Bottom-up regulation and Consumer Vigilance in Urban Energy Systems Transformation

As a doctoral student, the first course in urban planning I took was Planning Theory, History and Ethics. The course was rigorously theoretical, but more importantly it was insightful, not only in terms of explaining the historical underpinnings of contemporary planning as a discipline, but also in terms of delving deeper into the question of how departure from fundamental conceptualizations of worldviews comes about. Essentially, the framework of understanding provided an opportunity to perceive the world as is and as it ought to be, from different paradigmatic viewpoints.

It was not until I started writing this post that I re-realized this and started rewriting. I remembered how overwhelming the classroom discussions used to be at the time. The theories from advocacy to equity to modern and postmodern and then transactive and neoliberal et al., were extensively discussed in light of their epistemology, as well as their practical implications. What these inquiries, into bygone and contemporary worldviews, clarified for me was how moral and ethical perversion — as pleasantly and respectably as it may be presented through embedded rationality and scientification of mere opinions etc.,– is a consistent and highly influential feature in social organization of the world. John Dewey, philosopher and social reformer, identified that the way society and societal functions are controlled “plays an important part in forming the dispositions and tastes, the attitudes, interests, purposes and desires, of those engaged in carrying on the activities of the group”.

It should probably be noted here that I’ve started reading Naomi Klein’s thoughts on climate change and capitalism and also some alternative economic theories like Baqir al-Sadr’s articulations. Reflecting on the course and these readings, I have been considering my research interest areas; urban energy policy reform and systemic transformations, in light of these literature. While I write this, the concern of treading sensitive ideological spaces within academia is too real. Naturally so, after having been taken for a Marxist from my responses in the aforementioned course in-class discussions, despite being extremely agnostic of embracing any ideological labels myself.

I would like to digress from the abstract and consider the humanity’s efforts to resolve socio-structural challenges in general.  One can conceivably draw parallels between different societal problems in terms of how the conventional economic model seems to be the only model through which solutions are arrived at, no matter the negative externalities created in the process. Be it the transport infrastructure investments in Dallas that will require more investments down the line, or as Klein explains, filling the pockets of real estate owners after Sandy in New Jersey as opposed to those households needing it more in New Orleans after Katrina. The system we live within is to designed to legitimize this skewed orientation towards every other problem solution.

Realizing this is just the first step. For instance, one might only be able to start questioning the “how?” of climate change abortion once the scientific realities relating it to human activities, as structured by the current system, are accepted. However, this is still not the case in America and other climate debtor countries. The next step is to admit to the fact, rather, to the need of the hour, that the scale of impact of the abortive efforts towards decisive changes, needs to be elevated comparably enough to the scale of the disaster we are heading towards. What is paralyzing this from happening is the obvious inability of most of us, me included, to escape the cognitive restrictions placed on us by the paradigms within which we live. Research attests to this with substantial clarity on two levels. Working within the current neoliberal economic model, (1) systemic transformation of energy systems towards sustainable pathways would be to no avail if there are no customers who are interested in purchasing non-conventional energy and (2) creating a “market” would require broader socio-structural alterations to conventional commercial models because cursory information and financial incentives aren’t motivating enough.

Top-down Authoritative Model Bottom-Up Cooperative Model

Clearly, placing the citizen/consumer at the center of the guiding principle of energy systems transformation is a fundamental necessity. Has this ever happened within the neoliberal paradigm ever ? No. Has the paradigm still been put into effect through ethical and/or unethical means ? Yes. 

This was hard to accept at first and it still is, because despite the awareness, I am, to an extent, still living within this paradigm that prevails and pervades our cognitive realities. But consider the shift in opinions among utility executives from a few years ago. At least two surveys, one with a more focused respondent group than the other, confirm the growing interest among private energy czars and professionals to reorient their business models to align with the growing change in energy markets. Can this be counted as a positive in terms of our society’s collective movement towards low carbon pathways ? I don’t know. 

I don’t know because I am still ambivalent about this. I see it as a positive, because the main actors among the stakeholders who were withholding the progress, through caps on renewable energy development, are now committing to the needed progress themselves. Although this being a direct response to increasing distributed renewable energy generation that’s cutting into their utility revenue. But, I am also not so positive on account of the control the market has to sabotage critical developments, which would otherwise have (possibly) relegated the utilities redundant.

What do I mean by this ? 

Consider the diffusion of distributed renewable energy systems (DRES). Research identifies strong ‘peer network effects’, foretelling that the adoption of these systems has the potential to be incrementally pervasive and as innovation theorists would call ‘disruptive’-thereby relegating utility’s function as we know it. However, what poses a technical challenge at this point is the limitation of off-grid operation of these systems, possible only if storage and other auxiliary technologies become affordable. With the market and advancement of storage science technically holding the reins of full decentralization becoming a reality, the mobilization for a grid -tied, interconnected DRES has already begun. Plainly speaking, an individual, having achieved the motivation to adopt a DRES cannot become independent and requires to still have connections to the local utility for reliability and power quality. These realities then beg the question, in fact several questions; what will the commercial model of a future energy system look like ? There is a lot of discussion on democratization of power systems, but to what extent will individual households and small businesses hold sway on decisions that will dictate their lives and lifestyles ? 

More broadly, will the energy system transformation efforts be sabotaged for the enrichment of the rich energy companies, as were prior structural shifts in the economy ? Note that energy provision is becoming a bilateral phenomenon, such that customer dependence on the energy company (for aforementioned reasons) is accompanied by the energy company’s dependence on the DRES owner/consumer. What commercial models then should be acceptable to retain end-user control and hence position in this evolving commercial relationship ? Does there, in fact, exist an alternative commercial model ? If it does exist, then what is its nature and what challenges does it face from the free market politics ? 

There can be many more questions or concerns that may be raised in relation to these developments, whose fate as of now is clearly open-ended and subject to market manipulation or not. In either case, energy consumer vigilance, provided the individual and collective cognitive dissonance is overcome, is a necessity to regulate the movement of the free market machinations from the bottom-up, because top-down regulation has clearly failed the citizens of almost every country on the planet.


Pictures from David Werner’s book of illustrations from Disabled Village Children

John Dewey, “Democracy and Educational Administration,” School and Society 45 ; 457-67, April 3, 1937.

Gallup, 2014. One in four in U.S. are solidly skeptical of Global Warming.

IEA, Scenarios and Projections.

Maarten Wolsink, “The research agenda on social acceptance of distributed generation in smart grids: Renewable as common pool resources,” Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev., vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 822–835, Jan. 2012.

Petra Schweizer-Ries, “Energy sustainable communities: Environmental psychological investigations,” Energy Policy, vol. 36, no. 11, pp. 4126–4135, Nov. 2008.

Timothy J. Foxon, “Technological and institutional ‘lock-in’as a barrier to sustainable innovation,” Imp. Coll. Cent. Policy Technol. …, pp. 1–9, 2002.

Eva. Heiskanen, et al., “Low-carbon communities as a context for individual behavioural change,” Energy Policy, vol. 38, no. 12, pp. 7586–7595, Dec. 2010.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, 13th PwC Annual Global Power and Utilities Survey.

Utility Dive, The State of the Electric Utility 2014.

Richard L. Kaufman, Obstacles to Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency.

Ralph Izzo, Reinvent Utility Companies for a More Sustainable Future.

Edison Energy Institute, Disruptive Challenges.

Innovation Insight, Are electric utilities on the cusp of being made redundant ?

Marcello Graziano and Kenneth. Gillingham, “Spatial patterns of solar photovoltaic system adoption: the influence of neighbors and the built environment,” J. Econ. Geogr., pp. 1–25, Oct. 2014.

EPRI, The Integrated Grid.


About Ali

Ali is a PhD candidate in the Urban Planning and Public Policy program at University of Texas at Arlington. His research focuses on examining the emergence, persistence and stability of community-scale grassroots energy transitions across the US.

One comment

  1. Pingback: The Rallying Cry | Journaling my PhD

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