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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Power Over Power: The Politics of Energy Transition

  • Author(s): de Wit, Dominique
  • Advisor(s): Lipschutz, Ronnie D
  • et al.

Power lines sparking wildfires, destroying homes, and shutting down power across Northern California have generated public fury against Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). This bankrupt utility’s grid needs substantial investment and upgrades to be made safe. Yet, the death knell for monopoly utilities may have already sounded; California’s energy transition is underway, and new energy providers and models challenge the incumbent utility’s monopoly control. Political struggles amidst legislators, utilities, new energy providers, and communities have emerged, and will be at the core of energy transitions in California and elsewhere.

To understand the social and political ramifications of future electricity systems, this dissertation explores how energy has been and will be provided and governed. Making the case that electricity is ‘political’, a historical narrative follows a series of concerted political decisions on technology and infrastructure that, over a century ago, created a centralized electricity grid under regulated monopoly utilities. This model is gradually disrupted by decentralized energy resources such as solar rooftop, electric vehicles, charging stations, batteries and microgrids. New technologies see new institutional and governing arrangements, from city-, municipal-, cooperative- to individual control. As blackouts make it clear that energy is a commodity fundamental to our modern livelihoods, climate change and pollution concerns increasingly lead to the consideration of clean affordable energy access as a right. Communities, such as in the case below, increasingly mobilize for this right.

Since its beginning in the 1990s, the Community Choice movement has explored alternative imaginaries of utilizing decentralized energy technology for local self-sufficiency and sustainability. CCAs are a model for local power regulated by local not-for-profit entities acting in their communities’ best interest. CCAs began as a bottom-up and grassroots initiative, transforming into an urban governance movement as the size and number of the organizations grow. The first CCA in California emerged in Marin County in 2010, and today 19 CCAs provide electricity to 10 million state residents. The development of CCAs depicts the politics of energy transitions; competing visions of clean energy models by new energy providers are met with resistance by the incumbent utility and government regulatory agencies. My cases display how imaginaries of more sustainable futures clash in political realms, producing new ecologies of power.

With a bankrupt utility, still nascent CCAs, and the intermittent nature of renewable energy, the state finds itself at crossroads. Through personal interviews with regulators, policymakers, energy companies, activists and local communities, I explore these imaginations and the social and political implications of various energy and governance configurations.

Developments in California have implications elsewhere. Changes in energy provision are intertwined with social and ecological futures, justice and democracy around the world. The concluding chapter, drawing from personal research across both the developed and developing world, puts these elements into dialogue with each other.

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