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Restructuring the Energy Sector

Renewable energy systems operate under two main models: centralized generation, which includes structures such as utility-scale wind farms and remote central-station solar power plants, and decentralized generation, which refers to renewable generation located on existing buildings or vacant land close to the point of electricity consumption. Efforts to build support for the scaling up of renewable power within a democratic framework will need to explore the social benefits and limitations of both systems. What is best for jobs, stable communities, and the environment? What is most suited to systems of democratic engagement?

Decentralized generation is likely to be more conducive to local control. Half of Germany's wind power and three-quarters of German solar installations are locally owned. Decentralized generation also can create more jobs than utility-sized projects per million dollars invested, and can redefine the role and purpose of energy in a way that puts social and environmental needs before profit and accumulation. Yet local control is no panacea. Left to their own devices, communities and municipalities could choose to stick with fossil fuels or make a “unilateral declaration of independence” and thus try to opt out of any broader transition plan. There is no guarantee that the transition will be plain sailing or politically painless—but in some cases, the moral appeal of national referenda on climate protection or energy transition could provide national or regional governments with a certain imprimatur for proactive measures (such as research and development support or similar forms of assistance) that can reinforce the process of transition.

A significant challenge facing unions is that millions of their members work in the current fossil-based energy system, and unions are perhaps better positioned to establish a presence in centralized renewable energy systems than in decentralized systems. Union members are presently more likely to perform the work of constructing new utility-scale, remote centralstation power facilities, at least in the United States and probably in other industrialized countries. In contrast, most community-based, local energy projects involve contractors that are local and mostly non-union. This further ties unions to the present centralized system.

Some unions also note that many whom today advocate for distributed generation wish to further liberalize the energy system and undermine the unionized and regulated public utilities. The idea of opening the door to countless numbers of small energy producers also has attracted the support of key environmental organizations that traditionally have been less concerned with worker issues. And while it is true that utility-scale renewable energy projects are attractive to large private energy companies, this does not automatically mean that projects of this size have no place in a sustainable energy system or that small, local-scale, decentralized energy projects will not be owned or serviced by large private corporations. In Greece, implementation of the country's feed-in tariff saw the proliferation of installation companies that imported cheap solar panels from China, but when the tariff was adjusted downward dramatically, larger energy companies from Spain and Germany moved in, their eyes on the longer term.

Newly constructed home in Germany with nearly total solar panel coverage.

 
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