Community Choice: A shift toward decentralized, localized, sustainable economies

(Image: Center for Social Inclusion)

(Image: Center for Social Inclusion)

There’s a stealth revolution underway in California, and its transformative potential is greater than even many of its own proponents appreciate. The Community Choice energy movement has quietly swept into power, forming locally-controlled, not-for-profit electricity service agencies in San Francisco and three other jurisdictions. Dozens more Community Choice programs are in the pipeline and, within the next few years, half of Californians, and smaller fractions in six other states, could get their electricity from their local Community Choice program.

The monopoly utilities that have dominated the energy sector for over a century will continue to deliver electricity over existing transmission lines, but decisions about what type of electricity powers our lives will increasingly be in the hands of local government agencies far more accountable to the community than utility executives. Because revenue is reinvested in the program rather than redistributed to utility shareholders and executives, Community Choice programs have considerable financial resources to provide services and benefits that are responsive to local community needs.

We the people get to decide how quickly to develop local renewable energy and what kind. We decide how much to invest in electricity demand reduction programs. And we decide whether to include in our electricity mix dangerous technologies such as nuclear energy and fracked gas.

When the Community Choice movement first started gaining momentum, climate change was the call to action.  Community Choice was, and still is, seen as a powerful mechanism for curbing greenhouse gas emissions and enabling cities to achieve their climate action goals.

But a lot has happened since the 2002 passage of California’s Community Choice legislation. The 2008 financial crash happened. Occupy happened. Black Lives Matter happened. Superstorm Sandy and mega-droughts in the western United States and Middle East happened, and we saw that climate catastrophes hit poor people with lethal force and with global repercussions. We saw that climate change amplifies existing social and political dysfunctions which are already threatening to destabilize society to the breaking point. Turn up the heat a few degrees, and our weak institutions and social fabric will go up in smoke.

As our awareness of the depth and disastrousness of social inequality was heightened, it started dawning on us that Community Choice could help address not only climate change but also economic and racial injustice. In Community Choice, we have an opportunity—and a moral obligation—to maximize the economic benefits for the community.

The Community Choice movement is evolving in tandem with other wings of the progressive movement. It’s coming to be seen as part of a broader democratic shift toward decentralized, localized, sustainable economies.

This “just transition” or “great turning” as it’s sometimes called is the subject of hundreds of articles, books and conferences, but I’ll grossly oversimplify it as follows: Our human rights to water, food, medicine, shelter, and energy can be best met by a system that equitably and prudently shares and manages the resources available in our bio-region. This type of sustainable, equitable planning and resource allocation can be achieved through democratic processes at the level of the bio-region with limited trading of commodities between bio-regions. In such a society, the role of multi-national corporations wanes in proportion to the rise of democratic institutions and worker-owned enterprises.

This vision isn’t merely a progressive fantasy; it’s a vitally necessary transition that must be undertaken if we as a society are going to survive the climate catastrophe already bearing down on us. (For more on localization, see my recent Truthout article).

Mounting climate and economic instability has delivered us to a crossroads. The current approach is to do more or less nothing and assume that the global one percent will be able to buffer itself from the worst impacts well enough to keep the economy and civilization afloat. When things inevitably fall apart under this laissez-faire scenario, a strongman like Trump will step in and impose some kind of autocratic order.

Thus might the super-rich be able to hang on for a while, but the endgame isn’t pretty. Fascists adhere to the myth that the natural world has no value apart from what humans (who are separate from and superior to nature) extract from it and that competitive hyper-individualism is our highest calling.  This worldview is, of course, as delusional and nihilistic as the Thousand Year Reich and can only end in ecocide.

The other approach focuses on keeping 100% of us humans alive and well by aligning our culture and economy with the non-negotiable realities of Mother Nature. We already see the seeds of a sustainable future in the movements for agro-ecology, local food sovereignty, cooperative fisheries and forestry, public banking, decentralized clean energy, shared or public ownership of cars, bikes and other durable goods, and worker-owned small businesses.

These initiatives are already happening on a small scale and have an important advantage over the current system: Corporations, monopoly utilities included, squander their resources in payouts to executives and shareholders—they could produce better, more durable and sustainably-sourced products, but they don’t and, because they don’t, they will eventually falter.

Waste not, want not.

Give people the tools and the power to organize their own society, and they will do it and do it in ways that endure beyond the next quarterly earnings statement and the next election. People-powered enterprises and institutions are made to last.

Community Choice fulfills the modern human right to energy. Programs controlled by the community can adjust rates, suspend shutoffs, reduce consumption, provide clean energy, and create local jobs, all the while keeping a community’s energy dollars circulating in the local economy. That’s a virtuous cycle. That’s a sustainable and just cycle. That’s the kind of cycle we will need to survive our looming energy-constrained, climate-disrupted, economically-pinched future.

The “community” in Community Choice can help us take care of each other, including our most vulnerable. The future, if we are to have one, will be altruistic. Community Choice is one important piece of the jigsaw puzzle of how seven billion humans can inhabit–and repair–an ailing planet.

Erica Etelson is the co-founder of the California Alliance for Community Energy. She tweets @iluvsolar.


3 replies
  1. Roland James
    Roland James says:

    Paying the lowest possible price for gasoline and electricity is almost gospel in the U.S. However, cost-based pricing and taxing, such as they have in northern Europe and in the electricity sector in Ca, can lead to significantly less consumption (the typical residential customer for San Antonio City Public Service, whose residential rate schedule has a basic service charge and a flat 9.5 cents/kwhr, is 1500 kwhrs per month, triple Ca. CaPUC’s steeply inverted residential rate structures have also helped lead Ca to have more rooftop solar than the other 49 states combined. This didn’t satisfy large residential customers in Marin and Sonoma counties, who didn’t want to pay 34-40 cents for usage above 800 kwhrs but wanted renewable energy. So you have Community Choice Aggregation and Sonoma Clean Power….SCP is able to outbid PG&E, e.g., for geothermal power from the Geysers, but it hasn’t built any renewable power itself. How does that help anything except rich people feeling better about their own consumption of clean energy.
    Also, CaPUC inverted rate structure already benefits low-income and low-use customers. A carbon tax/fee returned equally, or across-the-board, would also benefit low-income and low-use customers.

    The kind of policies that would be enough to address Global Climate Change (GCC) “seem preposterous to the political and economic {and environmental} status quo.”-Mark Hertsgaard quoted in Naomi Klein’s ’This Changes Everything’

  2. Barbara Stebbins
    Barbara Stebbins says:

    Great commentary by Erica Etelson. She weaves the sustainable potential of a program like Community Choice Energy into the larger picture of what won’t work about our current economic system, and the kinds of programs we need to foster a sustainable future, helping to create a more holistic, believable vision of that future. I recommend her Local Pants article in Truthout as well.


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