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Monopoly Energy or Energy Democracy?

Maybe it was the report from California that declared large solar lease investors are making an aggressive grab for Governor Brown's groundbreaking 12,000 MW of distributed generation in CA. Or it could have been an insiders comment that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is (once again) under explosive pressure to auction off Colorado's few untouched public lands for oil and gas leasing. Perhaps it was Secretary of Interior Salazar's push to open 22 million acres of ecologically valuable public land for industrial solar development.

Or maybe it was watching this hilarious, but tragically revealing, 2010 Daily Show where Jon Stewart reminds us that our last eight Presidents have vowed, and failed in various degrees, to achieve energy independence and end our dependency on fossil fuels.

More likely, the State department approval of the Keystone 1 tar sands pipeline, was the final straw.

In any case, I am staring at the hard truth — we local, distributed clean energy advocates, climate and anti-frack/fossil fuel activists, and regular folks who just want affordable clean energy are losing. But it's worse than that.  Our pocketbooks, planet, public safety and welfare have been hijacked as we are forced to depend on increasingly destructive and dirty energy sources.

It's been a discouraging year, especially when measured against the encouraging gains made by the rest of the world. The economy in Ontario, Canada is bursting with clean energy generation and jobs.  Germany has maintained its global lead in solar energy while pushing to go beyond nuclear (despite being downplayed in the U.S.). Japan has adopted a new feed-in tariff (FIT) designed to spur 30,000 MW of renewable energy by 2020. (FIT's are unequivocally the most effective policy incentive for renewable energy.)

The U.S. is dragging desperately behind in the global race to keep climate change in check. At this point (392.39 ppm and counting), it demands no less than a complete and immediate transformation of our global energy system. 

Adding insult to injury, we are even losing hard fought ground. Colorado's pioneer Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing program continues to be derailed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Xcel's abrupt and steep reduction in Solar*Rewards has cost Colorado thousands of good, green jobs. And even a very modest FIT study bill didn't make it past first base in the state legislature earlier this year.  

While there have been a few hard-earned gains, like solar permitting reform legislation, financing remains chronically anemic in most of the U.S. 

In contrast, "monopoly energy" is moving full-throttle ahead.  Massive new natural gas, oil and industrial wind and solar "plays" are being staked out by industries across the nation.  Many are in areas that had been spared from destructive energy development, like Huerfano County in southern Colorado.

After decades of secrecy, exemption and billions in taxpayer subsidies, we are just beginning to understand the true cost of monopoly energy in our communities, public health and environment.  And to make matters worse, when developed under the central, industrial energy model, even renewable energy sources like wind and solar take on the same destructive qualities.

Monopoly energy continues to reap record profits while failing miserably to protect our health and environment.  Public cries grow stronger and demonstrations grow larger and longer.  Yet, our dutifully elected deciders routinely shove our environmental laws aside and widen the path for unpopular and dangerous big energy projects at the bidding of monopoly energy.

All of this leads to the painfully obvious question: Why have we as a nation failed to move ahead to achieve wildly popular (and democratic) local clean energy goals more than 40 years after we recognized the need?   

Germany's solar champion Hermann Scheer offered this answer in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! shortly before his death: “We’re in a race between centralized and decentralized, energy monopoly and energy democracy. The mobilization of society is most important and once people realize they can’t wait for the government or utilities, but can do it themselves, it will change." Most importantly, Scheer said, "people need to act to overcome administrative and bureaucratic barriers that hinder renewable energy. The rules favoring conventional energy and blocking decentralized renewable energy need to be exposed and dismantled.”

Japan has learned the same lesson, albeit far more painfully than Germany.  In a recent report by Paul Gipe on Japan's recent adoption of a feed-in tariff, designed to spur more than 30,000 MW of renewable energy by 2020, he pointed out:

Observers say a key feature of the new law is the creation of a special parliamentary committee to determine the details of the program, including specific tariffs. In the past, this function would normally have been assigned to the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).  However, the political fallout from the nuclear disaster at Fukishima has led to a dramatic loss of trust in METI, which has opposed both the rapid expansion of renewables, and also the use of feed-in tariffs to do so. Taking program design and pricing away from METI is a major victory for renewable energy advocates in Japan. 

Like METI in Japan, monopoly energy (including the utility industry) devoutly opposes progressive renewable energy policies that will decentralize and democratize energy systems in the U.S.  A major player in the Corporatocracy, monopoly energy has captured the White House and most of Congress, dominates state energy politics and in many cases, even controls local agendas.

Until people unite with the understanding that monopoly energy's strangle-hold on our society and resources must be directly challenged and dismantled, as it was in Germany and now Japan, we will continue to expect unrealistic outcomes, bend our expectations to the needs of power, and fall farther behind as the rest of the world transitions to clean energy.

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