Energy Democracy Rising
By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.
February 11, 2016
Sociologists who study social movements grapple with characterizing their subject matter. For some, movements arise to solve problems by way of executing specific agendas. Others postulate that problem-solving agendas can emerge for groups that started out in search of solutions to another problem. Today's quest for "energy democracy" in cities like New York is arising from a social movement matrix demanding more affordable housing as it finds common cause with urban climate movement activists and professionals calling for energy efficiency buildings and replacing fossil fuels for heating, cooling and electricity, with renewable energy.
By happy coincidence two conferences early this year might be omens of an amalgamated social movement that will be animated first by discovering a shared problem: New York's unaffordable housing crisis, driven in part by the expensive, polluting ways we heat, cool and light the homes of low-income residents. Then, housing activists and climate advocates would meet up to devise compatible solutions to their respective agendas: make housing more affordable by keeping operating costs down through big gains in energy efficiency and installation of in-building renewable energy technologies. Developing community solar power or other forms of distributed clean energy, which can open the way to more local decision-making about energy, might also be parts of a shared agenda.
One conference, "Green Preservation of Multi-Family Affordable Housing" did not make claims as a social movement Ground Zero. Rather, in what was a conference of multi-family affordable housing experts, government agencies and energy professionals who shared a commitment to adding to New York City's stock of affordable multi-family buildings by way of making the technical, legal and financial case that major improvements in the energy performance of these properties would control recurring operating expenses that go into every building's operating budget and rent setting calculations.
Speakers at "Green Preservation" gave forceful presentations about the importance of educating property owners, lenders while developing and refining policy programs that work. When concerns were raised about the risk that capital costs of energy upgrade work would be passed through to tenants in the form of higher rents, government housing panelists responded that rules disallow rent increased for energy related capital upgrades in housing under their jurisdiction. Another expert, with a background in lending to affordable multi-family buildings advocated for mandatory carbon abatement laws, to act just like lead and asbestos abatement laws which have done so much to protect the health of urban building occupants. Others observed that with legal requirements in New York City for building energy "retro-commissioning" and volunteer programs like the NYC Energy Retrofit Accelerator and the Brooklyn Queens Demand Management project being rolled out by Con Edison, climate and affordable housing advocates now have opportunities to engage multi-family affordable housing owners and lenders to make smart upgrades to their buildings' energy performance. Through such programs, affordable housing owners and lenders will contribute to a more sustainable urban future, whether or not they identify as climate advocates.
"Green Preservation" offered a thoughtful and informed expert approach to preserving and expanding the number of affordable housing units by deploying a targeted array of energy efficiency inducements and obligations. From this perspective, energy efficiency and cutting NYC's carbon footprint will be an agenda largely executed by government policy-makers, environmental advocates, and electric power utility providers and will help meet the needs of community based housing activists for containing housing costs. The conference take away for Marcia Bystryn, President of the NYCLV, the conference organizer was, "From the South Bronx to Bushwick, community based organizations (CBO's) are on the frontlines of the affordability and sustainability crises and are demonstrating that greening multi-affordable housing is a need, not a luxury. The CBOs that own and manage multi-family affordable housing on our panel all echoed the need for a one-stop-shop where they can access information, and technical and financial assistance to make their buildings greener, healthier and more energy efficient. The City's expanded retrofit accelerator will address some of these needs and we're looking forward to hearing more details on how this initiative will target multi-family affordable housing."
At this juncture two questions arise. First, how far can these experts and professionals go on their own toward scaling-up housing affordability by way of climate-friendly energy practices? Second, what are the most powerful gears of social change for this transformation and how can they be engaged? That's where the social movement part comes in. Here, a well-worn President Franklin Delano Roosevelt story can be put to new use: after winning the 1932 election, FDR met with labor leaders who had plans they wanted the new President to implement. Roosevelt told them: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it."
This is where the "Symposium" organized by a new-kid-on-the block, the New York State Energy Democracy Alliance comes in. Established in 2015, it's a collaboration of community-based organizations, grassroots groups, and policy experts who see an "unprecedented opportunity to make New York's energy system renewable, equitable, accountable, and local." This "Symposium" spotlighted "efforts across the state to build locally owned renewable energy projects, to make homes warmer and healthier, to demand economically and racially just energy policy, to challenge the power of utility companies, to develop resilient community microgrids, and find a just transition away from fossil fuels and nuclear power." Participants and many in the audience demanded "energy democracy" now. A question posed early in the proceedings: how can the planning process for urban infrastructure be made more inclusive and used to drive community economic investment? resonated all day long.
Not every speaker came from the grassroots. Established environmental justice groups like WE ACT, made a connection between energy democracy and housing security as did speakers from an upstate energy county manager and CUNY's Murphy Institute Program on Labor, Climate and the Environment. A Con Edison representative noted how the utility was already acting on the big changes underway in his industry by citing the Brooklyn Queens Demand Management program that is using energy efficiency as the power tool in an economically stressed part of New York City to delay the need to build a new utility substation in that part of the service delivery area. Through this program, utility capital costs will be kept down, which in turn means less reason to raise utility rates paid by landlords and residents.
Audrey Zibelman gave the "Symposium's" keynote address and she embodies the forces of change blowing through the energy Establishment. Ms. Zibelman is Chair of the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) and the leader of the State's Reforming the Energy Vision (REV), a regulatory process to transform the rules governing electric power utilities in the direction of distributed energy services. She made the case that informed and energized communities and their active REV involvement will be essential to the success of meeting the REV's distributed energy resource goals. She added that the REV, which will foster the transition to solar and other renewable energy sources, will be an engine propelling worker training and job creation around the state. Quite a roster for an organization that came into being just last year!
The very excitement and engagement so palpable at "Symposium" should make everyone eager to see where this emergent energy democracy social movement can go. Here are three questions to bear in mind. How will the movement grapple with the thorny complexities of transforming what has been a tightly integrated, highly regulated and technologically complex component of the City and the State's essential infrastructure? Will energy democracy participants' faith in democratic, community-based energy planning be up to the job of getting the resources in place to deliver reliable, affordable and climate-friendly energy? Finally, who will ally with and be responsive to this emergent urban social movement? Only time will tell, but it's a good bet that the answers to these questions will have real consequence for millions of people. If it gains traction, the energy democracy movement will write a new chapter in the long history of the dynamics among political authority, expertise and grass roots advocacy that's now confronting climate change, a morphing utility landscape and the chances for creating a more equitable society that we all can call home.