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Van Jones Promotes Smart Grid, but is it Really Smart?

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If ever you need to push a progressive agenda, you’d do well to have Van Jones on your side. The first time I saw him, at a conference in Oakland speaking about his work with incarcerated youth, he transfixed an audience of six-hundred for forty-five minutes of laughter and tears and applause. The Yale-educated civil rights attorney is a heavyweight orator: Who else gets a round of applause after their congressional testimony?

So naturally I was excited when Jones joined President Obama’s green-team, but he’s going to have his hands full with the big utilities and their so-called “Smart Grid” program. You see, anytime I’m told something is smart, I just have to check, and in this case, my worst fears were realized. So when Jones told Congress that building the “Smart Grid” would create benefits on the level that building our interstate highway-system did, I cringed. When he said that consumers would save money due to improved energy efficiency, I sighed. Here’s the problem:

First, the benefits of our interstate highway system are a direct result of our decision to put our highways in the public trust, rather than allowing them to be privately owned. Imagine selling our highway system to General Motors, and letting them decide which cars are allowed on the road. It’s unthinkable, and yet with electric power we are still letting big utilities dictate who gets to put their electricity on the wires. Is it any wonder that the power grid is still dominated by a few, big players rather than by thousands upon thousands of renewable energy entrepreneurs?

As far as energy efficiency goes, the days when consumers could save money by becoming more energy efficient are fading fast. Many states have already passed laws ensuring that when consumers cut their electricity use, utilities are still entitled to the same amount of money. Here’s how it works: If you cut your electricity bill by becoming more efficient, the utility simply bills the amount you saved to other customers. Here in New Mexico, utilities call this charge an “Energy Efficiency Fee”. As electricity use goes down, they simply increase the fee. Guaranteeing the utility’s revenues as usage falls was necessary, we are told, to allow them to go into the energy efficiency business. Utilities promoting energy efficiency? Boy, are we gullible. Using that logic, we should guarantee gasoline revenues, and then put ExxonMobil in charge of curing petroleum addiction!

The “Smart Grid” program that Jones is promoting doesn’t fix these problems – it makes them worse. When the Bush administration was writing the rules for the program, they included a provision requiring States to pursue policies that allow utilities to recover the value of assets rendered obsolete by “Smart Grid”. Now that’s a mouthful, so here’s a translation: If the old, dumb grid becomes useless after we build the new, smart one, we have to keep paying for it anyway. From a legal perspective, that is groundbreaking: I don’t know of any other industry that has a law protecting it from obsolescence. I hope the makers of eight-track tapes don’t catch on to this – they’re gonna want a piece of that action!

Van Jones’ new job in the Obama administration is to ensure that our green-energy programs create benefits across the socioeconomic spectrum. Jones is already saying that greening the power grid could create the kind of jobs that lift people out of poverty. What he isn’t saying is that our power grid has always had that potential. He needs to point out that the reason it hasn’t happened is that private ownership of the grid has given utilities too much control.

Now that he’s got the president’s ear, there’s an unprecedented opportunity to reconfigure the power grid in a way that allows all of us to participate in making it green. Putting the grid in the public trust would start us down the path to a more just and sustainable economy. It’s an opportunity we must capitalize on, and the time to do it has never been better.

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Creating Local Energy Markets

This commentary aired October 1, 2008 on KUNM.

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One of the greatest myths of our time is that renewable energy isn’t quite ready to compete with so-called “conventional” sources of energy. More research is needed, we are told, because renewables are still too expensive. So onward we march, powering our homes with coal and filling our gas tanks with imported go-juice, all the while shipping bagfuls of cash out of our communities to pay for it.

There is a lot of evidence that this myth about renewable energy is false. Many countries smaller than ours are installing renewables faster than we are, creating jobs and increasing their self-reliance while lessening their environmental footprint. So, why does the myth still play so well in the United States?

One reason is that the oil, gas, coal, and nuclear companies here are actively engaged in energy policymaking, and they repeatedly tell the myth to lawmakers at all levels of government. Using carefully crafted messages backed by well-funded research, they tell the same story again and again: We wish we could...we look forward to the day when we can...but right now, we just can’t.

The key to telling a lie is delivering it alongside the truth. And it is, in fact, true that we haven’t figured out how to turn bloated, investor-owned monopolies and their overpaid executives into agents of community sustainability. If that were the plan, renewable energy would never be ready.

There is, on the other hand, a way to roll out renewables right now that would stabilize energy prices, create good jobs, retain energy-dollars in the local community, and provide secure and sustainable energy for the long term. It isn’t being proposed by either of the major party candidates for president, who instead keep insisting that renewables aren’t enough, and that we need to develop nuclear power as well as some strange substance they are calling “clean coal”.

No, it turns out that renewables can serve all of our needs, and the transition can happen quickly if we would just provide one thing that’s missing: a market. If we set up a market whereby independent energy suppliers could trade with independent energy consumers, we’d be all done.

Now, there have already been many attempts to create local markets for energy, but nearly all of them have been shut down by incumbent energy suppliers. I know this one guy who was trying to sell high-efficiency cogeneration systems, until one day he discovered that the utility was offering cut-rate electricity to his prospective customers in exchange for an agreement that they don’t buy one of his systems. He sued the utility, but as soon as the utility realized they were going to lose the case, they settled out of court. Did the utility retreat in shame, and amend their practices? Hardly! Instead, they drafted a law making what they were doing legal, and persuaded their state legislature to enact the law. Now, whenever a customer even thinks about putting in a clean, efficient, on-site system to generate their own power, utilities can offer something called a “load-retention rate” to entice them not to do it. That’s just one of their tricks – the list is long.

If lawmakers and regulators are unwilling to keep incumbent energy suppliers from obstructing the market for local, independent renewable energy, we’ll need to create this new market ourselves. All we need to do is organize all the energy consumers who already want to buy clean, locally generated power and heat, and form alliances with the local, independent energy producers. The only hard part will be fighting against an enormous, entrenched opposition of dirty energy suppliers, but in reality, we have all the power we need to pull this off.

Because next year, as we set out to spend another two-trillion dollars meeting our energy needs, we can simply decide to give the money to independent energy companies right here in our community.

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Drilling Offshore in the Age of Hurricanes

This commentary aired on KUNM on September 2, 2008

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There’s nothing quite like a hurricane bearing down on the world’s largest collection of oil and gas rigs to remind you just how bad an idea it is to drill offshore. Now, I know Hurricane Gustav was no Katrina or Rita, the pair that delivered the one-two punch to the Gulf in 2005, opening up 600 separate oil spills and dumping 750,000 gallons of crude oil into a fragile, coastal waterway. What’s that? You didn’t hear Katrina and Rita left behind one of the worst environmental disasters of all time? Well, a lot of news outlets reported that not a drop of oil was spilled, and Presidential candidate John McCain recently repeated this myth when he cited those two hurricanes as evidence that it’s now “safe” to drill offshore.

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Telling the Truth About Oil, Wind, and Water

With the news these days dominated by Michael Phelps winning Olympic gold medals, John Edwards confessing to marital affairs, and Paris Hilton deciding to run for president, I barely even want to know the details of Russia’s recent invasion of Georgia – its neighbor to the south. Russia isn’t even a super-power anymore, and from what I hear, they’re just acting out some leftover anger from the Cold War days. It’s not like Georgia has any oil, does it?  (Full commentary is here.)

This commentary aired on KUNM on August 18, 2008.

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By Protecting Utilities, We Make Communities Vulnerable

“Revenue Decoupling” programs are the latest in a long series of egregious schemes designed to protect the electric-utility industry. The real name for such programs should be “Revenue Guarantees”. As residents of a community begin to suffer from higher electricity costs, the most powerful tool they have is to reduce energy use. But  with a revenue decoupling law, the savings enjoyed by one resident are simply billed to the other residents.

The full commentary is posted here.

News Stories This Week:
Crude Oil Price Instability: It’s 1979 All Over Again
T. Boone Pickens Wants Wind to Pump Water
Santa Feans Call for a National Public Power Grid

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