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How energy democracy can avoid a climate crisis: Naomi Klein

Converting the entire world to renewable energy would cost $100 trillion over 20 years, according to a report from the University of California at Davis and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. However, there are tremendous inertial forces that slow energy transition, such as extant infrastructure investment and the one million-plus jobs that oil and gas generate in the U.S. alone.

While fossil fuels will dominate the global energy space for the time being, proponents of wind, water and solar power cite growing evidence that an equitable and viable transition can eventually take place. According to Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs the Climate, the concept of “energy democracy” is integral.

“Energy democracy is the idea that, as we switch from fossil fuel based energy to renewables, we should also democratize the energy grid, so that it is much more decentralized, and also so that communities are able to control their own electricity generation,” says Klein. “The benefit [is] that, as they make profits, the profits don't go into the pockets of shareholders. They stay in the community.”

Consumers would still face higher prices for renewable electricity, however. In 2011, President Obama announced the ambitious goal of converting the U.S. electrical grid to 80% renewable energy by 2035. A subsequent report by the Energy Information Administration estimated this would raise average utility bills by 29%. Nevertheless, Klein points to Germany, Denmark and even the Navajo Native Americans as signs of successful transition.

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Klein says that initially, nimbyism (or not-in-my-backyard-ism), created headwinds for establishing new renewable power plants in Germany and Denmark. “People don't want a wind farm spoiling their view,” she says. “But what the research shows is that when you have a real sense of community and community ownership over those projects, that nimbyism falls away...People are competing to have the projects on their land.”

In the U.S., the Navajo and Hopi Native American tribes jointly formed a group called the Black Mesa Water Coalition. Historically, they have leased their land for coal extraction, which in turn fuels coal-fired power plants. While this provides jobs and much needed economic development for the tribes, it also heavily pollutes the land and air.

Recently, the tribes created their own proposal to convert the land recovered from coal mining to solar power generation. Instead of leasing the rights to an outside company, they would retain ownership of the project.

Klein holds this up as a sustainable model for the rest of the world, as we slowly transition away from fossil fuels. Of the Black Mesa proposal, she says, “They would have the jobs, the skills, training and the economic development that came with that. So that's really energy democracy.”