This time of year, perhaps more than any other, our dependence on electricity is crystal clear. Having just passed the winter solstice, electric lighting frees us from the limits of the year’s shortest days. We bring downtown and our own yards to life with holiday lights, and we snuggle up inside warm homes to endure the cold nights.
So it seems a fitting time of year, in this final episode of the Times’ editorial series on climate change, to consider the critical role of electricity, the sector responsible for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions. Last year about 67 percent of the nation’s electricity came from fossil fuels, namely coal and natural gas, which are major sources of climate changing emissions. This signals that our choices about electricity are also choices about how we’ll respond to climate change and how we’ll steward our planet’s atmosphere.
Of course, they’re choices about so much more too. They compel us to consider much about our heritage, our commitments and our future. For many coal miners, for example, talk of a rapid transition to renewable energy is not simply a question about the comparative advantages of one set of technologies over another. It’s also a comment on whether those miners will have a place in our future, whether that place will offer opportunities to provide for the families of former miners, and whether coal communities’ sacrifices will be recognized with dignity or indifference.
In short, choices about electricity are choices about what kind of world we want to live in. Importantly, there is no way to make these decisions on an individual basis. Imagine if you were able to make your own choices about electricity — prioritizing your own values and how they speak to various goals of affordability, reliability and/ or environmental responsibility, for instance — and leave me to make my own.
Yet, electricity decisions have been handed over to centralized decision-making bodies because the massive capital investments and centralized infrastructure that electric distribution requires necessitates monopolistic control; that is, it’s always been a natural monopoly, which we have turned over to man-made monopolies. These monopolies — generally referred to as electric utilities — make decisions on behalf of the ratepayer population as a whole. Historically, if you didn’t like the decisions being made, you had the plucky choice of going without electricity.
Fortunately, the natural monopoly that forced this dynamic shows signs of dissolving. Due to technological advancements in distributed, smaller-scale renewable energy generation, some ratepayers increasingly have meaningful alternatives to choose from. If you don’t like your utility’s reliance on fossil fuels, for example, you can install your own solar array.
Yet, even for the few that have access to this option, there are serious limits to individual choice. When one neighbor opts to withdraw from a fossil fuelintensive utility by installing solar on their roof, they aren’t freed from the air and water pollution or climate-changing effects of their neighbors’ continued use of coal power. Which is to say electricity decisions are necessarily collective because choices affect whole populations.
When meaningful participation is absent, then, these choices are imposed on whole populations. About 70 percent of the country, for example, is served by “investor-owned utilities.” For that 70 percent, those decisions are made on the basis of maximizing returns to shareholders; if you are a major shareholder you’re in luck! If not, you’ll take what fuel mix and services have been imposed by others with far more decision-making power.
In the Gunnison Valley, however, our utilities were designed with democratic accountability in mind. Whether you live in the City of Gunnison and are served by the city’s public utility, or you live in the unincorporated county or another municipality, where every Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA) ratepayer is also a memberowner of that utility, you have a voice in these democratic institutions.
This also means that, exercising that voice, we have the capacity to act on climate change: to use our collective resources to call for a rapid shift to clean and renewable fuel sources like wind and solar power, if that is indeed what our valley desires.
To ensure that our utilities are not democratic in name only, they require an engaged, informed, and critical public. Whether you share my own desire for a rapid transition to renewable electricity fuels, I do hope you join me in engaging these democratic institutions. Plug into our democratic utilities — and help make them worthy of that name — by reaching out to City Councilors (if you’re served by the city) or the GCEA board (if you’re served by the county co-op).
(Kate Clark is the director of the undergraduate Environment and Sustainability program at Western State Colorado University.)