommended changes, hiring a board clerk and assistant to the CEO to better ensure transparency, another recommendation in our performance audit. Reflecting Local Power LLC's critique of OCPA for also inappropriate risk management policies, the California State Auditor’s Office recommended the agency amend its risk management program, and by May, OCPA officials said an oversight committee that includes members of the board will start meeting regularly.

OCPA also implemented changes based on Local Power's audit recommendations concerning The CCA's contracting practices. "Already, policy has been set to report contracts to the board between $50,000 and $125,000 and all active contracts more than $125,000 have been approved by the board and the board will sign off on any contract of that value from now on, in addition to board  quarterly progress with financial details of all contract,"  the Orange County Register reported. "The agency has also made amendments to its disclosure of payments to establish accountability and will require large checks to be signed by senior management."

Staff said OCPA will have a policy by June 2024 to further amend contracting concerns raised in Local Power LLC's performance audit and Orange County Auditor by questioning whether the CEO should be able to bypass existing purchasing requirements, whether or not it is "urgent," and is studying precedents from other California CCAs on how to handle these needs as well as threshold dollar amount formal triggers for OCPA bid solicitations.

As Local Power LLC's CC performance audit recommended, OCPA's executive team and board of directors drafted bylaws to increase its transparency which were reviewed at the public hearing last Wednesday.

OCPA is also finally implementing local renewable energy projects rather than just signing contracts, the longstanding goal of Local Power LLC.

Congratulations everyone!

Local Power LLC's original Orange County Power Authority performance audit is downloadable as a PDF from Local Power's web site here.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Local Power LLCs New Program: Decarbonize Landfill and Sewer Waste

Why has Local Power LLC expanded its definition of Community Choice Aggregation to include municipal post consumer and sewer waste management? Creating “white” hydrogen is one reason, but more than that, is to properly convert, detoxify and sequester landfills in the name of decarbonization. Waste is among the top four sources of climate change that can be addressed by local governments. It has been a missing piece in local decarbonization efforts. With CCA 3.0, our new 2020 program now being prepared for implementation in New York, w gas aggregation for electrification of heat and hot water, and EV/hydrogen fuel cell vehicle integration as DER batteries with bidirectional chargers have already been added to CCA’s traditional electrical “plug load.” Addressing waste through CCA hits two birds with one stone: solve the waste problem, while creating local hydrogen for microgrid backup hydrogen storage. It fits together, and adds resilience by complementing EV batteries to facilitate self consumption by Distributed Energy Resources  cooperatives at the DER facility level (building to block).

Local Power LLC Waste Project

Local Power entered the world of waste in 2019 with the development of a project to convert landfills and human sewage to hydrogen and industrial limestone while also destroying forever chemicals that largely constitute them. We did it first because municipal landfills are the fourth "addressable carbon" identified by the United Nations apart from carbon pollution caused by electricity, heating/hot water, and vehicles. But we had been following the problem of post consumer waste toxicity - particularly the strange persistence of Teflon pans and plumbing tape despite longstanding and widespread knowledge of Teflon health risks both in landfills filled with plastics, in drinking water and household pipes, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFOAS) alongside many older toxics like PCBs, all of which end up in humans, because we drink water. Doing something about America's 40,000 landfills, both existing, new and ongoing in a national waste trading and hauling system so that garbage can be burned a few hundred miles away instead of here.

The depravity of current waste management, blamable to the corruption of an EPA and FDA that have done nothing about PFOAS for sixty years, even puts shade on climate change, which it least may be excused based on the human need for energy. For PFOAS it was for nothing. We already had natural pipe thread materials, we already had iron pans  It was for nothing. So clearly these materials, and all plastics, need to be banned outright. However, the 40,000 landfills remain, full of toxics seeping into aquifers and soils. In the meantime, proliferation of diseases caused by PFOAS toxicity go through the roof among causes of death, many of them resulting from unregulated industrial pollution. The nonrecyclable plastics and PFOAS in landfill waste are matched by sewer waste, which contains PFOAS that are ubiquitously in toilet paper.  Many known toxic PFOAS are still being sold today as microwave food containers. Even with a PFOAS or plastic ban, the existing landfills release increasing levels and numbers of PFOA chemicals each year because they become more toxic with degradation, meaning like climate change - if nothing is done, the problem gets worse.

Local Power LLC has included landfill and sewer waste in its New York CCA Master Implementation Plan which it filed with the New York Public Service Commission in March, 2023.

In Massachusetts, we continue to develop a pilot project for a regional waste decarbonization by hydrogen and edible food composting with local towns.

Whereas in New York Local Power  LLC is acting as a CCA Administrator under New York law and regulations, in Massachusetts we are a developer of a hydrogen facility that will provide exclusively waste detoxification, conversion and sequestration. Thus the project solves municipal waste problems while also creating white hydrogen fuel for fuel cells in buildings and vehicles. We are also developing a project for California and other states.

Municipalities traditionally manage water, but many have privatized services, both of which made natural clients for Local Power LLC. Working waste decarbonization into our 2020 CCA 3.0 model was the first step, followed by persuading the City and Town of Ithaca, New York into their CCA local laws in 2022. We expect to build the first facility in Massachusetts independently, rather than through a CCA for the time being, but are developing the knowledge to procure something like that as a CCA Administrator in New York State, and for other CCAs around the country.

Background on “Forever Chemicals” PFOAs in our Waste Stream

Detoxifying waste must confront the PFOAs crisis, which the waste to hydrogen strategy can do. As we have asked ourselves with respect to the inefficacy of decarbonization, how many ti,mes do you have to see federal regulation fail while continuing to believe it works or ever will work? 

From The Devil they Knew: Chemical Documents Analysis of Industry Influence on PFOAS Science, /articles/10.5334/aogh.4013:

"Our review of industry documents shows that companies knew PFOAS was "highly toxic when inhaled and moderately toxic when ingested" by 1970, forty years before the public health community. Further, the industry used several strategies that have been shown common to tobacco, pharmaceutical and other industries to influence science and regulation – most notably, suppressing unfavorable research and distorting public discourse. We did not find evidence in this archive of funding favorable research or targeted dissemination of those results. …The lack of transparency in industry-driven research on industrial chemicals has significant legal, political and public health consequences. Industry strategies to suppress scientific research findings or early warnings about the hazards of industrial chemicals can be analyzed and exposed, in order to guide prevention."

Even with PFOAs now a known national issue, consumers continue to purchase PFOA products unawares, just as they do with phthalates in plastics that rob their children of sex organs and give them cancer. The many products containing PFOAS in landfill and sewage treatment combine and break down into the soil, everywhere, including contaminating the food supply due to PFOAS in fertilizers and composts.

A recent Guardian story, “KOS Nature-Powered Organic Plant Protein drinks and powders contain toxic ‘forever chemicals’, a recent filing with the California Department of Justice charges.”

"A filing, made by the Environmental Research Center (ERC), a San Diego-based consumer protection nonprofit, states that its testing found PFOA, a dangerous PFOAS compound, in five KOS products. The filing states the non-profit found PFOA in KOS Nature-Powered Organic Plant Protein chocolate and vanilla flavors in two package sizes, as well as one package size of chocolate chip mint flavor. The document did not provide the level at which PFOA was detected, but the Environmental Protection Agency found this year that virtually no level of exposure to the compound in drinking water is safe. KOS powders and drinks are sold at Walmart, Whole Foods, CVS, Walgreens, Target and other national retailers. The groups are now intervening in the lawsuit and regulatory proceedings between the EPA and Inhance Technologies, which they estimate produces about 200m PFOAS-contaminated plastic containers annually. A review of regulatory documents, court filings and patent applications shows Inhance appears to have repeatedly lied to regulators and customers about whether its containers shed PFOAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) into products stored in them. Still, the EPA and the Department of Justice have not pointed out the company's inconsistencies in court, and the groups have questioned whether industry influence at the EPA is playing a role in the agency's decision-making. Last week, the groups formally asked the EPA to order Inhance to stop distributing the containers, and will soon file a motion asking a judge to do the same while highlighting the company's inconsistent statements. ‘It's a serious and ongoing threat to public health,’ said Bob Sussman, an attorney representing the consumer groups. ‘It involves not only the demonstrated hazards of the PFOAS that are in the containers, but the huge number of containers and their economy-wide uses.’  


Tuesday, March 28, 2023

H Bonds Finally Realized: California CCAs issue $5 Billion in Solar Bonds

In addition to founding Community Choice Aggregation, Local Power has long boasted of our founder's invention of the Solar Bond or Green Bond ("H Bond" from Proposition H, the original bond authority adopted by San Francisco Voters in 2001). However, we have long been frustrated by the how very long it has taken CCA programs in the Bay Area and California to implement H Bonds. Climate change does not forgive slowness, and neither do we. 

As we have been telling CCA leaders for over nearly two decades, the buying power of municipal aggregation must combine with municipal financing through revenue bonds to transform a CCA into something much, much more powerful. From 2008 when Marin Clean Energy chickened out, and then San Francisco Supervisors lost their courage in 2013, we were afraid CCAs would never see the light. 

But finally, this past week, Local Power's leadership finally paid off - however belatedly - with the announcement of the issuance of $5 Billion in revenue bonds by CCAs to build renewable energy in California. The "Clean Energy Project Revenue Bond" is a renamed H Bond, the original CCA revenue bond authority written by Local Power and adopted by San Francisco in 2001. Local Power drafted San Francisco's CCA law to combine CCA with revenue bonds for the first nearly twenty years ago, in 2004. Since then, only San Francisco had ever used the authority. But now the H Bond, like CCA itself, has hit prime time. Five billion dollars is very big news indeed: the level of big we have long awaited. Climate change scale: community wide scale.

California CCAs East Bay Community Energy, MCE, Silicon Valley Clean Energy, Pioneer Community Energy, and Clean Power Alliance have all issued clean energy revenue bonds, claiming to save an estimated $840 million for California electricity customers over the next 30 years. Each of the CCAs entered into a long-term power supply agreements for sources like solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower. The municipal revenue bond or H Bond issuer – in this case, California Community Choice Financing Authority (CCCFA) – issued tax-exempt bonds to fund a prepayment of energy that is to be delivered over the contract length. The CCA energy supplier utilizes the bond funds and provides a discount to the CCA on the power purchases based on the difference between the taxable and tax-exempt rates. This approach was articulated for San Francisco in Local Power's H Bond Action Plan in 2007 and with the help of our attorney Howard Golub and the bond team at Nixon Peabody in 2009. 

Now it is a very real thing at the kind of scale climate action demands, and "CCA 2.0" - the new model for municipal aggregation in California that Local Power LLC invented 20 years ago after coauthoring the nation's original CCA law in Massachusetts - is finally complete. Congratulations, everyone. 

CCA 2.0 now not only provides the most power in California, they are using H Bonds to achieve a whole new level of decarbonization, sustainability, and energy independence.

“CCCFA’s member agencies have now issued six clean energy prepayment transactions ranging from $460 million to $1.2 billion," said CCCSF, which boasts that "this prepayment structure allows California CCAs to reduce long-term costs on clean energy projects by issuing tax-exempt clean energy revenue bonds to prepay for the renewable energy....These transactions have locked in $210 million in savings for customers with the potential to save $840 million over the next 30 years according to representatives."

The California Community Choice Financing Authority (CCCFA) was established in 2021 by Central Coast Community Energy, Clean Power Alliance, East Bay Community Energy, MCE, Pioneer Community Energy, and Silicon Valley Clean Energy.  

Local Power established CCA in California and started, or helped to start, many of the first CCAs in the state to implement CCA 2.0. Local Power LLC has now moved on to "CCA 3.0," which its founders are implementing in states like New York. The CCA 3.0 model brings new, additional leverage to grow the climate impact of CCA in profound and even more powerful ways than CCA and H Bonds. CCA 3.0 activates a new layer beyond just government and finance: people. With people properly engaged and empowered to "Own Your Power," real scaled local climate action will be within the grasp of citizens in Anytown, America. Click on the CCA 3.0 link to get a free white paper on how Local Power's new model for energy transformation might work in your community tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

CCA 3.0 Hits New York as CCA 2.0 Achieves the "Highest Level of Sustainably-sourced Energy Out of Any Major US City"

One of America's ten largest cities is on track to carbon neutrality by 2030. Did you hear that? Do you know how little "on track" the other nine largest cities are? If you are clever, you will ask, "what on earth enabled San Jose to do that?" A climate activist from Boulder immolated himself in front of the Supreme Court last week due to the fact that worldwide carbon emissions have increased 50% since 1990, the date against which most climate agreements are gauged. In other words, the nation, and the world, are failing utterly. But not San Jose. What gives? Why can't we all do that? I am here to tell you that you can! Si puedes!

The City of San Jose announced last week that it's CCA program, San José Clean Energy (SJCE) had made "a major accomplishment" in the City's efforts to combat the effects of climate change. SJCE, the CCA for 350,000 homes and businesses in San José, has achieved a 95% carbon-free electricity mix through their use of solar, wind, and hydroelectric power, and is the cleanest electricity mix out of the ten largest cities in the country. Renewable sources like solar and wind comprise 60% of SJCE’s power mix. The CCA has launched San Jose to the leader among America's ten largest cities in an authentic physical decarbonization of its entire energy sector. Most importantly, SJCE has achieved this for the entire San Jose community without charging anyone higher electricity rates than the utility charges for brown power:

"As the community choice provider for San Joséans, SJCE sources energy at competitive rates while PG&E delivers the energy over its system of poles and wires. GreenSource, SJCE’s standard service option, is currently sourced at 60% from renewable energy. Community Choice Aggregation (CCAs) like SJCE are a driving force in California’s clean energy future: in total, 23 CCAs have contracted for nearly 10,000 MW of new solar, wind, biogas, geothermal, and energy storage, fueling renewable energy development, green jobs, and economic growth. CCAs are also driving markets for grid reliability solutions like long-duration storage."


Where's my prize? Ah well, smell the roses. Regional carbon neutrality based on massive new investment, for free! 

"To date, SJCE has invested more than $1 billion to add new solar, wind, and battery storage to the grid at cost-effective prices for customers. In February 2022, Mayor Liccardo, along with SJCE, announced the completion of a new 62 megawatt (MW) solar generation and energy storage facility in Kern County that is delivering clean, pollution-free electricity daily from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. for San José homes and businesses for the next 12 years. This builds on SJCE’s investment in a 225 MW wind farm in New Mexico produced from 117 wind turbines that deliver enough clean electricity to power 186,000 San José homes."

Wow. a billion dollars of investment, 60% renewable, and with hydropower, 95% carbon free. 

Does that mean we have a model? Yes, a foundation. Now we must build the edifice of community wide energy transition itself: something not yet done in California. While California's CCA program has grabbed the headlines like these for the past few years based on a "CCA 2.0" program designed to build local renewables at scale through a regional wholesale power agency, New York municipalities are now pursuing a new business model of Community Choice Aggregation designed for climate action. Version Three uses municipal and civic partnerships to organize voluntary investment in onsite renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies known as Distributed Energy Resources, known as DERs. Whereas California's CCAs work like wireless utilities, New York municipalities doing CCA 3.0 are lightly staffed coordinators of intra-municipal partnerships that enable any resident or business to invest in DERs in their building, on their block or in the neighborhood.

CCA 2.0 exploded the original mold of CCA 1.0 from back in 1995. I know because I co-authored the first and authored the second. The idea of 2.0, written 20 years ago, was to make CCA give a physical impact, not merely purchase greener power. Today, It has utterly succeeded, both in achievements of carbon goals like San Jose, and in replicating fast: speed and scale. It is time to take the success of California's 2002 CCA model to a 2022 scenario facing 2030 without a climate plan. How can we do this for all four "addressable carbon" sources, not just electricity? And how to do it in so many thousands of low income, resource-poor communities? These are the only remaining questions. The rest is now proven.

Now we are taking it to the next level. CCA 3.0, which Local Power released in 2020, uses energy democracy to take another leap in terms of decarbonizing whole communities in a timely and cost effective manner.   Scalable across all "addressable carbon," CCA 3.0 is also scalable in terms of reaching the entire community, most of which remains ineligible or "redlined" everywhere today. CCA 3.0 uses local municipal oversight of energy loans in conjunction with CCA-managed "shares" and "cooperatives" agreements to offer a voluntary investment option to every customer in a community irrespective of income or home/office ownership.  CCA 3.0 uses an "equity lens" to find commercialization pathways to reach every customer through an authentic local program in each participating municipality, and plans technological convergence  to decarbonize not only the electricity sector but natural gas, gasoline/diesel, and local sewer and solid waste, integrating all into interoperable microgrids, thermal loops and EV sharing on a block level.

Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) has been going on for 25 years. There are 1800 US municipalities doing CCA states comprising half the US energy market. Tens of millions of Americans get their energy from CCAs. But what happened in California was different from all the others. And what is now happening in New York will put California's great achievements in the dust. So you are wondering, which New York cities are now doing this?  Who is Local Power working with? When will these new programs launch?

As I hope you have learned today, it's only official when it's over.

Stay tuned....

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Planet of CCA: From "100% Renewable Cities" to Local Green New Deal

  • The global climate emergency is a crisis of policy and political will. It is not a lack of cost-effective technology. Above all else, we are blocked by fear of disrupting the economy. The United States is central to this problem, both as the world’s second largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions and as a global policy leader. Establishing an economically viable model for climate mobilization in America is of paramount importance globally.
  • In 2020, Local Power is launching a nationwide technical and educational resource for communities and municipalities with democratically-run local energy programs called Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) to ramp up their programs for climate mobilization, following a new model we call CCA 3.0. Local Power’s Local Green New Deal project has been created to drive an implementation and replication process through educational engagements of communities, technical assistance to municipal staff and elected officials, and an international clearinghouse of best practices. ​ is what climate mobilization looks like.

Municipal governments lead climate action, but lack the legal framework to scale up their impact; CCA 3.0 provides that leverage. CCA 3.0 "cools" the grid by placing storage and generation behind the meter. It empowers local governments to drive greater distributed power by enabling them to invest in their residents and businesses. Funded with municipal "Green Bonds," CCA 3.0 ensures that local money stays local, employing data to match technologies to place, using customer shares and cooperatives to turn monthly utility bills into energy equity accounts.

As we demonstrate below and in great detail in our study, all of this can be deployed immediately.

The Opportunity

CCA 3.0 energy transformation is defined here as a 50%-85% across-the-board greenhouse gas reduction for an inclusive geographic community, and completable within a five- to ten-year period from today. With 1500 municipalities and 30 million Americans under CCA service, CCA 3.0 is based on a mature and globally replicable ​model for climate mobilization. It has the ​ immediate ​ potential to answer the ​United Nations’ call for worldwide energy transformation in the next decade "to avert irreversible damage to the Earth's ecology."

The CCA 3.0 program was designed by Local Power, creator of CCA​, to work ​under existing law in states with CCA that make up half of U.S. energy demand: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Virginia. CCA 3.0 can be replicated starting within one year for U.S. states in the process of adopting new CCA legislation, such as Wisconsin, Colorado, Maryland, Washington, and Utah. Moreover, CCA 3.0 is implementable starting within two years in the European Union and most other countries’ energy markets with enabling legislation. Half the U.S. can complete climate mobilizations within five years, states introducing CCA laws within six or seven years, and other countries that authorize CCA within seven or eight years.

The Problem

The cost of energy from integrated green energy technologies has been competitive with grid power and pipeline fuels for many years. There has been a dramatic decline in the cost of Distributed Energy Resources (DER), including solar photovoltaics, electric vehicles, microgrids, and efficient electric HVAC and hot water systems. Regulatory capture and flawed energy market designs have trapped developers of these strategic technologies in a systemic dependency on utilities for access to functionally captive energy users.

The technical feasibility of integrating DERs has also existed for many years. However, efforts by states to set up markets to encourage rapid deployment of such technologies have been stuck in startup mode for a quarter-century. Centralized megaprojects continue to dominate the renewables market today, driving up carbon-causing transmission line overdevelopment and new fossil investments to accommodate their intermittency. As a result, DERs remain relegated to niche markets. Ratepayer and taxpayer subsidies are invested in a manner that delivers little impact on carbon emissions. Based on renewable energy company door knockers and pyramid scheme marketing, or inherently limited utility contracts based on regulatory mandates and fees, marketing and customer acquisition cost represents around half of the installed cost of solar today. DERs are siloed as a luxury item limited to the few, with marginal carbon impacts.

Inadequate state-level policy decisions of recent decades have created a dysfunctional market that blocks climate mobilization. The vast majority of residents and businesses are functionally redlined by this market from energy transformation, largely limited to options of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs). RECs pay middlemen “market incentives,” but do not result in physically changing a customer’s energy supply. The result is that the combustion of fossil fuels required to provide “renewable” products and services has been reduced little if not at all. For affluent or devoted businesses and residents willing to pay more for a “premium green” REC product, state governments have created a "virtual" paradigm of renewable energy procurement. This form of REC procurement certifies transactions, pays suppliers and signals good consumer intentions,​ but does not actually cause physical carbon reductions.

DERs can fix this problem, but are prevented by incumbent-protecting markets and state regulations. Conventional solar, like RECs, remains a niche market for the few. Even with incentives and rebates, the utility tariff-based business model and physical configuration of solar virtually ensures superficial climate impacts. Inherently limited business models created by states under undue influence of incumbent utilities and financial institutions has created this problem. This is not a technological problem, nor a problem of the cost of DER technologies. DER development is limited to serving only A-list customers with strong credit ratings who own their buildings. Conventional rooftop solar is wired for export, not demand reduction. Under conventional market design, neither RECs nor DER can come close to the level of physical change that the climate emergency demands. CCA was originally created as an exit strategy from that market. CCA 3.0 creates the pathway to a new system entirely.

The Solution

Market design has always been the real solution to climate mobilization.
Community Choice Aggregation was created as an alternative to supplier-controlled markets: a younger brother idea that grew up alongside electricity and gas industry deregulation of the 1990s. CCA was developed to directly confront climate change.  Democratically stewarded by municipal governance, CCA enabled local public oversight of energy procurement for residents, businesses and governments that did not opt-out. Deregulated customer choice regimes adopted in most U.S. states have benefitted only a small minority of large industrial and commercial customers. By comparison, CCA has proven uniquely successful at extracting economic benefits for all energy users. CCAs have consistently outperformed both utilities and energy marketers in the sheer magnitude of green power they have bought and built while also reducing consumers’ energy costs.

CCA is widely regarded by Democrats and Republicans alike as the one success story to come after a quarter century of electricity and gas industry restructuring. CCAs serve one in ten Americans. Saving over thirty million Americans billions of dollars on their utility bills, CCAs have caused some of the largest greenhouse gas reductions in history. Purchasing green power well above required state levels, CCAs have also built many billions of dollars of additional new renewable energy facilities beyond state requirements. CCAs are proving out important innovations in the DER space, too, as detailed in our 2020 report, ​ CCA 3.0: Accelerated Greenhouse Gas Reduction. In this last respect, California CCAs have physically added whole new levels of renewable power that would not be there otherwise today.

The Situation

While CCAs have outperformed the market and proven a viable path to climate action without taxes or fees, they have yet to fulfill their true potential. To be truly successful, CCAs must achieve impact on a scale that is commensurate with the unprecedented magnitude of climate crisis. Their impact has evolved exponentially with the advent of a second generation CCA (“CCA 2.0”) developed by Local Power for California, focused on building large-scale regional renewable generation. However, the climate emergency calls for swifter action. In 2020, a second exponential leap is needed to give CCA programs the leverage to act as administrative umbrellas for climate mobilization across all customer types and all energy uses in a community. This focus on customer ownership will unlock widespread investment in physical, local decarbonization throughout the private sector. Existing consumer payments for power, gas, diesel and gasoline will repay this investment. Our third iteration of CCA incorporates lessons learned and best practices from 25 years of growing CCA, including three commissioned national surveys. CCA 3.0 is designed to overcome past limits to achieve the physical energy transformation of whole municipalities and groups of municipalities in a five-year schedule.

CCA 1.0 proved the feasibility of greener power at lower prices than regulated and deregulated power suppliers. CCA 2.0 proved the feasibility of building additional renewable power above
regulatory requirements, at competitive prices with brown power. Today, CCA 2.0 programs in California constitute fully sixty-seven (67) of all seventy-two (72) ​U.S. cities with 100% renewable energy in 2020, including RECs and built renewables.​ That being said, climate mobilization requires a much larger energy transformation than CCA 2.0 has achieved. CCA 2.0’s limitation is due to a lack of programmatic focus and resources on ​demand reduction.

Systematic grid/pipeline demand reduction is the essential key to scaled, accelerated and sustained carbon reduction. ​  While Local Power’s CCA 2.0 model succeeded in delivering an exponentially greater carbon impact than the Renewable Energy Certificate purchases by CCA 1.0 programs, climate mobilization-scale greenhouse gas reductions require removing electricity demand from the grid, and fossil fuels from pipelines. The “subtractionality” of energy demand for grid/pipeline energy resources, not merely “additionality” of renewables to the grid, is the next step. CCA 3.0 can meet the United Nations’ 2030 deadline, carrying a ten-fold to thirty-fold increase in carbon reduction potential compared to CCA 2.0.

The Details

U.S. municipal governments already lead climate action, but often lack the state legal framework to leverage the scale and impact of local programs. CCA 1.0 and 2.0 increased this leverage with impressive results, but a different operational and technological business model is needed.

CCA 3.0 employs a cutting-edge behind-the meter onsite interoperable renewables and flexible storage technology strategy. The result is a reduction in physical grid- and pipeline demand at the onsite and community levels. CCA 3.0 calls for a focused municipal program design and staffing plan to engage customer investment in DERs. Under CCA 3.0, CCA 2.0’s core centralized energy procurement strategy is refocused around a community redevelopment-centered operational business model. CCA 3.0 program design sets in place a series of strategic changes, enabling implementation of locally built, locally-owned, locally-used and locally-shared renewable energy systems on a parallel, CCA-wide basis.

CCA 3.0 refocuses CCA agencies and municipalities to drive development and engage customers in voluntary customer DER investment. CCA 1.0 offered discounts and purchased energy from existing renewable suppliers or purchased conventional fossil supplies with RECs as “mitigation.” CCA 2.0 offered bill neutrality and built more new renewable facilities to "add" renewables to the grid. CCA 3.0 takes the final major step in decarbonization: customer equity investment to subtract load from the grid from the bottom-up, through deployment of a renewables-plus-storage platform.

CCA programs identified in our ​ CCA 3.0 Report ​ demonstrate that a “cooling” of the grid and “lightening” of pipeline load is immediately deployable, and technically and economically feasible. Integrated DERs can replace city-wide or town-wide community's load on the power grid and gas/heating oil (heat and cooling sector), as well as gasoline/diesel pipelines (transportation sector).

CCA 3.0 is a platform for removing communitywide greenhouse gas emissions sources by avoiding grid consumption, “peaking,” and fossil fuels for heating and transportation. CCA 3.0s will build renewably powered microgrids with electric vehicles and HVAC/hot water systems as flexible storage to minimize importation of energy, while eliminating exportation of onsite power. This critical strategy removes grid barriers to DER deployment, because installed systems do not flow onto or congest the local distribution grid. Therefore DERs may be installed ubiquitously throughout a CCA’s service territory without delay or disruption by incumbent utilities.

CCA 3.0 creates a customer investment space outside the conventional market. Whereas CCA 2.0 uses conventional financing that limits eligibility to consumers with minimum credit scores and collateral, CCA 3.0 employs a municipally-administered energy sharing and cooperation platform based on public finance. The platform extends eligibility to every single resident and business owner who does not opt-out of the service: a new option to the entire community. CCA 3.0 localizes investment to the entire community. CCA 2.0 programs have depended mostly on outside tax-appetite (avoidance) financing to build absentee-owned facilities, exporting the community’s energy dollars to Wall Street. CCA 3.0 employs municipal Green Bonds​ to leverage ​voluntary customer investment ​ propositions based on a projected customer return-on-investment to every single energy consumer in the community. Inclusive of all energy use, and ubiquitously deployed independent of financial market and federal tax code fluctuations, CCA 3.0’s definition of energy transformation as a community transition, rather than merely a commodity service, is key to effective community-wide engagement and mobilization.

This is what energy transformation looks like: retrocommissioning private homes and businesses that consume 95% of all energy and eliminating physical demand for grid power and pipeline fuels. Customer engagement and ownership is enabled by active and passive protocols, including an “opt-up” system of shares that enrolls CCA customers through a voluntary check-box option, and an “opt-with” neighborhood microgrid cooperative option operated by a CCA agency, and billed by a municipality.

CCA 3.0 programs can be run by much smaller agencies than CCA 2.0 required. CCA 3.0 sets up a partnership with existing member municipalities’ local service agencies to finance projects and engage residents and businesses as owners of DER. This is done through a “universal share offering” and CCA/municipal protocol for managing customer loan/equity accounts. Municipalities in a CCA will individually vote to participate as DER loan administrators and to develop municipal DERs as shares assets. CCA rate design will incorporate protocols for customers to receive bill credits based on DER equity accrued. Municipal staffing costs will be collected from DER loan contracts, while CCA staffing recovers costs from monthly electricity/gas bill charges. Joint Powers Entities of multiple municipalities, or individual municipalities, may implement CCA 3.0.


For 25 years, Local Power has pioneered innovative programs for municipalities, passed legislation and educated the public. Creating CCA 1.0 in Massachusetts in 1994, Green Bonds in 2001 and CCA 2.0 in 2004, we co-founded California’s first CCAs, including Marin Clean Energy, CleanPowerSF and Sonoma Clean Power, causing an historic transformation of California’s energy system and leveraging billions of dollars in local renewable development in the past few years. More recently, we assisted in the creation of a statewide CCA regime in New York. Since 2015, we have developed a new system for energy transformation, releasing ​ CCA 3.0 - Accelerated Greenhouse Gas Reduction ​ in March, 2020. Paul Fenn, who leads our technical work, has been quoted and featured in hundreds of media outlets in the past two decades, including The New York Times, ​The Wall Street Journal, Truthout ​ and ​The Nation, ​Bloomberg ​and Fast Company; and is the focus of many academic studies, including books by ​Cambridge University Press and ​MIT Press. ​ We access a team of experts with diverse skills and experience based on our varied project needs, from program design, negotiation and launch to data analysis, policy, legal, engineering, governance, education, and campaigns. ​ 

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Planet of the Neoliberals: Environmentalism and Policy Collapse

From climate change to nuclear proliferation, deforestation to species extinction, resistant bacteria to psychotropic drug proliferation, collapsed schools to media consolidation, civic idiocy to identity politics, endless warfare to mounting terrorism—all are extensions of the dialectic of enlightenment (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1969) into the atmosphere, the ocean, genetic evolution and culture, and so on. At center is a dialectical silence echoing an untenable myth that nation states and the marketplace must define the theater of human history: an empty stage of human culture that has replaced slavery with machines, and democracy with imperialism, knowledge with information, and political liberty with culture war and overconsumption. As all crises are rooted in a common epiphenomenon, any solution must lie in a transformation of not merely policy but of democracy, economics, and the idea of knowledge as well, as they are practiced throughout our culture. It is up to us: we are today on the cusp of either catastrophe or transformation, the midnight hour at which the Owl of Minerva must finally take flight, or every crisis will indeed combine into an epochal, permanent darkness.

Environmentalism, which focuses on the defining epiphenomenon of climate change, is profoundly defensive, dissembling a negative posture toward the world, but falling into it, to a point of myopia. Environmentalists oppose windmills as passionately as a coal plant and smart meters as passionately as nuclear power. Environmentalism is paranoid. Activists run from issue to issue like children at a haunted house, encompassing, ultimately, an existentially passive position: a fixed position in empty time by which the past races ineluctably: Benjamin’s Angelus Novus. Like Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, we awaken from a sleep of denial—to regretted oceans, regretted forests, lists of annihilated species, giant industrial aberrations, and profoundly undermining trends, as if they had already happened, yet also as if nothing ever happens. Passing seamlessly from denial to resignation, a rising fatalism perceives that an existential condition, not actions, condemn humanity to inevitable ruin. Environmentalism is the penultimate pragmatism and utilitarianism, which is to say that it is defined by the absence of theory—by the active trivialization of the idea of nature, which is scaled to the global and inclusive, into the empty concept of “environment,” which is simply de facto, decontextualized and dehistoricized.

Environmentalism is the vision of the dead watching the living in horror. Symbols of a pristine paradise ruined by people regurgitate the Biblical sense of blinded fallen-ness, but with pagan, misanthropic promiscuity. Energy’s destructiveness is not merely an environmental problem. Ours is a life made intense by compulsive work and consumption, devoted to filling time that has been made empty by systematic social displacements. Energy replaced slavery in more ways than one. Big business, through energy and mineral exploitation, has reinvented the conditions of medieval lords, repatriating a new position independent from any democratic government. As with white flight and globalization, under US/UK liberalization and deregulation regimes, corporations have off-shored the wealth of all nations that comply with Pax Americana.

Globalization is trade imperialism, and free trade is the global imperialism that it espouses progressively against the slavery-based and metallurgical empires of old.

A financialized feudalism has opposed itself existentially to democracy since World War II: led, ironically, by the United States, which itself is mired in the multiple personality disorder of homeland politics under empire. Free trade agreements have subverted all constitutions and disempowered all states. Big business, which is the continued force of the de Medici family and the industry that financed the Crusades a millennium ago, has reinvented the medieval land- and violence-centered definition of noble political rights into a contractually centered, financial definition of political rights based on laundered violence. Moreover, Big Business has acquired the Fourth Estate to control political discourse within the democracies it has subverted.

Financial interests represent a new utopia based on commodity fetishism rather than political freedom. Not eliminating slavery, the energy industry has replaced and universalized it as “modernization” with machines and fuels: petroleum, coal, gas, hydro-and nuclear-powered machines. Energy slavery  defines a new vision of progress erected upon a condition of permanent warfare over fuel resources and imperial corruption of those “cursed” with natural resources. Energy corporations control the resources in agreements with foreign princes and governments. While operating under European and American banners, many are functionally placeless and no longer politically loyal to their mother countries. As with Rome, globalization comes at a price—with new emperors born in the provinces and emergence of imperial disloyalty to one’s somehow reduced homeland.

Historically, the electricity industry is the hardest industrial sector to change; it is the single largest cause of crises worldwide; and it represents the largest concentration of capital that exists in the world’s economies. Indeed, rather than protect the homeland borders, the control of foreign energy resources and defense of global supply chains defines US military objectives. Nuclear power adds new kinds of domestic and foreign military threats based on the proliferation of nuclear materials in plants and uranium enrichment facilities, necessitating a militarization of the homeland, too, where energy is the center of the domestic economy, controlled mostly by monopolies and cartels traded on Wall Street.

The energy industries both cause climate change and actively campaign against anyone who tries to do something about it, leading the Left in a circular dance between bad regulation and criminal deregulation. Resisting or misdirecting technological change for decades, they have corrupted and controlled governments, using extra-constitutional leverage to erect barriers to policymakers and competitors who might achieve public technological objectives inimical to their private interests. This revolt of true elites has produced carbon policy collapse worldwide as well as a rapidly collapsing atmosphere and ocean die-offs from increasing acidity, radiation, and war, and created artificial pressure for nuclear and gas-fired power plant development as “bridge” strategies that are actually off-ramps— political betrayals. Fuel is a destructive business upon which electricity generation was built, but from which local power must now decidedly divorce itself.

Today America is a detritus of failed markets, and Europe continues to imitate American economic policy mindlessly, under the free trade, deregulation, and austerity regimes of the EU. Changes in trade or military policy have become more unthinkable than cultural transformation, world war, or genocide. Facing an eclipse of enlightenment as if suddenly today, Americans and Western Europeans face a crisis in our self-image as champions of freedom and democracy around the world, because we ourselves no longer practice political freedom, nor political democracy, at home.

We live within manufactured fictions, and these fictions prevent us from being able to change.

In energy, the predominating fiction is the kilowatt-hour. Samuel Insull built the electric industry on selling energy in time—a commodity we have internalized. We pay rates per kilowatt-hour, and regulation of energy costs is focused not on how much we have to pay in our bills but in how these rates are structured and set. When economists assess economic feasibility of technological change, they compare the old with the new in terms of rate savings by the minute. The economics of energy thus rests not on how much energy costs us in our electricity bill each month but on the rates per kilowatt-hour: just one charge or measurement of 8760 hours per year per meter, per building, per block, per substation, per municipal boundary, or per transmission control area. These are nonlinear factors radically impacting actual fixed capital costs: an implicit financialization of need.

Allowing rates to define energy, as if it were paying for gallons, excludes energy efficiency (as unconsumed energy) from the core economic and environmental equations of policymaking and relegates grid energy demand reduction (on-site renewables, efficient appliances) to a mental and administrative ghetto—a welfare program attached by legislatures, but not counting in the customer-facing economics of delivered energy needs. Renewable energy and energy efficiency do not require commodity fuels: reducing demand for energy is not counted in “rates,” which define the supply-side ideology underlying energy economics.

The United States has built a kingdom of fictions upon Insull’s foundational fiction. Having a flawed, supply-centric idea of what energy is, all of our concepts and laws concerning changing energy have had to be fictions too. In the fiction that electrical transmission has enabled, we have a timeless concept of energy as something that is omnipresent and constant, rather than the product of a fire that is burning somewhere and fuel extracted somewhere else that is being pumped into that fire—and consumed. The kilowatt-hour facilitates this fiction by reproducing the structure of fuel combustion in a charge-per-minute. It is a fiction that obliterates energy literacy and marginalizes fuel-free technologies, particularly those that may be installed behind the meter and outside an incumbent monopoly utility system’s infrastructure. Rates are thus a reification of corporatism itself.

Throughout the world, green power is defined by two policies: Feed-In Tariffs (or less generous Net-Metering Tariffs) and Renewable Energy Certificates. Both are neoliberal, growth imperative-sustaining fictions designed to accommodate a supply-centric system that will not change but merely be added to. Under such tariffs, utilities pay a consumer who elects to install solar panels on her rooftop for the power that is generated, as if it were to feed into the utility’s electrical transmission grid. Marketing materials say the utility will pay you for your power, that your meter will run backward, which it does, this fiction of supply, like water as it were, this metaphor of physical flow. Intuitively it seems real, yet it is another financial fiction: a mechanistic arms-length effort to cooperate with society anonymously under engineered conditions of location neutrality, under which actual physical cooperation with community members has been systematically rendered  uneconomical.

To understand the fiction of price itself, one must acknowledge the challenge. The tariff is inherently cost-imposing on transmission and distribution, but causes no impact upon generation. Tariffs require no changes in the utility system itself, no reduction in fuel procurement, no reduction in spinning reserves or idling power plants that ramp up and down based on fluctuating system demand. It requires no change at all; the random, non-engineered principle of deployment and technology selection has resulted in a machine-gunning of solar panels strewn across the landscape. Not one iota of design was used to match intermittency of capacity, which is utterly predictable for renewable resource technologies like solar photovoltaics, with the known schedule of demand for any given customer at any given location—facts known to both the utility monopoly and the customer. Most solar systems are installed on homes that are empty between 10am and 4pm each day, when solar panels generate power. Tariffs impose a degenerate timelessness under which yet another commodity form supplants actual redesign of the resource, with a distorted, ineffective physical impact on known, geographically specific patterns of energy consumption during the night and morning vs. during the day.

The blindness of tariffs results in a double cost: the cost of paying for the solar and the cost of upgrading transmission systems to export on-site solar power. A blind selection of technology and location has de facto forced local phenomena into export transactions that constitute the ultimate neoliberal method of “prosperity.” The customer must ultimately pay twice, while the utility has arranged to suffer no loss of revenues from reduced sales. The result is an apparent fiction that renewable energy is high cost, and ultimately a decision to discontinue renewables development, raise rates , or reopen coal mines to close nuclear plants, or vice-versa.

Adding resources in a symbolic, ineffective way is another case of cutting the baby in half: give politicians (and voters) what they want, which is sacrificial expenditures on solar panels as spectacles of change, while not actually changing anything at all at the system level—no reduced budgets for substations and transmission lines based on reduced system demand, no reduced fuel sales for gas and coal companies, no degrowth, and no substantial decarbonization of energy. Everyone is happy in this bloated national fiction of greenness: a simulation that ironically represents the greenest strategy available to mainstream policymakers. This is policy collapse under an unquestioned regime of naïve economism.

But there is nothing unique in the comforts of fiction. Even solar leaders are guilty of solar tokenism or charity—not re-engineering the grid utility to accommodate operational management of intermittent resources, storage, and demand levels, but randomly placing solar panels according to isolated consumption decisions upon a network of raging fire: a spending of money, a statute, or idol, not an integrated resource displacing grid supply. The industry is intellectually trapped in (and dependent upon) this two-dimensional metric universe, siloed in feudal dependencies upon the energy monopolies, each naïvely accepting its trap as a “business model.”

Western democracies are proceeding with climate change along lines that obey this fiction and pretend a solution may be found that does not require physical change, only piecemeal additionality. We ignore the difference between policies that turn off fossil plants and policies that do not turn them off. We implicitly exclude scenarios where the owners of legacy power plants and transmission infrastructure may be stranded, even bankrupted, and instead pour billions of dollars on supply-centric schemes of renewables development that only compound the claims of economists that any real change will result in higher prices. It is all an outrageous fiction: a political charade, expressing only an inability to make decisions within zero-sum games. Unless something has to give, the rhetoric of change is all much ado about nothing.

The lie is that technology decides our fate, not politics. The lie is that markets exist independently of government, like the water that fish inhabit, and cannot be questioned. Yet research conducted on California cities and counties by this project that analyzed detailed, previously unavailable, customer meter data, as well as system-level aggregated demand data, and geographically specific renewable generation data has proven clearly that much greater change is achievable economically, without higher electric bills or even higher rates (Local Power 2008a, b, 2013a). But all of this is possible only with the political adoption of the policy structure based on a determination to bring about real change irrespective of damage to the incumbent monopolies (Local Power 2013b). Given this political will, the energy system of any city or county can be physically transformed over a five-year period without increasing the cost of energy, presenting a scaled opportunity to achieve region-wide greenhouse gas reductions without higher rates or taxes: the two conventional choices that voters and decision-makers face and typically refuse to make.

The fictions upon which policy discourse is constructed also support the fictions that comfort people. The idea of solar power has its appeal in some latent paganism: a desire to return to the sun. The idea that we can power our lives on the sun is symbolically beautiful and elegant. But it is irresponsible.

Renewable resources are prolific, each with its own temporal pattern of generation and demand levels. Locational energy demand has a corresponding, temporal intermittency, and these patterns must be matched by rationally chosen technologies. Some communities have lots of daytime commercial energy use; other communities have a strictly nighttime residential need pattern.  Conversely, every location in the world has a unique pattern of renewable resources: some have year-round sunlight; some have windy areas, biomass waste from farms, waste heat from commercial boilers, ocean waves, underground geothermal heat, or rivers; and each one of these resources occurs intermittently at different times of any given day.

Our transcendent, import-oriented system ignores this problem and opportunity to integrate technologies locally to create benefits at the meter, substation, and commodity electricity market cost patterns. In a market equation of producers and consumers, the reality of community is simply ignored. Producers have the prerogatives of ownership and consumers merely of infantile, uninformed “choices”: the Astroturf paradise of neoliberalism. Whereas tariff programs appeal to the sun worshipper by encouraging her to select her favorite goddess, and the utility will pay her a credit to make it seem real, there is no consideration given to the pattern of life in a home or business, a block, a neighborhood, a city—in deciding which technologies are best suited to a place and way of life. Trapped in a fiction of pagan fetishes, there is no enlightenment: only a hermetic symbolism facilitated by state-sanctioned fictions—a virtual displacement of reason itself.

Chaos results from even the best-intentioned state-mandated ignorance. Germany reached its limit of randomly inserted renewables in the mid-20 percentiles, meaning that its ability to afford grid upgrades reached its limit when renewables deployed in this mindless way reached about 25% of the power generation. For example, American utilities are demanding ratepayers pay for huge transmission upgrades claiming it must have them, and consumers must pay higher rates and new “access charges” if governments insist upon higher levels of renewable supply. It is all a charade of stasis: an oligarchic resistance to change and a failure of democracies to force it.

Research indicates that the limit of a designed (vs. marketed) approach that builds portfolios from the ground up rises from 25% to 80% without increasing the cost of service and is achievable in a five- to ten-year period vs. a 50-year period. This is real change: massive greenhouse gas cuts and permanently reduced physical system demand, a leap out of the limited market fictions that cripple energy and climate policy today.

The climate debate pretends that the ability to change is a problem of the cost of technology—the price of solar power vs. the price of coal-fired power. Price is the ultimate fiction, a yawning apology fixed in a naïve rhetoric to the effect that the people, not the corporations, cannot afford change. Our civil society is trapped in an absurd fiction: a protection racket. The extortionist would suggest that you could stop smoking without harming the tobacco companies, who must naturally be entrusted with reducing smoking: such is an industry-dominated energy policy. Unless those fires go out, climate change goes on. Yet climate change is a zero-sum game: nature does not lie!

References (order of appearance)

--Local Power Inc. 2008a. Sonoma County Community Climate Action Plan Energy Element.
--Local Power Inc 2013a. CleanPowerSF In-City Build-Out Business Plan and materials, City and County of San Francisco.
--Local Power Inc 2013b. Preliminary Budgetary Estimates, CleanPowerSF In-City Buildout Report.


Excerpt from Paul Fenn, "Enlightenment and Power," Enlightenment in an Age of Destruction: Intellectuals, World Disorder, and the Politics of Empire (Palgrave Macmillan/Springer, Critical Theory and Radical Practice Series - S.E. Bronner, editor, 2018).

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Planet of the Sleeping Giant: Film on the Pathways and Barriers from the Trenches of Climate Mobilization

 View The Sleeping Giant, a Local Power Film by Yoni Goldstein and Charles Schultz

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Review of Planet of the Humans: What They Get Right and the Environmentalists Get Wrong

Planet of the Humans has stirred the resentment of many a climate crusader. Yesterday, the chair of the Sierra Club California Energy and Climate Committee instructed committee members (I am one) not to “watch or promote” Planet of the Humans. Today, climate scientists called for the film’s suppression. Enticed by such parental warnings, like an aroused teenager, I just had to watch it.

The film, produced by left-wing film idol Michael Moore, appears to expose and debunk current environmental initiatives for “100% renewable cities” in the United States. Sierra Club activists view the film as undermining climate action on Earth Day. But as the creator of Community Choice Aggregation, which accounts for 67 of 71 U.S. cities that have actually achieved 100% renewable electricity as of 2020, I feel compelled to speak up.

There is some truth to this film, hidden behind a multitude of glaring falsehoods. It is important to explore what the film gets right. As climate activists in the era of climate disruption, we must be clear about what our carbon reduction polices are actually going to achieve, as we push local communities around the world to implement Green New Deal programs, Paris Agreement targets, climate mobilizations, and renewable energy initiatives. Let us not get caught up, after all, in lies created not by environmentalists, but by utilities and governments that have propagated them. They are not our lies, and therefore we need not keep them, but renounce them when clearer, bolder, more concerted actions are required to meet the United Nations ten year horizon for “worldwide energy transformation to avert irreversible ecological damage to the planet.”

The main message of Planet of the Humans is that renewable energy and electric vehicles and other technologies cannot stop climate change, but merely introduce new forms of pollution and environmental destruction. The film’s sense of hopelessness is mesmerizing. Reviewing the progress of renewable energy in recent years, film director Jeff Gibbs sniffs out contradictions and presents them in a kind of cascading epiphany of juvenile disillusionment. Wind farms' intermittency requires massive natural gas power plants. Solar farms destroy the desert. Lithium ion batteries involve new forms of sea-bed mining for rare earth metals. Each solution to climate change creates a new problem, to the extent that it merely repowers the same economy, and the same civil society. Conclusion: humanity is destructive.

Yet, between these layers of accusation lie some very, very important and salient truths.  Planet of the Humans presents harsh realities about our world, mixing up cause and effect, technology and policy. We must unpack these conflations.

In doing so, we find dominant neoliberal currents, often unconscious, at the heart of the environmental movement that profoundly undermine its impactfulness. By continuing to gloss them over in the era of Trump, mainstream environmental organizations are in fact sowing the seeds of counterrevolution. I know this, because I come up against it every day in the very green energy movements I have started, led and in some cases lost to neoliberals who don’t even know they were neoliberals, whose approach to greenhouse gas reduction is to promote the technological fixes and market solutions that are the idols of capitalism, presenting the illusion that solving climate crisis is as simple as a new line of products to consume.

Gibbs and Moore’s critiques are real, but they oversimplify the problem they describe as an existential crisis with no exit. This delivers them into the pessimistic catch-basin of "overpopulation" theory: we simply have to die to solve climate change. This leathery insight is indeed the conclusion of Planet of the Humans.

However, if you look at infrared satellite images of global greenhouse gas emissions, you will quickly observe physical sources do not correspond to high population areas, but to modern economies: that is, machines. Automobiles, power plants and heating fuels cause climate change, not people. Let us look at China as an example. Before it was “opened” by the Clinton Administration to investment from the West, it had very low carbon emissions. In just a couple of decades, its industrial modernization has made it the epicenter of climate catastrophe. Constant driving, overconsumption, and parasitic capitalism have caused climate change. Therefore, to stop climate change, we must alter modernity, not blame people or wallow in misanthropy. Specifically, we must remove the growth imperative from energy. To do this, a climate mobilization strategy must wean itself from neoliberal dependency upon incumbent energy corporations and financiers who require consumption growth in their business models in order to profit from its development.

Oddly, Planet of the Humans reproduces the fictions of neoliberal environmentalism, failing to get to the truth by reifying technology as the problem. This is much as the environmental movement has reified technology as the solution. We must understand that the failures in renewable energy result from policy, regulation, and market design, not technology. By merely focusing on the unwanted attributes of the technological manufacture of solar panels, electric vehicles and wind farms, the film makers betray a naivety about the real reason we are failing.

Meanwhile, environmentalists criticize Planet of the Humans with a similar naivety, citing the film’s "lies" and "attacks" on what they consider to be promising progress. Where their critique fails is in seeing any progress made as close to remotely adequate relative to the scale of the climate crisis, and the hyper-speed by which we must attack it.

Planet of the Humans states that the 100% clean energy movement led by Sierra Club with a $80M donation by Michael Bloomberg has created a renewable front for natural gas. This would seem to imply a nefarious conspiracy, but in fact it merely reflects the state of things, to which Sierra Club and other leading climate warriors have wearily adapted themselves: a state-sanctioned system of salutary fictions.  Because environmentalist leaders, facing limited political options, blur the lines between what is real, and what is symbolic with respect to “clean” energy, they leave themselves open to charges of falsehood. 

Indeed, the renewable energy industry is guilty of the propagation of convenient fictions. Since the 1990's, renewable energy policy has remained inside a neoliberal envelope, widely adopted by state governments and environmental champions of such policies. These policies are the holy grail of renewable energy in 2020, and they include: Renewable Energy Certificates, Carbon Credits, Greening the Grid, Net Energy Metering, and Feed-in Tariffs. Together, these fictions are a startup strategy to begin something new, not an end game strategy to transform energy.

The first fiction is embracing Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) as real, when they are not. The 100% renewable movement is certainly guilty of this, because it does not distinguish between physical and symbolic actions. A Renewable Energy Certificate is a legal invention, not energy: yet the legal invention authorizes its purchaser to call it renewable energy. This is confusing because it is untrue. REC state laws in the most pro-renewables states allow a seller of coal-fired power to claim that his product is 100% renewable, because he purchases RECs from out-of-state wind farms such as in Texas. This is referred to as "mitigation" under state laws throughout the United States and blurred into legal definitions of "green power." This thinking follows a logic that the environmental movement has been trained to accept, from day one of electric industry restructuring in the early 1990's - a market logic. RECs are a financial, not a physical, transaction and so no, we are not building renewable energy, and yes, the power plants generating the power you are purchasing as 100% renewable are in fact coal-fired. The rationale is that the RECs we have purchased will create an "incentive" upstream in the market to become greener.

The fiction of Carbon Credits is that laws allow corporations causing massive amounts of carbon pollution to claim they are 100% carbon neutral by purchasing them. Again, the same claim is made that the purchase of such credits sends an "incentive" to the market to reduce carbon.

The use of “incentives” pervades renewable energy and carbon policy, and profoundly undermines the ability of people to be able to differentiate between the real and the unreal. Today, the environmentalist establishment is guilty of propagating unreal policies in order to galvanize public support of oversimplified, financialized, superficial paths to carbon reduction. Given the mounting urgency of bringing about dramatic carbon reductions to avoid passing the threshold of being able to avert climate catastrophe, movements for climate mobilization must take notice of decades-old incentive schemes that were never designed to do anything but stimulate infant green industries, not physically transform and decarbonize the energy system.

A third fiction is the notion that we can green the grid. The effect of this approach is the equivalent to pissing into the ocean, a growing ocean, of global demand. Adding wind farms and solar farms to the grid is caught in a permanent dilution where, as Planet of the Humans points out, grids require solar farms and wind farms that generate power 20-30% of the time backfill with gas plants to generate 70-80% of the time. This gives the lie to “economies of scale.” As long as renewable energy is not local, meaning sited at the location of use, and indeed smaller, this intermittency will continue to require significant fossil fuel in tandem, and - as the film rightly points out - natural gas is not clean energy: quite the contrary, it is as harmful to the climate as coal.

This brings us to the final, least understood fiction of all. Virtually all on-grid solar systems in the world today are wired, used and paid for on the same fictional principle as RECs, Carbon Credits and the green grid: not to reduce the need for grid power in a building, but to sell power back to the grid. Net Energy Metering (NEM) and Feed-in Tariffs (FIT) are guilty of deliberately avoiding reductions in grid energy demand, and in maximizing energy transactions and grid use, rather than reducing demand and grid use. NEM and FIT render the carbon benefits of solar superficial, and drive up the need for more grid investment, resulting in more fossil fuel use.

These failings of renewable energy are not the result of solar or wind technology and its waste: but of how they are designed, how owned, and controlled. Planet of the Humans makes the fatal mistake of correctly identifying some of the cracks in the edifice of carbon reduction, but widely misses the mark of causality. Their insistence on a kind of sentimental asceticism, for example that solar panel manufacturing requires energy and metals, is a silly, millimeter-deep insight. That windmills are made of steel and concrete is an utterly foolish objection, reflecting an absence of perspective or proportionality, and an eco-Manichean view of all economic activity as dirty and evil. It is critical to parse the fact from the fiction here in order to avoid the existentialist, misanthropic malaise into which this film, in the end, settles, while also agreeing that the alarm raised - that conventional, incrementalist solutions are not adequate - is certainly heard. Planet of the Humans’ successful sniffing out of ironies concealed behind legal platitudes is limited by a resignation and pessimism of the death instinct that is antithetical to our survival and sustainability. We must navigate through the Valley of Subtleties that distinguish hypocrisy from irony. 

Turning away from technological fetishism, negative or positive, we must turn to politics. Why do all of these neoliberal policies have in common the quality of changing individual human behavior (choosing green) without changing the system (actually decarbonizing)? Because deals were made, and "necessary illusions" endorsed. The energy industry, and state governments under their undue influence adopting renewable energy laws, created them to work that way. Electric utilities did not, and do not, want their profits reduced, their revenue requirements changed, and their business models threatened. State mandates can force consumers to pay money toward a good cause, but not force utilities to reduce corporate profits. So it was therefore arranged to measure progress in ("other people's") dollars spent rather than carbon cut. It is a classic study in making progress while not rocking the proverbial boat: incrementalism hidden in a message of moral sacrifice.

The good news is that movements are currently underway to change all of these things, but these are not technological movements. They are not led by billionaire geniuses, big foundations nor even most of the “big” environmental NGOs, but by municipal governments and the activists who support them. Importantly, the centralization of renewable energy development, the obsession with maximizing transactions rather than demand reduction (the growth imperative) and its ineffectiveness as a carbon reduction strategy, are valid insights that mainstream environmental leaders and their campaign messages continue to miss.

Decentralization is a critical pathway, with major movement underway across the nation and world, that the film also simply fails to acknowledge at all, as if it didn’t exist. In fact, the community energy movement is underway, led by a different breed of environmentalists. Local installation, pairing local generation with local use, with local investment, neighbor-level sharing and cooperatives, and interoperable use and storage of onsite energy, present widely replicable, proven strategies to actually, physically, and enduringly slash carbon emissions.  In fact, of the 100% renewable US cities today, many of them, known as Community Choice Aggregations, are taking just this approach.

The film’s snapshot of green energy is a little old, but so is the propaganda of mainstream environmentalists now (idiotically) calling for Planet of the Humans to be censored from the internet. Community energy programs are focusing on deployments of renewable energy technology to not purchase Renewable Energy Certificates, build green megaprojects or implement Net Energy Metering programs, but to finance and build new local renewable, demand-reducing facilities in the urban core. They are physically building renewable energy, microgrids, urban heat loops, and energy efficiency automation in a way that reduces grid demand rather than merely selling back power to the grid. Not only that: they are focusing on climate equity, customer ownership and sharing, and local job creation, so that the majority, not the select few, can participate in and benefit economically from local renewable energy. These movements, which represent the cutting edge of climate action, are finding ways not merely to add green power to a brown grid, but to physically reduce the need for fossil fuel combustion, and to displace demand for heating and transportation fuels.

None of this is on the radar of Moore’s film, but neither is it clearly distinguished in the minds of mainstream environmental groups that promote 100% clean energy cities.  Environmentalists and lawmakers need to learn to get real about carbon reduction if we are to meet the urgent 2030 deadline recently set by the United Nations. We need to get out of startup mode and into endgame mode, that means a radical physical transformation in three years, not ten, to even come anywhere close to reaching the UN targets by 2030. We need clearer paths to radical decarbonization that overcome the glaring contradictions caused by bogus strategies to green the grid, sell renewable energy and carbon credits, and net meter solar. This is a shift from greening to weaning ourselves from the grid: from additionality to subtractionality of carbon, from carbon taxes and fees to energy equity.  Planet of the Humans may be wrong on the details, but environmental activists would be remiss to ignore its message and maintain the useless fictions of neoliberal environmental policy in the era of climate crisis. In the final analysis, this film is a needed call to arms for the environmental movement to embrace an End Game scenario for climate action, effective immediately. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.


Paul Fenn is the author of CCA 3.0: Achieving Greenhouse Gas Reduction (2020), co-director of the Local Green New Deal (, president of Local Power LLC ( and co-author of Enlightenment in an Age of Destruction (2018). He lives in Massachusetts.

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