Texas’s energy crisis shows why we need public ownership of electricity systems

This week, we’re having a conversation with Johanna Bozuwa. She’s the comanager of the Climate and Energy Program at the Democracy Collaborative.

As Bozuwa explains below, Texas’s energy crisis exposed why peoplenot a handful of private investorsshould be in charge of our electricity systems.

JEREMY: In your Jacobin piece, you pointed out that Texas has one of the most competitive electricity systems in the country. In a society swimming in “free market” ideology, that sounds like a good thing. Can you explain why it led to Texas’s system being so vulnerable?

JOHANNA: Texas has one of the country’s most marketized energy systems. It’s run by the Electric Reliability Council Of Texas (ERCOT) and driven by profit at the expense of long-term planning and continued maintenance. 

The cold front hitting the south was extreme but not unprecedented. In 2011, similar blackouts rolled across Texas because of cold weather. But generators and the market manager (ERCOT) failed to prepare the grid for increasing climate disruptions. 

Then with supply so low and demand so high, the prices on the market skyrocketed. Some energy companies withheld energy to manipulate the market and reap the benefit of the extremely high energy prices. 

Residents across Texas who lived days without power are receiving energy bills at astronomical rates as a result—which is threatening a new wave of nonpayment shutoffs in the storm’s wake. 

JEREMY: Why do you think public control of energy systems is so important?

JOHANNA: Public ownership offers a different way for us to manage our utility and energy system. Not only to move away from the primacy of profitparticularly profiting off the provision of a public good. But it allows us to design an energy system reflecting the needs and realities of a 21st century grid that has to be resilient to wildfires, heat waves, and polar vortexes. 

As a publicly-owned entity, there are opportunities to integrate community-based resilience planning that accounts for those most impacted by extreme weather events. 

Private systems rely on a market to determine what type of energy or where to build different forms of energy infrastructure. Public would mean we can make decisions based on investments that will actually create resiliency, provide clean energy, and create good jobs along the way.

There is also a real opportunity to actually develop new and creative utilities that have mandates set from their very inception. These new institutions can be based on centering justice for those most impacted by the extractive energy model, investing in new patterns of ownership, and developing better democratic and inclusive practices.

JEREMY: What are you excited about in the near-term future for publicly owned energy? Where are cool things happening in the U.S.?

JOHANNA: New campaigns are popping up nationwide to take control of the energy system, which gives me hope. 

In Washington, DC a campaign called We Power DC is hard at work fighting for energy justice and building the road towards public power. There is also a mounting effort in Maine to kick out all the private electric distribution utilities in the state. Reclaim Our Power has made it their mission to fight against PG&E’s gross negligence in its service territory. San Diego has a burgeoning movement to take back their grid. 

ComEd, one of the oldest utilities in the U.S., has an expiring contract with the city of Chicago and activists are fighting to stop the city from signing up for another 30 years and instead start their own public utility. A New York state-wide campaign is fighting to expand the jurisdiction of the already-public utility New York Power Authority to invest in just renewables and provide affordable, clean energy to New Yorkers. 

These are rabble-rousing, intersectional campaigns that often reflect coalitions of racial justice, youth, climate, and economic justice organizers ready to fight for an equitable and clean future. The campaigns are making waves and private utilities feel threatened. 

In 2019, at a meeting for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents all U.S. investor-owned electric companies, “municipalization” (turning energy systems public) was cited as a challenge to their business model.

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