The banks of the Chelsea Creek are crowded with Boston’s industrial lifeblood. Jet fuel for Logan Airport, salt for the roads and paved surfaces for all of New England, home-heating oil to warm households around New England, and gasoline to fuel the cars that zip past the banks of Route 1A.
The corpus of the river is riddled with ailments, and the air is polluted such that this area of Boston has some of the highest asthma rates in the city. Bordering the Creek are East Boston and Chelsea, both immigrant and working-class communities with deep memories of how these burdens imperiled them and their communities, and the green space and environmental improvements they’ve made over the years.
As of May 2019, Eversource, a major electric utility in the greater Boston area, has decided to construct an electrical substation along the banks of the creek, which often floods during New England’s unyielding Nor’easters and snowstorms, and is likely to worsen as the climate changes. Residents worry about the potential dangers of flooding on the site and the effects of the substation on quality of life, mourning what precious green space could have existed along the sides of the creek.
GreenRoots, an environmental non-profit, plans to contest and intervene in the construction. Eversource claims that the substation is needed to increase capacity for its customers, and that this project is the cheapest way to do so, given that costs get passed on to ratepayers. However, last year, Eversource had a stated net income of $1 billion. Its executives received compensation between $2.9-$14.29 million each.
In December 2018, National Grid, who supplies gas service to greater Boston, returned health insurance to its beleaguered workers after a six month stint without pay or benefits. With workers locked out of their workplaces, National Grid took a hard line on a contract dispute, where the company sought to cut worker benefits for new hires. Workers did their best to make it through these times, with many terrified of them or their families getting sick without vital health insurance coverage. It was only after state lawmakers passed a bill to restore unemployment benefits for striking workers that healthcare was restored in December.
National Grid made $4.6 billion in total profit last fiscal year.
Power lines trace the city’s streets and skylines, skirting triple-deckers and splitting the growth of street trees. Gas heats the interior of cramped apartments, a welcome warmth from Boston’s impossibly frigid winter. Light switches flip on and off, glowing in the dusky twilight. None of these are neutral objects or actions; rather, they can be traced back to hulking power plants, electrical substations, and gas lines, infrastructures that otherwise go invisible to everyday life. However, their supply chains can be traced back to the boardrooms of private utility companies and the complicated regulatory structures which provide bureaucratic oversight over these companies. In the meantime, fossil fuel burning energy sources continue to imperil the planet.
Boston’s Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Chapter has recently launched a new campaign, Take Back the Grid, which envisions a future of a community-controlled grid that follows the principles of energy democracy. Participants in the effort have supported Chelsea and East Boston residents in their fight against the substation, and joined picket lines to support locked-out National Grid workers. Leadership responds to questions below.
Interview has been condensed for clarity and length. Links to relevant stories added by author.
Boston Hassle: What is energy democracy and how did it become a Boston DSA chapter priority?
Energy democracy is a social and political concept that brings public participation into a key governing aspect of our daily lives. Energy production and distribution, in this post-industrial world, is a necessity for us to survive; however, the mechanisms that govern these processes are exclusive of public participation. Energy democracy seeks to abolish the monopoly of private interests on energy production and distribution. In short, we think it’s an incredible injustice that such a basic necessity, that has an outsized impact on both our lives and the ecosystems that we’re a part of, is almost completely out of our control. Energy democracy means taking back control and deciding as a community how our energy systems can best serve our people and our environment.
We started building our campaign based on Providence DSA’s #NationalizeGrid campaign – the initial goal was to confront National Grid’s practices across the New England area. During our research we realized two things: 1.) The energy grid in MA has multiple players involved rather than just National Grid, and 2.) this campaign would be a massive undertaking.
Meanwhile, the chapter decided to focus in on two external and two internal priorities to drive members, and we submitted our application. It was also at the time when the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report came out calling for unprecedented changes required to prevent the 1.5C warming in 12 years, and when the Green New Deal started becoming a hot topic of conversation.
BH: What are some of the fundamental problems of relying on investor-owned utilities to provide energy? Are there recent examples within Massachusetts that you can point to?
The main problem with investor-owned utilities (IOUs) is that the service they are providing is a public good, something that should be available to everyone regardless of socioeconomic status, yet they are beholden to their shareholders to make a profit. This creates a conflict of interest through which these companies are incentivized to do what is best for their bottom line rather than serve the interests of their customers and the environment. The profit motive also results in these companies to neglect repair and maintenance of the infrastructure, thus putting profit over people’s lives.
One glaring recent example within Massachusetts was the lockout of National Grid’s steelworkers. This greedy move also put customers in danger, as gas line maintenance and repair requires experienced professionals. The replacement workers hired by National Grid almost caused another explosion in Woburn, in the same way that Columbia Gas explosions happened in the Merrimack Valley. MA has one of the oldest gas infrastructures in the country, and these companies are rarely required to do maintenance work beyond immediate threats. This is evident when you look at the vast quantity of gas leaks across the state.
BH: Given the technical complexity of energy infrastructure and its splintered governance/ownership regimes, it’s often difficult for the everyday person to see the moral implications of energy generation and conveyance. What are some ways that the campaign plans to make energy a political or moral subject?
Boston DSA #TakeBackTheGrid Leadership: As mentioned before, in this day and age energy is simply a basic necessity. We need it to keep the lights on, to keep our homes heated, to access technology, and make our food. That our access to energy is dependent on whether we can afford to pay the bills is an obscene injustice, and right now the state protections are simply inadequate. For example, in Boston, if you’re unable to pay your heating bills during the winter, you’re required to follow a needlessly-convoluted process in order to get a financial hardship waiver to prevent your utilities from being shut off. But even if you get that waiver and your heating stays on, the bills keep coming! If you haven’t paid them off by the time April rolls around, your heating will be shut off.
Considering how important energy is to our daily lives, it is mind boggling to see how little information is available to the general public regarding regulation of energy production and distribution. We are working towards demystifying the energy distribution, how the grid works, by making the information available to the public in clear, understandable language through zines, flyers, and political education events. We are also writing op-eds in various media outlets to get our message out that energy distribution need not be in the hands of the private companies, but can and should be in the hands of the public.
BH: Oftentimes rhetoric within the thematic area of the environment focuses on non-human elements of energy and resource conveyance. For example, “progress” is often expressed as the share of a jurisdiction’s energy that comes from renewable sources, as opposed to how that jurisdiction’s residents are able to meaningfully influence the energy system, or the labor practices associated with energy consumed within that jurisdiction. What are some ways to distinguish the Take Back the Grid campaign this type of rhetoric?
DSA: Capitalists have done a great job of creating a false dichotomy between humanity and nature. We so often think of nature and natural resources as this separate entity from human society, when in reality humans are just a part of the larger ecosystem. We can’t talk about progress in sustainable, renewable energy without talking about the necessity of ensuring both that everyone’s needs are met and that we don’t exceed the ecological limits of the Earth. Otherwise, we’re not addressing who this “progress” actually serves. With #TakeBackTheGrid, we’re going beyond just saying that we need more solar panels or windmills. Renewables are only tools that can be used either for benefit of all, or to profit a few. We can’t stop at pushing for green technology- we have to demand that communities have control every step of the way to avoid these harmful consequences.
To that end, #TakeBackTheGrid advocates for what we’ve dubbed “The 4 Ds of Energy Democracy”: Decarbonize, Democratize, Decommodify and Decolonize. To put it simply, if we want to decarbonize our energy systems, we need to have democratic control of the grid, make heat and electricity public goods as they should be and of course, ensure that we intentionally open up these decision-making processes to marginalized groups such as Indigenous peoples and other frontline communities in order to avoid replicating the unjust structures that exist today.
BH: What are some models and success stories you all are considering regarding community control?
DSA: There are few alternative models of community ownership that currently exist: The Germans have moved to nationalize the energy grid, while in Costa Rica, the grids are community-owned. In the US, Austin has a municipal utility, Nebraska has a public energy grid, Boulder is trying to gain majority control of the grid from Xcel (major PoU in the area), and several municipalities across MA have their own electric grids. The town of Chelsea is constructing its solar-run microgrid with the help of GreenRoots. Public power already exists in New York, along with Long Island Power Authority, New York Power Authority, and New York Municipal Power Authority. [In New York,] there are several towns and municipalities that run their own electric grids. The case of LIPA serves as a cautionary tale as to how partial public/private ownership can obstruct the goal of lowering rates.
Vermont has established a number of community solar projects, allowing community members who may not individually have enough land and capital to invest in solar panels to collectively take ownership and management of a local solar production site through a nonprofit or co-op. Vermont also has established many all-volunteer town energy committees in which citizens are empowered to help shape municipal energy policies in order to achieve renewable energy and energy efficiency goals set by the state.
There are caveats to each. For example, the grid can be bought out by the state, but how do we justify the costs of appropriation to the taxpayers? Or, would it be more feasible to argue eminent domain to take over the grid at the state level? What would the legal costs look like? MA currently prohibits formation of any municipally owned utilities – would it be more feasible to fight against that and have the grid be municipally owned? The answer, we are hoping, will emerge from our conversations and hopefully collaboration with the most affected by energy discrimination.
BH: In envisioning a grid that is publicly governed, how do you balance the needs of the present (understanding the energy system as it exists today, attending public hearings, providing comment on pending cases) and envisioning new models for the future?
DSA: The fight for energy democracy is going to be a long, drawn-out one. The first steps are to make the public conscious of their own power and how they can hold the utility companies accountable – and to some extent, the negligence that IOUs have displayed (e.g. – PG&E in CA and National Grid in New England, Columbia Gas in MA). The needs of the present are the stepping stones for the future. By encouraging people to attend DPU hearings, we hope to increase public participation in the energy sector; by organizing tenants against utility shut-offs, we hope to make them aware that if the consumers owned the grid, they wouldn’t have to worry about shut-offs. We see our campaign as a catalyst that will drive the communities to do their own research, to see what is best for them, and to advocate for such measures. Of course, we will be participating in those fights alongside them.
BH: What groups or organizations within Greater Boston and Massachusetts are you looking to as allies? How does the campaign relate to other fights, in housing justice, labor, etc.?
DSA: Our short term goals- to oppose new rate hikes and any new fossil fuel infrastructure- are aligned with many other environmental and leftist orgs in the area. Our work also complements the Green New Deal resolution proposed by AOC and Markey, and are part of the GND principles that the nationwide DSA ecosocialism working group have published. Considering our 4D principles, we are looking to build coalition with grassroots organizations that work with marginalized communities. For example, we are looking to work with GreenRoots to oppose the proposed Eversource substation in East Boston, We are also looking to build relationships with ACE, who are active in Roxbury, and our ecosocialism working group is part of the People’s Climate Movement, a large coalition of environmental orgs in the area. The Boston chapter of Science for the People have also signed on to our campaign.
The fight for energy justice is interwoven with housing and labor issues. The same communities that are at risk of being evicted due to gentrification or predatory practices by landlords are also at risk for utility shut-offs; there is a very good chance that the same communities are also at greater health risk due to gas leaks and face a higher likelihood of utility shut-offs. Labor is an integral part of our campaign: It originally started with the United Steelworkers being locked out by National Grid. We provided support to their strike by attending rallies, lobby days, and picket lines. We are committed to a just transition for the energy sector workers.
BH: How can interested individuals get involved with this campaign?
DSA: They can email us at [email protected] or fill out this form. Alternatively, folks can reach out through our website, www.takebackthegrid.org, where we will also be posting periodic updates on our blog and information about future events.