US labor unions call for energy democracy

A new campaign for renewables in the US focuses on something too often overlooked in the debate there: community ownership. Craig Morris is pleased to see the campaign’s work, but he nonetheless has some things to critique.

Queue in front of wind turbine

Renewables democratize energy ownership and help create good jobs. (Photo by Michael Pereckas, CC BY 2.0)

As my regular readers know, labor unions in Germany are a main driver of the Energiewende, and close ties between labor and nuclear in France are one reason why the French are not transitioning faster. Now, a labor study from the US has launched campaign complete with a video, a study and a website.


The Global Labor Institute at Cornell University put together the study with a title I love: “Resist, Reclaim, Restructure: Unions and the Struggle for Energy Democracy” (PDF). The authors state outright that “an energy transition is not happening”; coal remains king in the US, and oil is not dying down as explorations expand into increasingly desperate territory (such as tar sands and shale gas).

But the paper goes further – renewables alone are not enough: “energy democracy is needed.” It’s not just about pollution, but protecting workers’ rights, providing decent and stable jobs, being responsive to communities. In line with the focus of labor, the study argues that big energy firms are a problem environmentally (“The reserves of these companies are more than enough to take the world far beyond two degrees Celsius of global warming”) and in terms of creating good jobs. Not only is the energy itself dirty, but worker conditions are often unsafe.

Based on irrefutable statistics, the paper openly states that “renewable energy is not replacing fossil fuels.” But unlike Bjørn Lomborg (the famous Danish skeptic of renewables, who recently argued that renewables were not replacing fossil fuel and therefore could not), the labor study argues that the switch to renewables is possible.

Unfortunately, it does so with numerous non-sequiturs. Consider the wandering logic of this series of disparate factoids:

At a time when the world should be moving decisively towards renewable energy and phasing out dirty fossil fuels, renewable energy companies are facing serious challenges. There has been an influx into world markets of low–priced Chinese solar panels and modules, which caused prices to fall 40% or more in 2011. This has led to the removal of government subsidies in big solar markets such as Germany, Italy, and the United States. The removal of solar subsidies and the glut in production has led to job losses. Vestas recently announced it was scaling back its wind power operations in India.

In fact, PV has grown steadily in the US since 2001. What’s more, Italy ended feed-in tariffs (not subsidies) when its budget was exhausted, not because of cheap panels from China. Likewise, Germany simply has not “removed” its feed-in tariffs.

The study unfortunately gets other facts wrong about Germany as well. In another non-sequitur, the author writes:

In Germany, the remunicipalization of energy has moved forward at a steady pace and renewable energy use in Germany is the highest in the European Union in percentage terms.

“Use” is a vague term, and the author is only right if he means absolute production, (see the official EU stats here), not “percentage terms,” which put Germany in the middle of the EU pack (largely because other countries consume so much hydro and biomass). So where did he get the idea? I don’t know because the Economist article in the footnote for that claim does not mention any such ranking!

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International.


Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.

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