What if the Wind and Sunshine Really Belonged to All of Us?


There are old and new ways of promoting renewable energy. the difference does not center on the speed or scale of technological shifts. Certainly, we need—in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s felicitous phrase—“a solution at the scale of the crisis.” We also need solutions at the scale of the resources. That is the difference: Free-flowing wind and sunlight allow for a far more democratic energy system than fossil fuels ever have. Let’s not miss that opportunity.

The wide sky lends itself to public ownership and public rights. If utopia is anywhere, it is—and has always been—in the heavens just above humanity’s head. Our star’s fusion reaction blasts in all directions. A tiny fraction of that energy hits the surface of Earth—86,000 terawatts—of which 870 terawatts power the wind. The resource is vast, ubiquitous, and universally accessible. Compare it with the nearly 12 terawatts we get from coal, oil, and gas. Those who aspire simply to replace about a dozen terawatts are thinking small and planning narrowly. Now apparently dead, the Build Back Better bill would simply have repositioned the entire corporate battleship of electricity from one berth to another. Dating back to the Clean Power Plan of his vice presidency, Joe Biden has sought to replace the gigawatt smokestack with a gigawatt wind farm. Such proposals merely swap energy resources, attempting to fit the round peg of wind and sunlight into the square hole of private fossil fuels.

While pollution levels would certainly decline under Biden’s plan, little would change structurally. Even small-scale, residential solar panels are mostly owned by Sunrun and other large corporations. They lease roof space from millions of homeowners, amassing oligopolies from paneled archipelagos. The sky can do so much more. Renewables can power utilities and the grid—and then empower people currently marginalized by both.

Some on the left have already suggested something slightly different from what Biden has offered: nationalizing wind farms, solar farms, transmission infrastructure, and even the whole fossil fuel sector (in order to retire it). I’m not opposed to such energy democracy. It just seems like expropriating assets long claimed and expertly defended would be a tough fight. It is also an unnecessary one. The Public Power NY Coalition wants to avoid that fight by building new infrastructure for renewables in a publicly owned utility. That form of energy democracy seems more likely to succeed in the United States. But it still misses an opportunity.

To truly control the energy system, one also has to own the root resources: wind and sunshine. Currently, almost no one is claiming them. Big-box stores seldom consider their roofs and the photons wasted there. Few landowners have even heard of wind rights. Energy resources orders of magnitude larger than oil are lying unfenced, unprotected, and virtually free for the taking. We only have to look up—to the sky—to see the widest frontier for communing and energy justice.





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