Three vital advantages of municipal utilities

bob massie president new economics instituteBob Massie of America’s New Economics Institute sent news today that voters in Boulder, Colorado, have ended their relationship with Xcel Energy, a utility with $10.7 billion in revenues, clearing the way for the city to form its own municipal utility that would lower rates and make greater use of renewable energy.

The city’s ‘multiple pleas’ for more clean wind and solar power had been turned down by Xcel which then financed a new coal power plant.

boulder cycle demo

During a vigorous campaign that attracted national attention, corporate executives and their allies mounted a well-funded operation, arguing that the city had neither the money nor the expertise to manage such a complex enterprise.

boulder graphicAdvocates for the municipal utility, including the New Era Colorado Foundation, fought back with a successful crowd-funding campaign, attracting public attention with imaginative activities.

There are 1000 municipal utilities in the United States, serving 50 million customers. Most  are owned by cities, and controlled by panels of local citizens. Some are cooperatives owned by their members.

boulder john farrellJohn Farrell, who directs the Energy Self-Reliant States and Communities program at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, points out that if the city moves ahead, it would capture nearly $100 million currently spent on electricity imports and create up to $350 million in local economic development by dramatically increasing local clean energy production.

Proponents of change have argued that public control creates three vital benefits:

  • First, decisions are made not by distant corporate managers whose first priority is to generate returns for absentee shareholders or to pay enormous salaries for executives, but by managers who are accountable to the community.
  • Second, because of this, municipal utilities can focus on important local goals, such as investing in renewable energy, efficiency, and other factors that increase community resilience.
  • And finally, the rates of municipal utilities are traditionally lower than their counterparts, and they channel any financial surplus — also known as profit — back into the community.

 boulder poster

Massie comments: “The entire model of a corporate utility operating a centralized grid is facing steady erosion. Universities and cities across the country are expressing their desire to move away from both hiring — or even owning stocks — in companies that remain committed to fossil fuels. In addition, every family who installs solar on their roof not only slashes their need for energy from a utility, but also cuts the revenue for those same firms.”

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American localisers call for new economic forms to support an emerging new economy

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New Econ Institute logo.

As ‘our grand economic experiment’ has demonstrably failed to serve people and planet, New Economics members in America have begun to readjust and re-experiment. Citizens organized in neighbourhoods, cities, and small towns, are working together to create new economic forms that support an emerging new economy. 

PBS NewsHour has aired a report on BerkShares, a local currency in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts that helps citizens identify and engage with independent local businesses that are the backbone of their local economy. In September, BerkShares will celebrate its 7th Anniversary.

Gar Alperovitz, who will speak at another event, is a spokesperson for new enterprises incorporating worker ownership and management in their structure, rebalancing priorities by serving the interests of workers and their place-based communities over the interests of global capital. In so doing, they are modelling characteristics of the future American economy—distinctive for being neither corporate capitalism nor state socialism.

Judy Wicks, leading another event, is active in the movement for the renewal of local economies and the promotion of diversity among the small businesses that make up those economies. Her White Dog Café taught her how to build alliances of mutual support. She used those lessons to shape the principles of Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE).

Two of the initiatives listed caught the writer’s eye:

agrarian trust logoThe Agrarian Trust helps sustainable next-generation farmers access land. Land access is a challenge for beginning farmers, particularly those coming from a non-agricultural background as land costs are at an all-time historical high as a result of real estate values, speculator/ investment pressure, high crop prices. Good legal and financial counsel, affordable credit for capitalization, affordable land, and housing nearby the farm.

CLT logoThe central principle motivating the work of the Community Land Trust is that homes, barns, fences, gardens, and all things done with or on the land should be owned by individuals, but the land itself is a limited community resource that should be owned by the community as a whole. The CLT makes possible the community ownership of land.

The New Economics message ends:

At this critical juncture in the re-visualizing of the American economy, alliances are forming. Single-issue organizing is a thing of the past. We need to celebrate and leverage transformation wherever it is occurring, region by region, neighborhood by neighborhood, green business by green business, grassroots group by grassroots group. Much is at stake”.

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Cutting through ‘sustainababble’

Today we received news from America’s New Economics Institute – a partner of Britain’s nef – about the latest edition of Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World series. Their comment:

Every day, we are presented with a range of “sustainable” products and activities – from “green” cleaning supplies to carbon offsets – but with so much labeled as “sustainable,” the term has become essentially sustainababble, at best indicating a practice or product slightly less damaging than the conventional alternative.

In State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible, scientists, policy experts, and thought leaders attempt to restore meaning to sustainability as more than just a marketing tool.

wwi coverThey define clear sustainability metrics and examine various policies and perspectives, including geoengineering, corporate transformation, and changes in agricultural policy, that could put us on the path to prosperity without diminishing the well-being of future generations.

If these approaches fall short, the final chapters explore ways to prepare for drastic environmental change and resource depletion, such as strengthening democracy and societal resilience, protecting cultural heritage, and dealing with increased conflict and migration flows.

State of the World 2013 cuts through the rhetoric surrounding sustainability, offering a broad and realistic look at how close we are to fulfilling it today and which practices and policies will steer us in the right direction.

 

Does supporting local business build resilient local economies – and a more peaceful world?

judy wicks2Judy Wicks, a board member of the NEI – featured recently on this site – thinks that it does.

Looking around for more information, evidence of a very adventurous and constructive life – including living with the Eskimos and working with the Zapatistas  – was easily found online.

Her unusual slant on localisation was extracted from the 24th Schumacher Lecture which she gave in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

She argues that supporting local business is more than a strategy for building resilient local economies:

“Perhaps the greatest benefit of the local-living-economy movement is that by creating self-reliance we are creating the foundations for world peace. If all communities had food security, water security, and energy security, if they appreciated diversity of culture rather than a monoculture, that would be the foundation for world peace. Schumacher said, ‘People who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get involved in large-scale violence than people whose existence depends on world-wide systems of trade.’

Judy started buying from local farmers in 1986 for her restaurant White Dog Café, which she started on the first floor of her house in 1983. Realizing that helping other restaurants connect with local farmers would strengthen the regional food system, she founded the Fair Food Project in 2000.

The following year she co-founded the nationwide Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), now a network of over 20,000 local independent businesses in the U.S. and Canada, and founded the local affiliate Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, currently with 500 members.

 

 

2013 watershed: rebuilding local economies

A recent message came from Bob Massie, the president of the New Economics Institute, based in Massachusetts, which grew from E. F. Schumacher Society, in close partnership with Britain’s new economics foundation. It opened by saying that 2013 is likely to be a watershed year:

“A tremendous number of people around the country understand that the system is broken, and that we must work to replace it with something different, something new. Many of these people have already rolled up their sleeves and gotten to work in their local communities. Many others are just waiting for the opportunity. Our plan is to bring these people together with like-minded organizations and leaders to a build a movement to propel America toward a New Economy. . .

“Most people know that our current economy is leading us in the wrong direction. They want to see change and progress – but they aren’t yet part of a shared vision of what that change looks like. The New Economy is about democracy, resiliency, and community . . .

“There are many outstanding organizations committed to building the New Economy. From launching cooperative businesses or community time banks to working to create public banking legislation, more and more people are creating the transition to a just and sustainable economy, now . . . “

Chandran Nair would welcome Massie’s news that:

“There is tremendous energy among college students toward building a movement for the New Economy. When we announced that we would be supporting Strategic Summits on eight campuses this spring, we received over 70 letters of interest from student groups from Hawaii to Maine! These students are already at work raising awareness and building strong collaborations with local communities.

”We believe this will inspire a nationwide movement in 2013 among college students and create a powerful network of leaders committed to building a just and sustainable economy.”

Its fifth project, called TOWARD A NEW ENTERPRISE ECONOMY, aims to:

“Draw in people from all sides of the political spectrum by focusing on how to rebuild local economies through using the skills, imagination, and enterprise of the people who live there. Find ways to make global interconnectedness a positive reality for all”.