Opinion: The missing piece of the climate movement and how AU students are filling it
EDCO is fighting for local power and climate action
This article is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Eagle and its staff.
Global warming inspired a global movement. Activists from New York to New Delhi are united in calling for decarbonizing the earth’s electricity. Efforts to address the inequities created and deepened by climate change, collectively dubbed “climate justice,” is a growing movement of its own. Yet, this movement is missing a critical component: Addressing the power structures through which our electric grid is administered.
We must transition to renewable energy, but the vision for who will shape the transition is underdeveloped. The management of our electric grid in the United States is undemocratic. Taking on the fossil fuel industry is a wider task than most people realize. Yes, it requires taking on oil companies and yes, it involves taking on sellout politicians. But we can do both of these things, and control over the transition will still largely be in the hands of monopolies and other unrepresentative institutions that manage the electric grid.
Tackling global warming means rethinking our electricity generation, so developing a new vision for our electricity management is paramount. A talented group of almost two dozen American University students is working on doing just that. The Energy Democracy Coalition (EDCO) is a student-run filmmaking non profit organization based right here at American University. By highlighting a diverse array of community efforts to re-think who controls the grid, EDCO’s goal is to show people around our country and the world how they can take power over the grid and save the planet. So what is EDCO’s vision for the future of the grid?
Empowering communities to have a say in how they get their electricity, often referred to as “energy democracy,” is the core of EDCO’s vision because energy democracy is an angle for climate action that bypasses federal gridlock, cuts emissions and empowers communities in one fell swoop.
How does energy democracy work? The key is scalability and decentralization. The chief frustration of the climate movement today is its inability to swing the world’s major institutions towards substantive action decisively. By scaling down efforts to a community-by-community approach, things change.
Let’s do a thought experiment: Imagine what it would take to make the whole U.S. stop contributing to climate change. It’s a massive, overwhelming task. It requires that we electrify almost three hundred million cars, heat a hundred and forty million homes without gas, redesign air travel, rethink maritime shipping and the list goes on. At the nationwide scale of reference, fighting climate change seems almost impossible.
Now, let's imagine something else. Picture instead what it would take to make just your hometown carbon neutral. Suddenly, the world shrinks, and the impossible tasks of climate action crystallize into manageable goals. Electricity, for example, is often the largest emissions contributor. A single institution likely administers your electricity, be it a utility company or a co-op. Transition that institution from fossil fuels towards renewable energy, and you’ve already come a long way in reducing emissions.
If individual responsibility is the great myth of the climate movement, then the power of community action is the climate movement’s best-kept secret. The same institutions that engage in price gouging, racism, monopoly control over public goods and unaccountable leadership hold the keys to climate action. From Boulder, Colorado to Jackson, Mississippi and beyond, grassroots efforts to take back the grid are already leading to reduced electricity bills, corporate accountability and empowered communities. By amplifying these efforts, we can create a climate-vision that is encouraging rather than burdensome.
Democratizing the grid is decentralized because the grid is managed differently around the country. In some cases, energy democracy means holding electricity cooperatives accountable to their bylaws, electing representative new leaders and re-centering community interests. In other cases, energy democracy means the municipalization of utility companies. Municipalization means the electricity is managed by elected leaders rather than unaccountable bureaucrats. It can also mean fighting monopolies through deregulation and allowing for competitive, renewable options to cut costs and emissions.
Deregulation and municipalization appeal to opposite ends of the political spectrum and display the versatility of energy democracy. Because energy democracy is focused on community needs and efforts, it defies myopic political characterizations of “left versus right” and creates a vision for climate action that anyone can get excited about. Sharing this vision for rethinking our energy grid can give the climate movement the makeover it needs.
Energy democracy brings people together to reclaim power, making it politically effective. Even climate skeptics are interested in having more control over their lives and their wallets. Energy democracy does just that while building a framework for climate action that replaces stagnation with empowerment and abdication with action.
If you’re interested in EDCO’s vision for energy democracy and want to get involved, we need your help. Whether your forte is in social media, filmmaking, research or advocacy, we hope you’ll join our team. To get involved, you can message our Instagram account or visit our website, scroll down and click “Take Action!”
Eli Duncan-Gilmour is a senior in the School of International Service.