The Heart of Climate Justice: Creating the Energy Infrastructure We Want to See

I want to start by talking a little about the journey that brought me to my work as general manager of Cooperative Energy Futures, because I think it’s taught me a lot about what climate justice means, about the world we live in right now, and what we need to do about it.

I grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, right across the river from Manhattan. It’s very similar economically and demographically to the Bronx or Harlem or Brooklyn (or at least Brooklyn up until about ten years ago). It was a place where you could see the fractures and the differences in our communities. You had folks pushing shopping carts containing all their belongings walking down the street right next to executives making many millions of dollars a year, even taking the subway together. Jersey City was one of the main centers for chromium chemical manufacturing in the country. (Chromium in water was what Erin Brockovich sued Pacific Gas & Electric for in the 1990s.) Jersey City has the highest concentrations of chromium in the United States. It was actually used as construction-fill in homes about 150 years ago, so now this carcinogen is in 600 sites all across our community, including residential homes.

I grew up about a mile and a half away from one of the dirtiest coal plants in the country, in a county where a million people drive every day, going from the suburbs in Greater New Jersey to New York City on massive highways that break communities where most people don’t have access to transportation. Where there are no grocery stores. I grew up having all sorts of respiratory problems and am really thankful to now be able to live in a place like Minnesota where, despite being a city that still has air-quality issues, I don’t have to deal with those problems on a daily basis. In that sense, climate justice has been about the air I breathed since I was born.

I didn’t look at it as an environmental issue when I was growing up. I felt that we’d built a society that didn’t make sense in a lot of ways—that we’d built our communities so that some people had wealth and access to unimaginable resources, and people right next door couldn’t eat, couldn’t have light and heat, were living in housing infested with roaches, and were having to work forty to sixty, sometimes up to eighty hours a week just to pay for their basic needs while still going into debt. It’s bewildering to consider that this is what we’re doing. This doesn’t make any sense.

At the same time, I found myself in awe of how it was possible, in the midst of all this pollution, all of this destruction—both ecological and human—that there were still all these birds making their life in the city. That the trees were still growing. They were finding a way to do it, creating the capacity for life to grow and thrive and make a living here in this place where I was also growing up and that was literally toxic.

At the energy co-op, we have this kind of closed loop where you get to work in this sector, you get to subscribe, but you also get to govern.

For me, it was the beginning of an exploration into what it is to build a very different kind of community, a very different type of society. I have been organizing in some way, shape, or form since I was in high school. I was very focused on energy issues because I look at energy and I see it as the lifeblood of a society. It’s what fuels our industry, our transportation; it organizes how we can literally structure our cities and our communities; it really is at the center of how we do what we do.

One of the things I’m really inspired by today is that, as desperate as the situation is and as far behind as we are in engaging with the likelihood of environmental collapse, it’s a conversation we’re having now. It’s a conversation happening in hundreds and thousands of communities all across the world. That wasn’t the case in any real way when I was growing up. I remember when I was eleven or twelve years old, I read that a whole bunch of scientists were saying that sometime in the next seventy years we were going to face catastrophic environmental collapse unless we dramatically transformed. And I was doing the math—thinking, okay, I’m going to be, what, eighty-one when that happens. How come nobody was talking about this?

Around that same time, I committed to spending my life making a different world. To be clear, I didn’t really believe it was possible. I believed, and I still think there’s a pretty decent chance, that even if we invested deeply in a just, sustainable, healthy, thriving world, we’re unlikely to get there. But I’m committed to it anyway because the alternative is unlivable.

I think there’s a very important emotional and psychological journey we must go on as we’re dealing with something as gigantic as climate change, which is to realize that we’re not going to have a big happy ending to this in any of our lifetimes. Even if we were to transform our whole economy, our whole climate, the impacts ahead would still be severe. Looking at the science, at the math, if we were to stop burning all the fossil fuels immediately, we’d experience economic and societal collapse. And yet, even if we shut all of that down, the atmosphere would keep warming because of all the carbon and all the methane already in the atmosphere. The impacts we’re seeing—the hurricanes and the fires and all—are just the beginning.

So we’re simultaneously stepping into this process of transforming all of our systems far faster than we think is possible or may even be possible—transforming our energy system, our food system, the design of our cities and our transportation—and we also have to be in a place socially and politically where we’re ready to take care of each other in a world far less predictable and far more chaotic than the one we live in right now. That was sort of the emotional moment I was stepping into as a teenager. Very scary. (It’s still very scary.)

That sense of being overwhelmed by something I had committed to with all my heart started to change after I graduated from high school. In the summer of 2005 a friend and I took a bus up to Boston and met up with these folks, mostly college students, who were launching what was at that time called the Climate Campaign. This was tied to the origin of the Energy Action Coalition and the Power Shift conferences, which planted the seeds in the mid-2000s of a massive wave of youth activism on college campuses. And that wave extended into youth action pushing the federal government on the United Nations’ processes around climate change. Over the past fifteen years, this movement has grown as more and more youth are saying: we need to head in a very different direction; we need to take a stand; we need to lead. We need to lead locally in our communities, in the spaces in which we control and can influence our colleges, our communities. And we need to demand that same sort of leadership from our cities, from our states, from our federal government, from the whole global community. That has evolved and grown into something that’s much bigger and deeper than what we had fifteen years ago.

Attending the Climate Campaign meeting in 2005 brought the revelation that I’d been trying to organize high school students who weren’t thinking about things like climate change very much. And there was this whole network of people working at a much larger scale who had real insight into how to organize and how to make change, and they were going for it. That was really inspiring. Yet coming from the community that I come from, it was also very clear that a lot of this conversation was about college campuses. Climate solutions on campus are great and we have to make change there, but it’s a very privileged perch of our overall society. Additionally, most of the action was happening in the northeast and California, but what about the middle of the country? What about the South? What about rural America? What does it take to bring organizing and change-making for climate justice to the rest of our communities?

Exposure to the youth climate movement and to environmental nonprofits working on climate change also allowed me to notice some challenges in how change agents were talking about climate. For so long climate change has been perceived and talked about as a pollution problem: we just have to clean up these power plants; we have to put some new technology on these devices and make them cleaner—that’s really all it is. Not a question of: How are we all making a living? How are we all eating? How are we all getting housed and transported and powered? How do we reimagine, rebuild, and reinvent everything that we need every day?

This is an incredibly daunting and exciting question. If we can address it, we can make a much better world for all sorts of other reasons that relate to the deep injustices in our society. This work is not optional because it’s not like carbon is some contaminant in our energy supply. It is fundamental to the chemical reaction of fossil fuels. It’s just part of the process if you’re burning stuff. What does it look like to have an energy system and build an economy that’s not based on burning stuff? Western civilization has been burning more and more concentrated forms of energy for 400-500 years. It’s time to head on a different track that reconnects us to energy sources that are based in our communities and based in our local ecosystems, and to have a much deeper relationship with that energy and those ecosystems.

With this I dove into the work head on. At the college level, I organized young people across the Midwest and in different colleges and universities. I also started to explore how we actually make this work for a new type of economy. I did some work on redevelopment plans for the Ford site in St. Paul, and ten years ago helped launch the energy co-op that I’m working on today. And I did youth leadership development, basically training high school and college-aged young people in how to knit together community organizing and local economic development to create solutions.

Through all of that, I’ve learned that the opportunity in front of us is limitless. We can build new food systems that are healthier, protect the land, and create long-term stability in rural communities. We can transform our transportation sector. We can rebuild how we do energy. We can reorganize our cities. We can build healthier housing and community structures. Which begs the question: Why aren’t we going forth and doing this?

Allow me to use this as a quick transition into talking about infrastructure, specifically one infrastructure system I spend a lot of time on: the US electric grid—the largest machine on earth. The electronic devices and equipment I use on a daily basis are connected through a set of wires to substations in North Minneapolis and downtown and probably out in St. Louis Park which are connected to transmission lines that snake across Minnesota and into the Dakotas and Wyoming and out to Chicago. Ultimately, it’s networked all across the continent.

Electricity flows through that system at basically the speed of light. Every single mile of the high-voltage transmission lines—the big ones carrying power between cities and power plants, not counting the little ones running through your neighborhood—add up to somewhere around 600,000 miles and cost about a million dollars per mile. And there are many hundreds of power plants networked into the system that cost anywhere between $500 million and $2 billion. We’re talking about an infrastructure in our energy system that has literally trillions of dollars invested in it over a span of many decades. This electric system is somewhere around 40 percent of our climate problem, but it’s not the only system we’re dealing with. It’s just the one that I happened to spend a lot of time on. We also have our transportation system, which is many trillions of dollars invested in highway networks which are continuing this cycle of emitting carbon. And we have an industrial food system which has made this massive investment in a certain way that we produce food. I could go on.

And just to be clear, when I say we, I mostly mean Wall Street, and to some extent the federal government and other government agencies. We’ve put a lot of our capital, a lot of our value as we define it in a society, into building and maintaining this system. There’s a very strong and entrenched interest in making sure it continues to operate the way it currently operates.

That whole big system is also intimately connected with our daily lives. You probably don’t think about it, but you spend a lot of time turning on switches and plugging things into outlets, and even when you don’t, you’re participating in energy-using infrastructure, be it lights or electronics, refrigerated and cooked food, or climate-controlled buildings. In some ways, this is very familiar; we all pay for this energy every month. Yet, we probably don’t think about it very much, which raises a bunch of questions about this energy interaction that we don’t ask often enough.

The first question is: Why do I pay my current energy company? Did anyone ever ask you where you want to get that power from? No. We’ve created a political and economic framework where, at least in Minnesota and many other states around the country, you only have one choice about where you get your power. We as a state, as a government, have said that this company gets to have monopoly control over all the customers who want electricity, and I don’t know many people who don’t want electricity.

This raises a second key question: How do we know we’re getting a fair deal for our energy? Because there’s no competition, there’s nobody else saying, well, I could do the same thing cheaper because you have to pay this one company. How many of us actually spend the time to really understand how the Public Utilities Commission over in our city regulates utilities to set rates, which is a super complicated process? Even as somebody who spends a lot of time in this work, really digging into it and understanding the weeds of it, it’s basically impossible. So how do we know that we’re really getting a fair shake?

A third question: How do we know if these companies—that our policymakers have largely entrusted with the decision-making power over how we do energy—are going to make the transition to clean energy for us? Recently, Xcel Energy (our electricity provider in Minneapolis) announced that they were committing to a hundred percent carbon-free by 2050. That’s sounds really great, but Xcel is also currently trying to purchase a natural gas power plant that will operate through 2059. The only explanation that I’ve been able to come up with is they’re expecting to use massive-scale carbon capture and sequestration, which is a technology that doesn’t exist yet in any cost-effective form. Nevertheless, the utility company we’re currently bound to wants to charge into buying more dirty energy infrastructure that is also polluting people’s water and hurting people’s air and all those other things. The monopoly utilities have a strong incentive to appear to their public regulators as leaders on clean energy, but the details behind the scenes are not so promising.

The point is, we have for a very long time put the complete control of this market into the hands of the companies that are invested in making a lot of money off of a dirty energy system. If we impose laws requiring, for example, that they have to do 30 percent renewable energy, the way they go about it is to build a giant centralized wind farm somewhere, which is very cheap for them. They get a great return on investment in building that. And because it’s all in one location, if it’s not windy right there at a given time, backup power is needed. How do they provide backup power? They build a natural gas plant, on which they also make a great investment return while fueling yet more climate change.

Are there other ways we could structure this relationship? Yes, many. Take community solar. This is a really transformational shift in how we do energy in Minnesota because it’s really the first time where a state government has said, yes, somebody other than the utility has the right to put clean energy onto the grid and provide services to end-user customers, to residents, to companies, and so on. It’s made a huge difference.

At the beginning of 2016, there were thirty-seven megawatts of solar installed in the State of Minnesota. Since then we’ve installed about a gigawatt, so a thousand megawatts of solar in the state. To reiterate that, we’ve installed more than twenty times as much solar in the past three years as we did in the entire previous thirty. This is changing the dynamics of how we do energy so that other people can participate in the market.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s equitable. In fact, when we say community solar, 90 percent of it here in Minnesota is serving commercial and industrial customers. And most of the remaining 10 percent is serving residents who have a credit score of 680 or over. If you’re a low-income household, statistically you have a lower credit score and you’re spending the highest proportion of your income on energy. If this is how the community solar industry continues, the benefits of community-owned renewable energy won’t be available to people who need them the most. On the whole, that’s how we’ve set-up the economic and market structure of how we’re pursuing renewable energy.

As a clean energy co-op, Cooperative Energy Futures thinks that’s wrong, and we’ve developed a community energy cooperative to create clean-energy solutions that work for everyone. We’ve created a model whereby if you subscribe to a community solar garden, you don’t have to pay anything upfront, and each month you get a discount on your utility bill. We allow renters and low-income households to participate with no credit-score requirements. This means that for the first time, people participating in local clean energy get an immediate savings on their monthly energy cost without having to pay anything upfront. Remember, this is actually how the utilities do it; you don’t pay anything up front for access to all their dirty energy infrastructure—you just pay a monthly utility bill.

The Shiloh Temple project is the first cooperatively owned community solar garden we’ve developed. It’s on the rooftop of the Shiloh Temple in North Minneapolis and serves the church, a neighboring mosque, and about twenty-six community residents. All of the subscribers are member-owners, and as a co-op, any profit generated goes back to members. We developed this in partnership with a large range of community-based organizations that are working to bring these opportunities to North Minneapolis. We also did pretty robust workforce development; some of the folks who worked on the installation crew have now done installations for several of our other community solar gardens, and one crewmember ran for and was elected to our board. So we have this kind of closed loop where you get to work in this sector, you get to subscribe, but you also get to govern. You get to be part of the decision-making process, the ownership process, the guidance of where we’re going with this whole clean-energy future.

That’s part of the different relationship to energy we’re trying to cultivate. What does it look like when customers actually understand where their energy is coming from, how it’s being produced, and ultimately how that matches their use? So that we’re no longer just using energy, and somebody out there has to provide it for us by some means that is probably destroying the planet and our future.

That project is actually one of the smallest projects that we’ve developed. We have a total of eight that are either operational or under construction. Some of these are rooftop systems in various parts of the Twin Cities, several of which are 1.3-megawatt projects with some 150 households participating. We have some ground mounts both in Southern Minnesota and up near St. Cloud, and we’re also in construction on a project at Ramp A right next to Target Field where the Minnesota Twins play.

The big thing I want to say in closing is that this is about changing the economics and changing the politics of who has control over the decisions. We’re no longer going to say, yes, energy utility—you’ve been able to control and have a monopoly over all of our energy wealth, which is hundreds and millions every year in a city like Minneapolis. We’ll trust you, for some strange reason, to manage that system correctly for all of us, even though your profit motive incentivizes all kinds of abuse of that trust. Instead, we—as individuals, as communities, as cities, working together—are going to make the choice to create the energy infrastructure we want to see. To extend this argument beyond energy infrastructure, we’re making the choice with the housing systems that we want to create. We’re making the choice of the food systems we want to create, with the urban design we want to create. I think that’s really what’s at the heart of climate justice.

Climate justice is about carbon and all of that big regulation stuff, but also about building a movement. If we look at urgency simply in terms of how we get more widgets out quickly, we’re going to miss the critical opportunity to create a very different political landscape where everyone understands what’s at stake, and everyone understands this is the opportunity for all of us, not just a tiny little handful of activists, but all of us to get in the game and make change. I think that’s the only shot we have at ensuring a thriving future.

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