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5 big takeaways on the grassroots clean energy revolution

U.S. communities are taking control of energy decisions and building clean energy projects. Follow Canary’s week of special coverage, Power by the People.

A protestor holds up a sign that says clean energy, clean future
(Christie Cooper/Shutterstock.com)
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This story introduces our weeklong series Power by the People: Clean Energy from the Grassroots.

Americans technically have a democratic say in the energy decisions that power their lives, pollute their communities, and dictate economic development and jobs. 

But, much like democracy at large, the American energy system often fails to answer to the voice of the people. Well-resourced incumbent utilities and energy companies wield tremendous influence, and they regularly co-opt the entities meant to oversee them for the public good.

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If you follow the news coverage about the clean energy transition, you may get the sense that the people driving it are all entrepreneurs, executives, venture capitalists and politicians. It’s true that boardroom decisions to eliminate carbon emissions and invest in new clean technologies play a crucial role in the shift from fossil fuels, as does sweeping legislation. But there’s a quiet revolution happening at the ground level in communities across the country (most of which don’t have the luxury of million-dollar marketing budgets). People who’ve been marginalized and harmed by old energy paradigms are finding ways to access clean energy for themselves and solve long-standing problems.

To document this bottom-up revolution, Canary Media is dedicating this week’s coverage to Power By the People. We scoured the country for stories of communities seizing control of their energy destinies after utilities and government bureaucracies failed to deliver what they needed. The availability of cheap solar, batteries and other tools gives communities new options to cleanly power themselves, and neighborhoods across the country are availing themselves of this opportunity.

We also found instances of communities exerting democratic power through existing but often overlooked channels in the political system. These profiles, deep dives and case studies show what’s possible when people get organized and push for an energy system that serves their needs. Maybe you’ll see an idea that could work in your own neighborhood.

We hope you check out all the Power By the People stories coming out this week, plus a podcast and a live virtual event Wednesday. To get you started on this journey, we’ve distilled five major takeaways from our series on grassroots energy democracy.

Clean energy can unlock energy sovereignty”

Tribal lands have too often been the site of destructive energy extraction, leaving Native communities to deal with pollution and environmental losses while the profits and energy were shipped elsewhere.

Our week of coverage kicks off on Indigenous Peoples Day with this story about a growing movement among Native communities to build and control their own clean energy. By reclaiming energy sovereignty, they aim to protect ecosystems and sacred places, and to ensure that energy development benefits rather than exploits the people living on that land.

If this transition isn’t done by Native people for Native people, it can be just as extractive as fossil development,” said Chéri A. Smith, founder and CEO of Indigenized Energy and a descendant of the Mi’kmaq Tribe of present-day Maine and the Canadian Maritime provinces. 

One particularly ambitious plan in the Pacific Northwest would replace 5,311 megawatts of Snake River hydropower capacity with Native-developed solar and energy storage on tribal lands. Doing so would facilitate breaching four dams to restore fish populations devastated by their construction.

The amount of installed and operating projects is still limited, but it is poised to increase. A group called Nimiipuu Energy, formed by the Nez Perce, has installed 750 kilowatts of solar and 1.7 megawatt-hours of battery storage capacity across seven individual sites. But the group’s next phase of development calls for 30 megawatts of solar and 120 megawatt-hours of battery storage, on the way to building 500 megawatts by 2027.

Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation is working on several massive solar developments to inject clean electricity onto the grid where coal plants once burned but have since shut down, leaving economic losses in their wake. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is developing more than 900 megawatts of utility-scale solar. A public benefit corporation called Navajo Power is working on 750 megawatts of solar and storage. These are all major contributions to American utility-scale renewables construction.

Native energy efforts are further bolstered by last year’s infrastructure law and this year’s Inflation Reduction Act, which dedicate billions of dollars to tribal climate resilience and adaptation. The projects underway today are just the beginning.

Clean energy can be a tool for urban industrial revival that actually benefits the community

Community organizers in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, an area hit by deindustrialization of the once-bustling port, pulled off a stunning reversal (as detailed in this piece and this companion podcast episode from Canary’s Maria Gallucci).

An abandoned marine terminal in that neighborhood could have been turned into high-end housing and retail, hitting the workers in the surrounding area with higher property values without delivering high-wage jobs. It could have lured a new factory, offering better wages but subjecting the neighborhood to even more air pollution. Or it could have stayed vacant, providing little value to anyone.

Instead, after years of organizing and advocacy, community groups like UPROSE worked with the city to woo Norwegian energy giant Equinor to revitalize the site as the staging ground for its massive new offshore wind developments.

Alexa Avilés, a city council member who represents Sunset Park, says residents began to envision a world in which they didn’t have to choose between well-paying jobs at polluting factories, or derelict spaces but cleaner air. We felt like no, we want oxygen and a good wage,” she adds. We deserve both.”

Equinor and partner BP will invest $250 million to modernize the shipping terminal and make it a low-emissions facility. They also will fund training for local residents to work in the emerging offshore wind industry — something that benefits both the community and Equinor, given that an American offshore wind workforce is essentially nonexistent so far.

It’s the rare junction of urban revitalization, industrial planning, clean energy and community engagement. Not every American city can host an offshore wind hub, but there are plenty of other forms of clean energy that can play a similarly multifaceted role elsewhere.

Not all clean” energy is just and equitable

In our report on the accelerating push for energy sovereignty by Native American tribes, you can read about how technically clean, carbon-free hydropower has too often devastated Native communities. For example, dams on the Snake River have decimated the fish populations that Native communities depend on for subsistence. Even the use of existing hydro facilities to store clean energy — a potentially valuable tool in the grid decarbonization effort — can cause water flows incompatible with healthy fish habitats.

There’s a way to make this energy transition beneficial to the environment, not just for climate impacts, but for a much more sensible and sustainable way to operate the river system,” said Jeremy FiveCrows, communications director at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. 

Compared to hydropower, solar panels entail far less disruption to the environment, but they can perpetuate inequality if access is limited to a select few.

Relatively wealthy people who want to go solar are doing it, and everyone else is left with this expensive and unstable power grid,” said Cathy Kunkel of Puerto Rico–based environmental group Cambio PR. That group works with a nationwide network of rooftop solar cooperatives called Solar United Neighbors to help communities band together and collectively buy solar at more favorable rates and terms (catch the full story on Tuesday).

Efforts such as these put decision-making in the hands of more people than traditionally would be involved in solar deployment. Community-led projects will be more attuned to the local impacts of energy development. In some cases, that will slow or stop projects that may otherwise get built. But it also broadens the coalition supporting the ongoing transition to clean energy, which is valuable for the political durability of this decades-long mission.

Neighbors do better when they work together

The rough-and-tumble world of capitalist competition doesn’t exactly encourage the practice of helping your neighbors.

But our story on community-driven solar cooperatives reveals something important: When neighbors band together to obtain local clean energy, they perform better in the marketplace and become a powerful force for advocacy.

Solar United Neighbors (SUN — see what they did there?) assists groups of people around the country who want to create their own solar cooperative. By pooling their demand and buying as a bloc, neighbors get better pricing than individual consumers would — typically 10 to 30 percent cheaper than the individual rate. This also helps the solar installers who often pay a lot of money to sign up customers, and who save on their operations by mobilizing to do a bunch of work in the same neighborhood. 

So far, more than 6,000 households have installed solar through SUN-assisted co-ops across numerous states and Puerto Rico. That’s just a sliver of the national population. But it’s a proof of concept that consumers getting engaged in clean energy don’t have to do so as atomized, lonely individuals. Indeed, they do better financially as team players. And once the solar is installed, co-op members have remained coordinated to advocate for their shared interests in clean, localized energy.

Other collective efforts to install clean energy have yielded a similar combination of financial and organizational benefits. For the majority-Black community of Highland Park, Michigan, the status quo energy situation was unacceptable. Utility DTE Energy literally ripped out all the community’s lampposts, leaving the streets in the dark. Then DTE jacked the rates multiple times and cut off power to Highland Park families that fell behind in payments, even in the middle of harsh northern winters. But this increasingly expensive grid service still suffers from multiday blackouts.

Fixing these structural problems required political organizing to demand change from the powers that be, said De’Angelus Garcia Jr., a local organizer. But the people of Highland Park also chose to build their capacity to make change on their own.

Being able to resolve our own issues is one of our guiding principles,” said Garcia, who works with the Soulardarity collective. The group is building community-owned solar as a way to deliver cheaper and more resilient power than what the utility offers. (Find out about this and other community resilience campaigns around the country in a piece by Canary’s Jeff St. John.)

Control of the energy system may seem beyond the reach of ordinary people, but levers exist for more democratic participation

Governance of monopoly utilities can seem wholly out of reach to the average person, but individuals have more power than they realize. On Wednesday, we’re publishing an explainer on public utility commissions, the often-overlooked gatekeepers of the clean energy transition.

The PUCs in each state — usually made up of just a handful of individuals — determine what power plants and transmission lines get built, how electric vehicle chargers proliferate, and what utilities owe to communities that long hosted the coal and gas plants that are now shutting down in the shift to a low-carbon grid. The commissions wield enormous power, but most people remain in the dark about how they operate or even about their very existence. 

These regulators operate in arcane, legalistic ways that can be inscrutable and exclusionary to regular people. But a small cadre of advocates keep close tabs on them on behalf of the broader populace, and they have advice for people who want to get involved. When nobody pays attention to these commissions, shifty things can happen. But when communities get organized and weigh in on issues of energy justice, it can change the outcome for the better.

And the regulators are chosen through democratic processes, either elected directly by the people or appointed by politicians who are elected by the people. So if a community is fired up about getting cleaner, more resilient energy, they can mobilize to ensure the people regulating the energy sector get the message.

Be sure to check back every day this week for our Power by the People special coverage.

Julian Spector is senior reporter at Canary Media.