BOOK REVIEW
Revolutionary Power - An Activist's Guide to the Energy Transition

James Root

Connecticut energy activists need all the help they can get, and Shalanda Baker’s new book, Revolutionary Power, offers some useful information on the often intimidatingly technical aspects of energy policy in its bureaucratic and legislative forms. She also attempts a much needed conceptual re-framing of renewable energy in more of a social justice context. As Sierra Club Connecticut activists and allies may know, a perceptual divide between those pushing for distributed generation (DG) of renewable energy to battle global warming and pollution, and more socially focused activists and groups in the larger cities of a relatively segregated and economically stratified state,  still exists. This split has been exploited by savvy developers, as happened in Bridgeport in 2014 with the new methane power plant.

In the build-up to this conceptual re-framing, Baker goes over some recent developments in state energy activism, drawing most examples from the policy-adventurous Hawaii. She recounts how activists there, using a new, more progressive mission statement from the state’s utility board, had clean energy guidelines tacked on to the state’s new Performance Based Review (PBR) system. As those who follow the issue in Connecticut know, our state adopted PBR but has been resistant to tying it in with clean energy goals. Advocating for a change here could be low hanging fruit for Connecticut activists in the next post-pandemic legislative session. 

The book further emboldens Nutmegger activists by clearly demonstrating the nationally coordinated role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in running interference for utilities, including our own Eversource and United Illuminating, in an effort to stop and/or slow down residential and shared solar DG in various states. This corporate-allied lobbying group supplied the utilities with specious, spurious, but unfortunately effective talking points–basically asserting that energy ratepayers, especially low income ones, will have to make up the rate revenue lost from ratepayers who are generating their own energy (i.e. selling their DG solar back to the grid) in a net-metering framework.

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If only to thwart this kind of misleading PR maneuver by fossil fuel interests, the book advocates for a more widely-focused, perspicacious approach on the energy issue from “Big Green” environmental players (like Sierra Club). Somehow, more affluent (‘white’) and establishment environmental groups need to deconstruct themselves from what Baker terms “climate fundamentalism”– a dogmatic obsession with disembodied greenhouse gas (GHG) science, dichotomized (consciously or not) from more granular economic/social issues. 

A manifestation of this ‘deconstruction’ would prioritize including vulnerable populations  (e.g. low-income, people of color and Indigenous) and those communities that have borne the brunt of the human cost of the fossil fuel economy over the decades in the renewable energy revolution. As an example of that human cost, Baker offers her oil refinery poisoned hometown of Port Arthur, Texas. In addition to the moral imperative here, plain exigence warrants a deliberate effort in legislated target numbers for new renewable energy projects in these communities–as these locales especially need more reliable, locally controlled DG in the face of global warming instability. Without said legislative efforts, the inevitable switch off fossil fuels will manifest as merely another transfer of wealth upwards to big, corporate solar power developers. 

Once this legislation is achieved, Baker emphasizes the need for (all) communities to leverage an ownership and decision making stake in new, state financed (which is usually the case) renewable energy projects; to push back on corporate co-opting of the climate crisis; and to properly use global warming as the opportunity for broad based, grassroots, social and economic renewal that it is, and as it must be seen. 

James Root is a Sierra Club Connecticut Volunteer.