Sustainable, Just, and Democratic
Edited by Melissa K. Scanlan
Chapter 10: Unlocking the energy commons: expanding community energy generation
The battle over the future of net energy metering in the United States is alive and well. Utilities decry the benefits of compensating homeowners for rooftop solar generation, often relying on the argument that net energy metering programs harm low-income populations that lack opportunities to participate in the solar revolution. Thus, the argument goes, the status quo should remain to protect the most vulnerable. Solar advocates, on the other hand, push for a broader analysis of the true benefits of rooftop solar generation to overall grid stability and to reduce carbon emissions. They argue for expanding rooftop solar markets where such markets are available, and urge the modern utility structure to change to foster deeper resiliency. This chapter posits that energy justice lies at the heart of this debate, but it is missing from the discourse. Neither side of the debate advances a comprehensive solution that resolves the vulnerability question while also expanding opportunities for access. The chapter argues that curtailing extensive net energy metering programs without creating authentic opportunities for participation in renewable energy generation by low-income communities deepens inequality and vulnerability. Although the existing community energy programs, as currently contemplated, hold some promise, positioning such initiatives within the current electric utility generation paradigm might actually decrease resiliency in low-income communities. The energy justice frame illuminates several pathways to resolve these potentially contradictory outcomes. This chapter suggests that community energy initiatives, while imperfect, offer an opportunity to locate renewable energy resources within a commons, thereby advancing energy justice and upending the current analytical frame that holds together the net energy metering debate. Community energy programs can address vulnerability by expanding market access to renewable energy generation for low-income communities, obviating the need to maintain the current generation monopoly held by modern utilities. Moreover, if crafted correctly, community energy programs could also address inequality by providing communities an opportunity to generate, own and distribute renewable energy. Finally, transformative community-based energy planning development offers an opportunity to increase resiliency, transform existing economic relationships, reconceptualise the nature of energy, and promote equality.
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