Shalanda Baker’s Revolutionary Power: An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition (Island Press, January 2021) presents readers with quite a ride!
Storyteller, Activist, Law Professor, and (daringly) self-described lover of the Planet, Shalanda Baker covers all the bases and generously shares them in this heady work dedicated to directing the energy transition away from a narrow technical focus in favor of a strategy grounded on environmental and social justice and centering Black, Brown, people of color, and Indigenous people. Baker argues that to achieve optimal results from an energy policy for the ‘electrification of everything’, policymaking must involve the marginalized people who have suffered the worst impacts of the fossil-fuel economy – air pollution with the resulting ill health and now the most severe impacts of extreme weather as the climate crisis accelerates.
In recent comments, Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, observed that two paths now lie before the Biden administration: the first is to enable the U.S. to “take the kinds of risks that ultimately [solve] the problem”. The second would be for the U.S. to “squander its last opportunity to change the structure of its economy in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change.”
Early signals from the Biden administration are encouraging. Biden is centering environmental justice by establishing at least three different bodies to address the unequal impact of dirty air and water on poor and minority communities. Still another cross-government group will help communities transition away from fossil fuels. The strategy’s seemingly ‘top-down’ emphasis, however, suggests that marginalized communities might well remain at the margins. Their active participation as architects of new policies would seem to remain a distant goal, a pipe dream.
Baker wrote Revolutionary Power to facilitate the inclusion of these frontline communities at the table of architects designing the new energy system. In her work, she says she has observed broad agreement on the reality that climate change is forcing us to rethink how we generate and distribute energy, and how we regulate the energy system. She notes that the disagreements arise over how much we will change the system; i.e., will we redesign the system to replicate the current structures of power and control, or will we reimagine our system to benefit those so often left out of discussions regarding system design? The risk is real, she observes, that poor people, Indigenous peoples, and marginalized communities might experience the same violence and economic exclusion in the clean energy economy that exists now within the fossil fuel economy.
Revolutionary Power has been years in the making, says Baker, and her first words in the Introduction are, “I have to start at the beginning.” It makes sense, then, to begin this review by noting that Shalanda Baker is a first-rate storyteller. Whether she is writing about growing up in Austin, Texas; about her childhood visit to her father’s family in Port Arthur, Texas – in the heart of Cancer Alley – or her college experience as a Black, queer, young female cadet at the United States Air Force Academy. Whether she is telling about meetings of Indigenous peoples in Juchitán, Oaxaca, Mexico, on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where Indigenous peoples struggle with the environmental devastation caused by wind farms erected on their lands without consultation or compensation. Or relating that at the conclusion of a 6-hour workshop she led on climate policy and law on the north shore of the island of Oahu in the Hawaiian Archipelago, she was struck dumb by the deceptively simple question posed by a Native Hawaiian elder: What is energy?
Baker’s reflection on that question is illuminating:
“The answer, of course, informs our understanding of how we organize our systems to provide access to natural resources. If we believe that we, in fact, are energy and that energy also means food, water, air, and sunlight—the things we and most living beings on this planet need to thrive—we design systems that provide a harmonious connection to energy. Rather than ‘harnessing’ power, we flow with it. If, on the other hand, we believe that energy exists separate and apart from us, we design legal systems that erect barriers to accessing vital, life sustaining energy. We commodify it.
“The Native Hawaiians understood this complexity.”
In instances such as this one, the stories Baker tells are, in turn, eye opening, sobering, mesmerizing, and insightful; but above all, they cultivate in us, her readers, comprehension of a different way to consider longstanding, taken-for-granted energy issues. In this case, the insight – shared by indigenous peoples worldwide – is that natural resources are a public good and we humans are their guardians and stewards.
Baker also draws on her experiences as an activist to relate how well the grassroots implementation of climate policy legislation has worked out in multiple settings, both in Hawaii and across the Lower 48. Some policies have been more effective than others, but Baker draws important lessons from each.
Finally, as a law professor, Shalanda Baker clearly engages her students in research. Their work is most evident in the discussions of policy and legislation that are the core of the book, whose explicit goal is to provide a systematic guide for activists. In her Acknowledgements, Baker recognizes the breadth and importance of the research team’s contribution.
An overview of the chapters follows:
- Chapter 1, Energy, Energy Justice, and Civil Rights, lays out linkages between the civil rights, Indigenous rights, economic justice, and health justice movements, together with the assertion that the energy system is a central component of each movement’s claims. The fights for environmental justice in communities despoiled by the energy system, protests to prevent the building of more pipelines to carry fossil fuels across the United States, and access to ever-elusive economic prosperity are important battles. Nonetheless, Baker insists, the true opportunities for system transformation lie in restructuring the current energy system.
This system has, in many ways, Baker writes, “swapped out one system of extraction—legalized slavery—and replaced it with a more modern one, where oppression does not live in the lash, but in the toxic molecules that pollute our communities in higher numbers, wedge into our airways and waterways, and kill us.”
She continues, “The energy transition provides an opening to change destiny. Given the profound ways the system interacts with poor people, low- to moderate-income people, and people of color, this imperative — to remake the energy system in the image of equity and justice — is no different from the freedom struggles of the mid-twentieth century. The struggle for energy justice, for revolutionary power, is about nothing less than freedom.”
In the section titled “The Energy System as Power”, Baker adds, “The energy system reflects power. Yes, the system literally provides power, but the system itself represents the sum total of a series of political and economic choices that concentrate power and wealth in the hands of utility companies and their investors, often at the expense of utility customers.”
Baker thus elucidates the double meanings inherent in the book’s title: Revolutionary Power.
Chapters 2 through 6 provide rationales and strategies for engaging in policy advocacy in key areas; e.g., modern utilities; clean energy, including 100 percent clean energy policies; net energy metering policy (rooftop solar); community energy policy; and access to financing tools and alleviation of energy burden. Each chapter addresses three sets of issues:
- What’s at stake in a particular policy, and why it matters for marginalized communities;
- What’s wrong with the current approach to energy policy, with examples; and
- Specific strategies for advancing equity and justice.
These chapters are a gold mine for activists. They bring together information derived from a wide range of sources, including original research and present it in language that is jargon-free and in everyday use. However, it is important to note that readers would have an easier time following the logic and organization of Revolutionary Power (at times, I found myself lost in the details) had section titles been provided for each chapter in the Table of Contents. Section titles are also essential for activists who want to use the book as a guide. In their absence, let me strongly suggest that before beginning Chapters 2 through 6, readers orient themselves by scanning the section titles to gain a sense of what is included in each chapter and where the chapter ends up.
- Chapter 2, Utility Reform: The Linchpin to Transforming the Energy System, reviews the structure of investor-owned utilities (IOCs), including how the regulatory system provides utilities with perverse incentives that ultimately harm low-income communities and communities of color and prevent broader ownership of distributed energy generation projects (discussed in Ch. 5). The chapter’s driving force is the 2014 rejection by Hawaii’s Public Utility Commission (PUC) of the Integrated Resource Plan submitted by HECO (Hawaii Electric Companies), the state’s 120-year old utility. The Plan was HECO’s attempt to provide a road map for the utility to meet Hawaii’s aggressive renewable portfolio standard.
“For the energy policy wonks among us,” Baker writes, “the order represented nothing short of a call for a complete transformation of Hawaii’s utility, from one focused on profits to one focused on innovation in service of the people of Hawaii.“ [Italics added]
The chapter goes on to evaluate the impact of extreme weather events on utilities (e.g., Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, discussed later) and efforts to reform the sector, primarily in California (PG&E). It concludes with an overview of ideas for regulating or restructuring utilities to facilitate a just transition away from fossil fuels.
- Chapter 3, Ending Climate Change Fundamentalism, analyzes ambitious state legislation intended to drive the renewable energy transition. Baker defines the concept of climate change fundamentalism as a narrow focus on advancing climate and clean energy policy while failing to take justice concerns into account or, more insidiously, deliberately delaying justice considerations. Supporting this claim are empirical data gathered from California, where racial and economic justice should form the centerpiece for any policy advancing a clean energy future. The chapter shows how an approach to the energy transition grounded in climate change fundamentalism is likely to lead to a repeat of structural inequality. It concludes with concrete strategies for implementing ambitious clean energy policies grounded in equity.
Chapters 4 and 5 examine specific policies that states have adopted to meet ambitious clean energy goals.
- Chapter 4, The Fight for Local Power, addresses the energy justice dimensions of rooftop solar policies and provides an historical overview of one popular policy framework, net energy metering. The chapter provides examples from Hawaii and Arizona – states where the utilities effectively deployed such strategies. It wraps up by suggesting specific approaches to net energy metering and successors to net energy metering rooted in equity.
- Chapter 5, Community Energy: The Devil Is in the Details, examines and comments on common approaches to community energy. Data culled from failed community energy efforts in Hawaii inform the discussion, which concludes with an overview of ways to advance equitable community energy policy.
From the point of view of probably unconscious and hence unrecognized white privilege and its associated structural racism, Chapter 6 is a revelation.
- Chapter 6, Access to Capital: A Way to End Solar Segregation, addresses the financial aspects of the clean energy transition, including the structuring of financial tools such that marginalized communities remain excluded from accessing the funds they need to advance local clean energy development. The chapter ends with a set of recommendations for shaping green financial innovations consistent with energy justice.
The final chapter takes a creative tack by imagining what the energy situation might look like in the year 2035.
- Conclusion: Revolutionary Power is an urgent call to action. It reviews the key policy points raised throughout the book and argues for prompt action by all people—but most especially, by people of color, Indigenous peoples, low-income communities, and those who have been harmed by the current energy system. Baker’s forceful call is for wide participation in the construction of a new energy system consistent with the principles of energy justice.
The opening paragraph of this review mentioned that Shalanda Baker is also (daringly) a lover of the Planet. Here is how she describes it in the book’s final chapter:
“It is revolutionary today to speak of love. It is even more revolutionary for a lawyer and law professor to do so. But revolutionary power is, at its core, about love. It is about a love that looks forward—toward future generations, children unnamed, and possibilities unfurling—and a love that looks back—to ancestors hoping, believing, and praying that you might come into existence.
“Revolutionary power is also about love for today. It is about choosing to change our energy system to reflect principles of energy justice and energy democracy now, rather than waiting for climate change to force us to change. Revolutionary power makes the radical proposition that low-income communities and communities of color should own, control, and derive economic benefit from their own energy resources. It asserts that the legacy of structural racism and oppression can be dismantled through energy policy.”
We can confidently state that Revolutionary Power: An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition has an important role to play in guiding activists through unfamiliar terrain — the legal and policy labyrinths surrounding and protecting the current fossil-fuel energy system — in order to achieve a just transition to an equitable system grounded on renewable energy.
It seems wholly appropriate, even necessary, to give Shalanda Baker the last word:
“In this book, a series of stories woven throughout with dreams, I have … tried to write with authenticity the voices of those whose struggles taught me about energy and power.
“You, dear reader, are a product of your own stories, the places you have been, and your own ancestors’ wildest dreams for your life. Take the tools I have outlined in this book. Arm yourself with them. Make them your own. Use them to create your own revolution. We are rooting for you.”