Democratizing Energy Systems: An Opportunity for Planners as Cities Renew Commitment to Paris Climate Accord?

This post was originally published on the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACPS) blogs on June 19th and discusses the role of planners in advancing and supporting democratic ideals around local or grassroots energy initiatives occurring across the country.

Please check out their other posts written by PhD students, candidates and faculty members in planning schools and departments.

The absence of a national climate policy and the politics of denying anthropocentric climate change in the US have resulted in a number of states and cities stepping in to fill this ‘federal leadership vacuum’ (Byrne, Hughes, Rickerson, & Kurdgelashvili, 2007). Increasing number of states and cities are now encouraging distributed energy generation through on-site residential solar PV systems, not only by promoting the use of state and federal funds (tax rebates, tax credits and subsidies etc.), but also by overriding neighborhood restrictions on road-facing solar PV installations and especially by legislating net-metering policies. As such, with cities becoming the venues for celebrating the benefits of decentralized energy systems (DES) (Adil & Ko, 2016), the social and material changes accompanying their widespread adoption by energy consumers across cities, especially through solar PV and thermal technologies, presents unique challenges and opportunities for planners and local policymakers. Not only can planners help resolve land use conflicts — space limitations and siting issues (see Kaza & Curtis, 2014), they can also help democratize the energy sector by facilitating greater social capital and community cohesion around socio-technical issues pertaining to localizing energy systems (Hoffman & High-Pippert, 2005).

However, inasmuch as the outcome of promoting adoption of DES is economically and environmentally progressive, the rise of grid-tied energy producing consumers in a market-oriented sector has unintended socially regressive consequences. As more energy customers either reduce their consumption of retail electricity partially or curtail it altogether in what is referred to as ‘grid defection’ (Bronski et al., 2014), the utility serving them faces revenue losses. Where such losses are rendered unrecoverable, the cost burden to the utility is shifted to the remainder of its customers, in a classic move of ‘rent shifting’ i.e. shifting of unrecoverable cost burden onto the consumer (Borenstein & Bushnell, 2015). In this way, as retail electricity rates climb, solar PV technology reaches cost parity (Rickerson, 2014), but — and here is the catch — only for those utility customers who can afford it. In industry parlance, this is ominously called ‘utility death spiral’ (Kind, 2013) or ‘spiral of rate death’ (Blackburn, Magee, & Rai, 2014), which creates a victim of another, more vulnerable group besides electric power utilities — low and middle-income energy consumers.

Contrasting this with the social position electric utilities had acquired in the early days of the energy sector — i.e. as regulated entities providing a public good (Hirsh, 2002) — presents an unfortunate and unintended outcome. However, the extent to which such an outcome is in fact unintended is also questionable given that ‘rent shifting’ is something that the utilities are already accused of pursuing (Borenstein & Bushnell, 2015; Boyd, 1996). In light of these contexts and concerns, the choices facing local governments and planners in terms of whom to side with — utilities or consumers — constitutes the crux of local and state-level energy politics.

Emerging against this state of affairs, are communities of energy consumers that are advocating for a paradigm shift in order to reclaim electricity as a public good (ILSR, 2016). There are however no simple or standard answers here because of the disparate and overlapping impact of local, state and federal policies for any given community and the different set of local environmental conditions influencing their technology choices. In my research, I look at grassroots responses from energy communities which aim to affect outcomes ranging from energy independence for single homeowners to energy democracy for whole communities. Whereas the former draws on the ideals of national energy security put forward in response to the energy crisis of the 70s, the latter is a new civic movement that draws on a broad set of principles which promote socially just and inclusive wellbeing across class and racial divides, encourage environmental protection through context-appropriate use of emerging technologies and more critically, pursue a more democratic and equitable model of economy (New Economy Coalition, 2015).

Therefore, a transition from incumbent to emergent energy systems based on renewable energy technologies (RET) is bound to unfold along varying modes of governance and social organization models — from the ones benefiting individual consumers to those empowering entire communities. The fate of a truly democratic energy sector, where everyone benefits — i.e. an energy sector which is equitable and just as it is sustainable — is decidedly predicated upon the cumulative interactions between diverse community grassroots initiatives and the top-down socio-technical, regulatory and political contexts facing them.

As RET take a firmer hold of local retail energy markets with efficient storage systems and interoperable electric vehicles, urban energy planning ought to be concerned with who benefits and who loses in the ongoing pursuit for alternate energy systems (Miller & Richter, 2014; Shove & Walker, 2007, 2008). Since the take-off of residential solar PV in urban locations across the country, several investor-owned utilities have filed for rate changes with their respective State Utility Commissions citing the undue burden to customers who have not or cannot install solar PV. As fair and equitable as this sounds, with utilities claiming to remedy ‘rent shifting’ to non-solar PV customers by requiring solar PV owners to pay more under the revised rates, siding with utilities would be an egregious error (Pentland, 2017). While there is no doubt that once resolved, most likely in favor energy consumers — solar and non-solar, the question of planning for local energy projects in coordination with other infrastructure systems like transport, water and build environment will at least partially land in planners’ list of things to do. Yet, most planning programs across the US continue to graduate planners who remain untrained in key technical aspects as well as social issues surrounding ongoing energy systems transitions. Despite Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, much to the world’s dismay, there may still be light at the end of the tunnel with several mayors committing to the accord anyway (Domonske, 2017; Walker, 2017). The question that I seek to raise, as cities continue to combat the climate challenge, is: are planners equipped enough to tackle to the socio-technical challenges that new technologies and accompanying regulatory and intuitional contexts? or will the professional planner continue to remain subordinate to the electrical/civil/mechanical/environmental engineer?

Works Cited

Adil, A. M., & Ko, Y. (2016). Socio-technical evolution of Decentralized Energy Systems: A critical review and implications for urban planning and policy. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 57. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2015.12.079

Blackburn, G., Magee, C., & Rai, V. (2014). Solar Valuation and the Modern Utility’s Expansion into Distributed Generation. Electricity Journal, 27(1), 18–32. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tej.2013.12.002

Borenstein, S., & Bushnell, J. (2015). The U.S. Electricity Industry after 20 Years of Restructuring (No. 252R).

Boyd, J. (1996). The “regulatory compact” and implicit contracts: should stranded costs be recoverable? Energy Journal, 19(3), 69–83.

Bronski, P., Creyts, J., Guccione, L., Madrazo, M., Mandel, J., Rader, B., & Seif, D. (2014). The Economics of Grid Defection.

Byrne, J., Hughes, K., Rickerson, W., & Kurdgelashvili, L. (2007). American policy conflict in the greenhouse: Divergent trends in federal, regional, state, and local green energy and climate change policy. Energy Policy, 35(9), 4555–4573. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2007.02.028

Domonske, C. (2017). Mayors, Companies Vow To Act On Climate, Even As U.S. Leaves Paris Accord. Retrieved June 6, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/06/05/531603731/mayors-companies-vow-to-act-on-climate-even-as-u-s-leaves-paris-accord

Hirsh, R. F. (2002). Power Loss: The Origins of Deregulation and Restructuring in the American Electric Utility System. MIT Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=LrDxPgAACAAJ

Hoffman, S. M., & High-Pippert, A. (2005). Community Energy: A Social Architecture for an Alternative Energy Future. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 25(5), 387–401. http://doi.org/10.1177/0270467605278880

ILSR. (2016). Introducing the Community Power Map | Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Retrieved January 15, 2017, from https://ilsr.org/introducing-the-community-power-map/

Kaza, N., & Curtis, M. P. (2014). The Land Use Energy Connection. Journal of Planning Literature, 29(4), 1–16. http://doi.org/10.1177/0885412214542049

Kind, P. (2013). Disruptive Challenges: Financial Implications and Strategic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business. Retrieved from http://www.eei.org/ourissues/finance/documents/disruptivechallenges.pdf

Miller, C. A., & Richter, J. (2014). Social Planning for Energy Transitions. Current Sustainable/Renewable Energy Reports, (September), 77–84. http://doi.org/10.1007/s40518-014-0010-9

New Economy Coalition. (2015). What is Energy Democracy and Why Does It Matter? – YouTube. New Economy Coalition. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uE8FWors3TU&list=PLEJWmLm4zo60WE5ubklvf_gRFioJjcHbl&index=8

Pentland, W. (2017). Why the net metering fight is a red herring for utilities | Utility Dive. Retrieved June 6, 2017, from http://www.utilitydive.com/news/why-the-net-metering-fight-is-a-red-herring-for-utilities/307061/

Rickerson, W. (2014). Residential prosumers – drivers and policy options (re-prosumers).

Shove, E., & Walker, G. (2007). Caution! Transition ahead: policies, practice, and sustainable transition management. Environment and Planning A, 39, 763–770. http://doi.org/10.1068/a39310

Shove, E., & Walker, G. (2008). Transition management and the politics of shape shifting. Environment and Planning A, 40(4), 1012–1014.

Walker, A. (2017). 246 mayors adopt Paris climate accord after U.S. pulls out (updated). Retrieved June 6, 2017, from https://www.curbed.com/2017/6/1/15726376/paris-accord-climate-change-mayors-trump

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How to be a postmodernist in practice?

It is troubling to say the least that the country that claimed itself to be the paragon of progress and civilization is crumbling at its very foundations under the influence of, to put it simply, pure b.s.

Besides the obvious ones — the US and the UK, it wouldn’t be that far fetched to impute a number of other North American, European as well as Asian countries into the above statement, for having achieved the alleged “greatness” that they did, there are gross injustices and unparalleled inequities being relentless produced and normalized across all nation states. In the spirit of being comprehensive, I would say that the statement also fits some of the Middle Eastern petroleum corporations masquerading as countries.

There are but a few simple ways one can seek to master the skill of spinning pure b.s. Evidence for these can be easily teased from 3 to 5 minute clips from any news media which are just about enough to grab the attention of viewers with ever-shrinking attention spans and ever expanding need for instantaneous gratification. Political discourse becomes “tea” that is “spilled” and videos of partisan bickering are titled as ‘one party affiliate CRUSHING, DEMOLISHING, DESTROYING the opponent party affiliate.’

But I digress.

Spinning pure b.s., right!

or simply the art of becoming a postmodernist who speaks and behaves in a manner that unravels the semblance of objectivity, offering no clarity on positions taken or any recourse to any solid rational foundation from which to adjudicate responsibility and place blame.

Step 1: Your statements or utterances should be able absorb just about any meaning that your audience wants to infer. 

This clip from Last Week Tonight shows how easy it is to project whatever meaning one desires into statements that themselves have no clear meaning.

This skill is not just the forte of individuals who are the subject of the above clip, but is quite prevalent among people who hold positions of power across our public institutions. Just like the word, HOPE, ironically the theme of a preceding political campaign, can be made to have different meanings depending on the circumstance, I’ve come across individuals in my educational career in the US, who I would typically have respected, but who are hypocrite enough to change the meaning of their statements to suit the context in which they are asked to justify them.

Step 2: Stand behind grand visions that are as broad and vague as possible but which are idealistically appealing to the sensibilities of those who are desperately seeking a change in the status quo. 

I will admit that there would be nothing wrong with such grand and ambitious visions had they been rooted in verifiable truths (problematic, I know but inescapable) and supported by clear and concise goals, with outcomes that can be measured or at least assessed periodically to take us from where we are to where we need to be under the dictates of the vision. When those in-charge of steering the course for the rest of us are deliberately vague and imprecise about their plan, and who create artificial platforms of engagement and dialog to give a mere impression of participation, such individuals do not, in earnest, hold themselves responsible for the eventual outcomes. They are in it just for themselves, seeking one position after another, failing to stay put and accomplishing what they intended atond had claimed to achieve in the first place.

This clip from the Late Night shows how the ‘drain the swamp’ mantra, one of the few grand visions, turned out to be a clever verbal ploy when the ‘swamp’ was not only rehabilitated but reinvigorated by the inclusion of the vilest creatures ever to inhabit it.

Step 3: Create a tight-knit circle of loyalists, the core group, connected as if like a network of hemorrhoidal nerves, who legitimize your agenda while making sure that they too gain from their involvement in your self-centered endeavor. 

In what can only be described as ‘bizarre’, this clip shows how difficult it can be to witness undeserved adulation, whether it be of the unhinged individual in the position of the highest office in the country or an egotistical maniac occupying the position of a state government employee.

There is much to be learned from postmodernism politics as well as loathed about postmodern individuals who paint a pretty picture of the future, encouraging the desperate and intellectually meek to dream, recruiting their viciousness to advance their personal agenda, but ultimately leaving these very recruits to fend for themselves in a situation much worse that they were previously in.

Short (re-)introduction to my research

I started this blog one year into my PhD. Three years on, I’ve managed to complete my coursework, undertake one internship, publish two journal articles, and give two conference presentations. It goes without saying, perhaps for many and not just me, that 2016 could have been a better year. But, on the bright side, I also managed to defend my proposal and am now looking forward to secure my candidature going into 2017. Following in an excerpt from my dissertation research proposal, followed by a list of current projects.

Local communities are increasingly occupying the front-lines in the ongoing energy systems transformation, to advance an alternate energy future which is not only sustainable but also equitable. In doing so, these communities find themselves fighting an uphill, and oftentimes, unending battle through minimally-resourced grassroots energy transitions, against a hegemonic and dominant conventional energy paradigm. Community energy (CE) represents the advent of the civil society into a highly monopolistic and oligarchic energy industry which has enjoyed state-regulated legitimacy ever since its inception. Now, in response to existential threats like climate change and exponential social and economic polarization in cities, communities of citizens are self-organizing through on-the-ground energy transition projects and virtual advocacy and resource-sharing networks to generate momentum in absence of critical state-support. The importance of civil society in ongoing energy transitions comes about as a result of the inherently decentralized and distributed nature of renewable energy technologies that constitute the future of the energy sector. The informality surrounding energy infrastructure provision based on decentralized energy systems is yet to settle into formal governance models and social organization, in that the roles, responsibilities and positions of consumers as energy producers are still open to negotiation and conflict. A greater understanding of these dynamics which unfold across institutional as well as geographical scales from locality to nation are critical to enabling an energy future for all sections of society, especially those which remain disenfranchised in the current energy system. This research project will investigate the underlying rationalities; how grassroots energy transitions come about, and how they are maintained in a dialectic opposition to the carbon economy, while at the same time being dependent on it. The primary objective of this research is to advance a greater understanding of ongoing grassroots-led efforts, which pull human and material elements into new socio-material networks, in pursuit of affecting broader societal change. As such, the research is designed to expand on the methodological frameworks generally used to study local energy transitions through an exploratory research approach that integrates influences from multiple disciplines including socio-technical studies, geography, urban planning, public policy and literary theory.

Current Projects:

Doctoral Research

  • Mainstream Planning and Insurgent Advocacy: Can the Resilience Discourse Respond to Equity in Shrinking Cities?
  • Exploration of grassroots networks to advance adoption of solar PV systems in Plano, Texas: A Narrative-Networks Analysis [Part of ongoing field exam]

Other projects

  • Experiential Learning in the Planning Classroom [tentative title]

 

From Vulnerability to Resilience

On April 1st, I was at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) Annual Conference which was hosted around the topic of the Anthropocene. This was the first international level academic conference I’ve attended and I think its an experience every pre-candidature student must have. The quality of conversations draws you in even when you have a throbbing head ache on a Friday night. The experience allows to you gauge whether, if at all, academia and the intellectual environment it engenders is for you, and if so, it allows you become aware of the scholarly circles whose conversations invigorate your intellect.

I was on a session organized by Dr. Michael Minn from University of Denver on the topic of Energy Transitions with a focus on Society. The session included post-doctoral as well as pre- and post candidature students from Manchester, Denver and Yale. The topic of my presentation was From Vulnerability to Resilience: A theoretical framework for Resilient Energy Systems based on Sociotechnical and Socio-ecological perspectives. The presentation was based on the theoretical framework for my dissertation and will be further developed into an article which will likely be published at the end of 2016 or early 2017.

One of the biggest fears standing in front of the audience is not being asked any questions indicating that your presentation was either too complex or too elementary. But my fear was quickly dispelled when I had to field a number of very interesting questions from an extremely insightful audience. I am glad I was there!

Here’s to more conference papers and conferencing!

The presentation can accessed by following this link. [Please note some graphics and formatting may be missing as the original presentation was made using MS ppt]

Anti-neoliberalism: The undercurrent in JNU protests

Read the indented paragraphs chronologically to know about the key events of JNU protests. Read the whole text for context behind them.

Incident #3: A student leader, PhD student from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), got arrested under charges of sedition for allowing anti-national slogans at a student event organized in commemoration of a dead convict, the legitimacy of whose indictment and subsequent conviction (capital punishment) by the then Indian government, UPA (coalition of secular, so-called left wing political parties), continues to be questioned within activist and academic circles. Soon after, student protests erupted while calls to shut the university down were made in the mainstream and social media.

That happens to be one point in the evolution of the story as it unfolds in India with continued protests by students and teach-ins by faculty at JNU, which is one of the most prestigious universities in the country. Inasmuch as this situation seems endogenous to India, it hardly is because the underlying sentiment expressed in the speeches by Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of JNU Student Union (JNUSU), Shehla Rashid, the vice president and others is that of anti-neoliberalism.

Incident #1: Late last year, the BJP (right-wing, anti-secular, fundamentalists) sought to enforce a rule that would slash funding of post-graduate fellowships (for Master’s and PhD students) without explanation of the reasoning behind it. The decision undertaken by the University Grants Commission (UGC), a statuary body of the Government of India tasked with the maintaining university education standards in the country, reflected a deep lack of concern for the financial conditions of students, particularly low-income students.While the decision was later overturned, the stipulations under which students could secure fellowships was modified to introduce eligibility restrictions leaving a number of students at a disadvantage, particularly low-income and minority students.

For many students disadvantaged by UGC’s decision, the answer was agitation and protest under the #occupyUCG movement. By breaking down of the university system, by siphoning the already meager funds and resources, the government seeks to to cultivate student dissatisfaction with public universities that creates spaces for private ones, owned and operated by foreign conglomerates competing on the Indian education market; a commodification of education as in the west. Something that is bound to hurt the most economically vulnerable sections of the Indian society, against whom discrimination is already in full assault mode.

Incident #2: In January this year, the suicide note of a PhD, this time from my city, rocked the campus of Hyderabad Central University (HCU) on accounts of discrimination against dalits (lower-caste Hindus). Rohit’s crime, in the eyes of HCU administration and the government, apart from being a dalit was his participation in protesting for screening a movie that was disagreeable to the higher caste Hindus on campus. One thing led to another, until his suspension under a false pretext and accusation of being anti-national and casteist materialized his suicide — because what is a 26 year old to do when his academic career, on which hinged his entire family’s future, is taken away?

The call made by JNU and its students, then, is one for Azaadi, for freedom to think for oneself and to express anguish and anger, against the systematic sale of the country on the global market. Freedom from the neoliberal ideals enthusiastically adopted by the ruling government that professes to have more nationalistic fervor than any other political party in the country; a fervor that proffers private companies power and privilege over indigenous population, displacing them from their own  lands and depriving them of their health and livelihood. The same nationalist sentimentality that hides neoliberalism in its belly, barricades and stifles the future of dalits like Rohit. The more nationalistic , anti-secular and anti-free speech that India seems to get, the more conducive it becomes for global market penetration.

Incident #5: In the wake of protests against Kanhaiya’s arrest and the witch-hunt by Delhi police to find and arrest other student leaders, the government and state-bought media orchestrate a smear campaign to paint JNU as anti-national breeding ground and falsely accused some students as foreign agents and affiliates of terrorist organizations. However, despite fabricating videos and conjuring false identities of students like Umar Khalid, the state propaganda failed miserably, drawing further attention to the embarrassing attempts by the government to suppress dissent in the country. Out on bail for now, Kanhaiya is back on JNU campus but two other students Umar and Anirban are still under judicial custody.

Yet, somehow, the blind remain blind. Events at JNU seemed to have provoked self-professed nationalists to burst onto the social media to fight their good fight for Modi ji, parroting the exact sentiments used by government officials like Rajnath Singh and Smriti Irani to accord the status of anti-national to anyone who demonstrated even the slightest sympathies with the ideological stand of JNU students. The inability to make the connect between promotion of neoliberalism in India and the perverse use of nationalism by the government as an instrument to do so, will be the end of Indian consciousness. If nothing else, those buying into the nationalist rhetoric without expressing doubts about the convictions of their political leaders, will be the ones selling Indian sovereignty to global powers for cheap. In the end, it is the enlighnment of speeches and teach-in lectures coming out of JNU that will be remembered for its intellectual grit and capacity to relentlessly hold on to ideals on which the Indian constitution is predicated. One such speech was by Shehla Rashid soon after Kanhaiya’s arrest.

Incident #4: Responding to accusations that students are wasting tax payer money by protesting and not studying, Shehla Rashid, VP student union argued, “JNU students indeed are subsidized by tax payer money and that is precisely why they are more aware of their  responsibility and duty [to forewarn the country about the dirty tactics of government]. She questioned the subsidization of large banks, international companies and bankrupt financial organizations under the neoliberal regime, blaming the government of pimping out and systematically selling the country.

MIA because another ones coming..

If not being around can be taken as a sign of getting things done then it has certainly been true with me in just this instance. I got news on my birthday of my first first author publication and I couldn’t be more elated. Hopefully, there will be several more, so fingers crossed for that! 🙂

Socio-technical evolution of Decentralized Energy Systems: A critical review and implications for urban planning and policy

Abstract

The growth of Decentralized Energy Systems (DES) signals a new frontier in urban energy planning and design of local energy systems. As affordability of renewable energy technologies (RET) increases, cities and urban regions become the venues, not only for energy consumption but also for generation and distribution, which calls for systemic and paradigmatic change in local energy infrastructure. The decentralizing transitions of urban energy systems, particularly solar photovoltaic and thermal technologies, require a comprehensive assessment of their sociotechnical co-evolution – how technologies and social responses evolve together and how their co-evolution affects urban planning and energy policies. So far, urban planning literature has mainly focused on the impact of physical urban forms on efficiency of energy consumption, overlooking how the dynamics of new energy technologies and associated social responses affect local systems of energy infrastructure, the built environments and their residents. This paper provides an interdisciplinary review on the co-evolving technical and social dynamics of DES focusing on Distributed Generation (DG), MicroGrids (MG), and Smart MicroGrids (SMG), in order to draw insights for their integration in urban planning and policy, in particular reference to climate change mitigation and adaptation planning.