Power from the North: Hydro-democracy?

by Matthew Burke

A reflection following the Power from the North conference, University of Vermont, March 23, 2015

pn_postcard_web_finalWhat is energy, consciously supplied? This question is central to the debate around renewable energy development in Vermont and elsewhere. This was also the question suggested by Antonio Cepeda-Benito, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Vermont, when opening a recent conference on the complex ways that renewable energy connects Vermont, the northeastern United States and the province of Quebec. The Power from the North conference drew together an impressive gathering of scholars, citizens and decision makers to reflect deeply on the many dimensions of relationships formed through regional electric power, substantially generated by Hydro-Quebec, a now global-scale energy supplier. Without attempting to avoid controversy, the conference organizers and panelist examined the complexities of hydropower in Quebec, Vermont and the larger region.

The meaning of large-scale hydropower development in the region continues to defy simple characterization. From historical origins steeped in notions of both provincial independence and colonialism, into the present day relationships and politics among energy producers and consumers, and projecting forward to a future energy system proposed as simultaneously centralized and distributed, participants witnessed the crafting of a narrative of “a new regionalism” bound by the flows of people, water and electricity.

Despite the contradictions, the motivation for the conference drew largely from the common understanding that we must shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. A growing recognition of the many social and environmental harms of fossil fuel dependence drives this uncertain transition. Meanwhile, the increasing adoption of renewable systems brings the burdens as well as the benefits of energy independence closer to home. In this context we now must consciously consider our generation, transmission, transformation and use of energy.

How shall we consciously consider a renewable energy transition? In introducing the final panel, Professor Michael Dworkin of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School proposed that we face a “trilemma”. We must simultaneously address three criteria: our renewable energy system must provide energy reliably, at a cost that users can afford, and in a manner that safeguards the integrity of the environment. In ecological economics, we concern ourselves with a similar trilemma, that of sustainable scale, just distribution, and efficient allocation. Taken together, these goals present a real challenge for any energy system.   Recognizing the need to meet these multiple goals, we often find ourselves mired in debate around the details for creating this newly emerging energy system, which can then appear more like a short-sighted disagreement about whose back yard gets the next solar facility.

Notwithstanding the need for meeting these goals, much less attention has been given to the relationship between new forms of energy and more fundamental, long-term social change. A few thinkers and scholars have taken up this question. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen provided foundational insights on the social consequences of renewable energy for the field of ecological economics, suggesting that humanity may ultimately opt for “a short, but fiery, exciting and extravagant life”[1] rather than choosing to live off available flows of essentially sunshine in one form or another. More recently, Greer [2] emphasized the “crisis of concentration”, reflecting a need to rethink our technologies and applications for energy systems based on diffuse rather than concentrated forms of energy. Fundamental incompatibilities exist between emerging systems of diffuse energy and societies dependent upon centralized energy systems. Mitchell’s work is especially relevant, examining the historical relationship of oil and coal to the formation of democracy [3]. These perspectives challenge us then to add yet another criteria to our list, that of social capacity. Viewed as a process of generating not only power but also greater social capacity, we might consider with greater optimism the debates around local control of siting of new facilities.

In this view of social transformation through technical transition, we come to realize that our choices for renewable energy development hold consequences for the way we humans relate to each other. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin failed to recognize this point during the evening dialogue with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, boasting that the state of Vermont considers hydropower as “green” energy, regardless of size of generating facility; a hydro kilowatt-hour is a hydro kilowatt-hour. Governor Shumlin went on to explain that he “never quite got the distinction between big hydro and little hydro”, a point made in order to support his view that a base load of large-scale hydropower will provide a stable foundation upon which a distributed system can depend. Possibly true, but we need not lose sight that the choice of large-scale, capitalized and centralized systems yields very different forms of social relations, patterns and governance than those of small-scale, locally-financed, distributed systems.

While this is not an either/or proposition, I believe we need to more explicitly examine and address the potential social consequences of one type of renewable energy system compared to another. If we truly seek a new energy system built-to-last, we must not overlook the social implications and possibilities. The challenge comes with understanding that we need to move quickly to try to minimize the most extreme effects of climate change. The opportunity comes with realizing that with each new proposal for another facility, we gain another chance at increasing social capacity.

This same approach may be applied broadly to many environmental challenges we face. The (re)solutions to environmental problems may be found more through building social capacity than technical capacity. This conclusion is supported by empirical research, including that of Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom on institutions for collective action [4]. As Ostrom cautioned, community is no panacea, but plenty of examples of success through community involvement have been documented worldwide and over time.   Achieving desirable environmental outcomes requires systems of governance that include not only effective rules, but also appropriate organizations, systems of ownership and social norms. Environmental problems will be with us for the remainder of our human experience. “The environment” is not just an issue of our time, but rather a problem for all times. We require then in the broadest sense not just technical innovation but social innovation, not just capacity for economic decision making but also for sociopolitical decision making. Given ecological constraints, social innovations offer the greatest hope and opportunity for finding resolution to environmental problems in ways that meet multiple goals.

What forms of renewable energy development most support strong communities and healthy social relations? I’m not sure we know yet. But I do believe that in Vermont, as elsewhere, the shift to renewable energy must also involve the goal of building social capacity. As with phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain, we have so far placed much more attention on efforts to influence and support individual decision making, for example, that of the individual farmer on a specific farm, rather than building capacity for group process and decision making out of which alternative ideas and social norms can emerge. Similarly in the approach to the siting of renewable energy projects, the procedures have emphasized the interests of neighboring property owners or at best the one-time decision of the local community. These processes fail to address the fact that we are in a new era, when decision making regarding environmental issues must become fundamentally integrated within the local and regional patterns of governance and public discourse. We are in the process of rebuilding energy systems, and with this, new social systems. Strengthening the capacity for strong and effective local and regional self-governance for the long-term must be at the center of this energy transition. Addressing our relationship to nature is ultimately an opportunity to address our relationships among each other.

[1]       N. Georgescu-Roegen, “Energy and Economic Myths,” Southern Economic Journal, vol. 41, no. 3, p. 347, Jan. 1975.

[2]       J. M. Greer, The wealth of nature: economics as if survival mattered. Gabriola, B.C: New Society Publishers, 2011.

[3]       T. Mitchell, Carbon democracy: political power in the age of oil. London: Verso, 2013.

[4]       E. Ostrom, Governing the commons: the evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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