Our Work

Power to the people: A structural fight?

Weekly Planet by Elizabeth Courtney
This article first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 28 edition of the Times Argus/Rutland Herald

Vermonters, and many other citizens of this nation, have been justifiably angry about the gridlock in Washington and in state capitols around the country, as this fall’s election results attest. On the energy issue, for instance, many of us have been deeply disappointed to find that even our favorite elected officials are unable to enact the legislation necessary to move us out of the oil age into a new energy future.

Hermann Scheer, the German parliamentarian who was responsible for the passage in 2000 of the Law for the Priority of Renewable Energies, (also known as an Act on Granting Priority to Renewable Energy Sources), didn’t call it gridlock. He called it a fight, a structural fight. And fight he did to pass the law that allows individual Germans far greater opportunity to generate their own renewable energy, giving them new autonomy. The law has revolutionized the way Germany powers itself. Ten years after its passage, according to Scheer, Germany operates 50 percent of the world’s photovoltaics, most of them on the rooftops of homes and businesses.

Scheer saw a structural fight between the status quo tyranny of the oil and coal cartels on the one hand, and the German people on the other, and in that fight he saw democracy itself at risk. Citing the industrial countries’ addiction to fossil fuels, Scheer warned: “Energy dependency endangers democratic constitutions.”

But most notably, Scheer, who died suddenly this October, at the age of 64, recognized that the movement must come from the local and regional level, because, as he put it, “it is in fact a revolution that will decentralize power production.”

Decentralizing power production will decentralize the powerful, as it gives power to the people.

Perhaps Vermonters can learn something from Hermann Scheer and the German people. In many ways Vermont’s already caught on. We have over 100 town energy committees up and working on solutions for their energy future. Vermont instituted the nation’s first energy efficiency utility, passed a bill that would allow municipalities to create clean energy assessment districts, so that property owners can borrow at low cost for weatherization and renewable power generation. Vermonters have the country’s first state-wide feed-in-tariff, encouraging small scale renewable energy projects.

But this doesn’t seem to be enough to get us where we need to be. We’ve missed many opportunities to become more energy independent. We’ve nowhere nearly reached our full energy efficiency or conservation potential. There are fierce battles fought for every wind project in Vermont, there is waffling on whether to relicense a crumbling Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and there are challenges to the idea of biomass power production. We’re all over the map.

What Vermont has been lacking is a unified voice and a comprehensive plan for how we will create energy security and renewable energy autonomy for the people of the Green Mountain State. For this, we have needed leadership at the top. Now we have a new governor, ready to craft an energy plan, so let us tell him what we need and help him to lead us to our new energy future.

Please let our new Governor and lawmakers know that Vermont needs: a comprehensive energy plan that outlines a clear commitment to investing in efficiency, conservation and decentralized, home-grown, clean, renewable power production, a strategy to get there and the leadership to deliver.

It might be a fight, perhaps even a structural fight, but surely a fight that we can and must win, if we are to pursue a strategic and efficient solution to our energy future.

All references to comments made by Hermann Scheer in this essay are found in an Amy Goodman interview on Democracy Now, aired on October 15, 2010.