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Cori Bush’s public power resolution echoes community demands

On June 3, Congresswoman Cori Bush, backed by “the Squad,” proposed a resolution on public power as a tool to shift to a renewable energy system and to bring energy democracy to low-wealth communities. The resolution goes beyond Biden’s infrastructure plan to address the failure of the outdated energy system.

The public power resolution brought before Congress aims to wrest control away from the profit-driven energy companies and democratize the energy system. The resolution is a progressive and broad ranging roadmap to not only address climate change but also energy poverty. For communities of color and low-wealth communities, utilities often take up a large portion of their income: 43% for African Americans, 20% for Latinos, and 45% for Native Americans. (New Republic)

These utility rates are not only higher due to lower incomes, but also due to poor quality housing that lacks energy efficient appliances or weatherization that wealthier communities have access to. The majority are renters and landlords have little to no incentive to make these housing upgrades. These low-wealth communities also often bear the brunt of fossil fuel pollution due to being located near the point of extraction (mining, drilling and fracking), distribution (pipelines, truck routes, and ports), and energy production (refineries and power plants). This is the nature of capitalism that forces low-wealth residents to live in the most polluted areas in order to access affordable housing.

Some crucial points that the public power resolution addresses are: 

  • Energy as a basic human need, along with water, broadband and other utilities, should be accessible to all.
  • Private investor-owned corporations have failed to address climate and disaster resilience.
  • Investor-owned corporations that fail to take action to meet the goal of zero GHG emissions by 2030 will be taken over by the federal government and then transferred to state, local or Tribal public control.
  • Widespread weatherization and energy efficiency programs will be deployed to fight energy poverty with low-wealth and communities of color as the priority.
  • Energy affordability, a ban on shutoffs, and a cap on energy burdens and energy debt for low-wealth households will be implemented. 
  • Public power renewable infrastructure will be built by union labor, rather than non-union labor which private companies employ.
  • Replace 100% of the existing fossil fuel infrastructure with distributed, cooperative renewable energy by 2030.
  • Remediation and clean up of fossil fuel infrastructure, leaks and spills along with ecological protection and restoration, with low-wealth communities addressed first.
  • Creation of a federal energy democracy screening tool to identify community energy problems and climate justice solutions.
  • Establish a federal program for reuse and recycling of wind turbine blades, solar panels, batteries, and related parts.

Public control of utilities has been a demand of communities across the country as investor-owned energy companies have repeatedly failed to provide energy needs.  

Most recently during the winter storms in Texas, grid failure left the most vulnerable to literally freeze to death in their homes. Previous deep freeze conditions in 2011 and 2014 that brought the grid to near collapse, triggered warnings from the Texas Public Utility Commission that energy companies must make upgrades to the energy system in order to withstand these cold conditions, but the companies took no action. As temperatures hit all-time lows throughout the state in February, as warned, the power grid failed, leaving 3 million without power for days.

Californians have also been demanding public control of Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest energy utility, whose degraded power lines have caused major wildfires in 2017, 2018 and 2019, with over 1,500 smaller fires sparked from their lines over 6 years. At the same time, the company was exposed for siphoning off $100 million from maintenance and safety funds to top executive bonuses and later filing for bankruptcy. 

Seventy-five percent of PG&E lines are in need of repair, but instead of fixing them — or better yet, putting them underground — the company has mandated Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) when high winds and dry conditions heighten fire risk. These shut offs leave millions of residents without power, often for several days at a time with little advance notice. The most vulnerable are hit hardest, leaving those who can’t afford backup generators at risk from deadly heat waves — which often coincide with these shutoffs. Without refrigeration, already food-insecure families are forced to toss spoiled food, and electricity shut offs are all the more dire for those who rely on life-sustaining medical equipment in their homes. The PSPS program was a tactic by PG&E to avoid liability for wildfires, yet their lines still sparked the 2019 Kincade fire despite the planned shut offs. 

Restructuring of energy infrastructure needed to address climate change crisis

In order to stay under 1.5 degrees C warming to avoid runaway climate change, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2030. The United States is responsible for 25 percent of cumulative emissions globally since 1870. And the energy sector is the largest source of GHG emissions, making up 74 percent of all U.S. emissions. 

Approximately two-thirds of U.S. utility providers are investor owned and are powered by fossil fuels. Despite the recent UN State of the Global Climate 2020 report, which warned that we have 5 years to drastically cut emissions or face climate catastrophe, these privately-owned corporations are not only refusing to make the shift to renewable energy sources, but have a long history of blocking legislation on renewables. These companies, whose priority is maximizing the value of shareholder returns, continue to bring pollution and death to low-wealth communities and communities of color while imposing utility shutoffs for unpaid bills.

This resolution is a rational path forward and could be achieved under the capitalist system, but will it go anywhere? Even Biden’s less radical infrastructure proposal is being opposed by centrist Democrats and Republicans alike as “just too much,” and will be greatly watered down if it ever hopes to become binding legislation. So the likelihood that the six Squad members backing this public power resolution will win over enough of the other 429 members of Congress in order to move this forward is very unlikely — that is without mass pressure from below. 

The pressure of the people is key to any progressive reforms won under capitalism. Our “representatives” in Washington — the majority of which come from the millionaire class — don’t speak for the masses, but rather act in the interest of their corporate backers to maintain the system of capitalism. 

But when mass movements bring unrelenting pressure from below, we can’t be ignored. This is how all the progressive gains of the past have been won, from FDR’s New Deal to unemployment rights, to civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. It was due to the mounting pressure from the workers that forced concessions from the ruling class. 

Under capitalism the laws of profit and endless growth determine the decisions of corporations, which is why PG&E chooses to implement planned power shut offs rather than upgrade power lines to prevent wildfires. It’s illogical and the people suffer, but it maximizes investor returns. If one CEO decides to have morals and take action on climate change or protections for the community, they will just be replaced by another CEO without those morals. That’s how capitalism works. And the power we have as individuals is when we organize and fight back collectively. 

That collective fight back is what is needed to get the government to really act on climate change and to win a public-controlled renewable energy system. While we fight for these reforms, we should also keep our eyes on the prize — which is socialism, a system that eliminates the need to constantly fight the 1% for our basic rights and puts all of society’s and the planet’s needs under permanent public control. 

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