Democratizing Energy Systems: An Opportunity for Planners as Cities Renew Commitment to Paris Climate Accord?

This article originally appeared on the blog published by The Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) and can be accessed here.
The absence of a national climate policy and the politics of denying anthropocentric climate change in the US has resulted in a number of states and cities stepping in to fill this ‘federal leadership vacuum’ (Byrne, Hughes, Rickerson, & Kurdgelashvili, 2007). An increasing number of states and cities are now encouraging distributed energy generation through on-site residential solar PV systems, not only by promoting the use of state and federal funds (tax rebates, tax credits, subsidies, etc.), but also by overriding neighborhood restrictions on road-facing solar PV installations and especially by legislating net-metering policies. As such, with cities becoming the venues for celebrating the benefits of decentralized energy systems (DES) (Adil & Ko, 2016), the social and material changes accompanying their widespread adoption by energy consumers across cities, especially through solar PV and thermal technologies, presents unique challenges and opportunities for planners and local policymakers. Not only can planners help resolve land-use conflicts — space limitations and siting issues (see Kaza & Curtis, 2014), they can also help democratize the energy sector by facilitating greater social capital and community cohesion around socio-technical issues pertaining to localizing energy systems (Hoffman & High-Pippert, 2005). 

However, inasmuch as the outcome of promoting the adoption of DES is economically and environmentally progressive, the rise of grid-tied energy producing consumers in a market-oriented sector has unintended socially regressive consequences. As more energy customers either reduce their consumption of retail electricity partially or curtail it altogether in what is referred to as ‘grid defection’ (Bronski et al., 2014), the utility serving them faces revenue losses. Where such losses are rendered unrecoverable, the cost burden to the utility is shifted to the remainder of its customers, in a classic move of ‘rent shifting’ i.e. shifting of the unrecoverable cost burden onto the consumer (Borenstein & Bushnell, 2015). In this way, as retail electricity rates climb, solar PV technology reaches cost parity (Rickerson, 2014), but — and here is the catch — only for those utility customers who can afford it. In industry parlance, this is ominously called ‘utility death spiral’ (Kind, 2013) or ‘spiral of rate death’ (Blackburn, Magee, & Rai, 2014), which creates a victim of another, more vulnerable group besides electric power utilities — low and middle-income energy consumers.

Contrasting this with the social position electric utilities had acquired in the early days of the energy sector — i.e. as regulated entities providing a public good (Hirsh, 2002) — presents an unfortunate and unintended outcome. However, the extent to which such an outcome is in fact unintended is also questionable given that ‘rent shifting’ is something that the utilities are already accused of pursuing (Borenstein & Bushnell, 2015; Boyd, 1996). In light of these contexts and concerns, the choices facing local governments and planners in terms of who to side with — utilities or consumers — constitute the crux of local and state-level energy politics.

Emerging against this state of affairs, are communities of energy consumers that are advocating for a paradigm shift in order to reclaim electricity as a public good (ILSR, 2016). There are however no simple or standard answers here because of the disparate and overlapping impact of local, state, and federal policies for any given community and the different set of local environmental conditions influencing their technology choices. In my research, I look at grassroots responses from energy communities that aim to affect outcomes ranging from energy independence for single homeowners to energy democracy for whole communities. Whereas the former draws on the ideals of national energy security put forward in response to the energy crisis of the 70s, the latter is a new civic movement that draws on a broad set of principles that promote socially just and inclusive wellbeing across class and racial divides, encourage environmental protection through context-appropriate use of emerging technologies and more critically, pursue a more democratic and equitable model of the economy (New Economy Coalition, 2015).

Therefore, a transition from incumbent to emergent energy systems based on renewable energy technologies (RET) is bound to unfold along with varying modes of governance and social organization models — from the ones benefiting individual consumers to those empowering entire communities. The fate of a truly democratic energy sector, where everyone benefits — i.e. an energy sector which is equitable and just as it is sustainable — is decidedly predicated upon the cumulative interactions between diverse community grassroots initiatives and the top-down socio-technical, regulatory and political contexts facing them.

As RET take a firmer hold of local retail energy markets with efficient storage systems and interoperable electric vehicles, urban energy planning ought to be concerned with who benefits and who loses in the ongoing pursuit for alternate energy systems (Miller & Richter, 2014; Shove & Walker, 2007, 2008). Since the take-off of residential solar PV in urban locations across the country, several investor-owned utilities have filed for rate changes with their respective State Utility Commissions citing the undue burden to customers who have not or cannot install solar PV. As fair and equitable as this sounds, with utilities claiming to remedy ‘rent shifting’ to non-solar PV customers by requiring solar PV owners to pay more under the revised rates, siding with utilities would be an egregious error (Pentland, 2017). While there is no doubt that once resolved, most likely in favor of energy consumers — solar and non-solar, the question of planning for local energy projects in coordination with other infrastructure systems like transport, water, and build environment will at least partially land in planners’ list of things to do. Yet, most planning programs across the US continue to graduate planners who remain untrained in key technical aspects as well as social issues surrounding ongoing energy systems transitions. Despite Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, much to the world’s dismay, there may still be light at the end of the tunnel with several mayors committing to the accord anyway (Domonske, 2017; Walker, 2017). The question that I seek to raise, as cities continue to combat the climate challenge, is: are planners equipped enough to tackle to the socio-technical challenges that new technologies and accompanying regulatory and intuitional contexts? or will the professional planner continue to remain subordinate to the electrical/civil/mechanical/environmental engineer?

Works Cited

Adil, A. M., & Ko, Y. (2016). Socio-technical evolution of Decentralized Energy Systems: A critical review and implications for urban planning and policy. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 57

Blackburn, G., Magee, C., & Rai, V. (2014). Solar Valuation and the Modern Utility’s Expansion into Distributed Generation. Electricity Journal, 27(1), 18–32.

Borenstein, S., & Bushnell, J. (2015). The U.S. Electricity Industry after 20 Years of Restructuring (No. 252R).

Boyd, J. (1996). The “regulatory compact” and implicit contracts: should stranded costs be recoverable? Energy Journal, 19(3), 69–83.

Bronski, P., Creyts, J., Guccione, L., Madrazo, M., Mandel, J., Rader, B., & Seif, D. (2014). The Economics of Grid Defection.

Byrne, J., Hughes, K., Rickerson, W., & Kurdgelashvili, L. (2007). American policy conflict in the greenhouse: Divergent trends in federal, regional, state, and local green energy and climate change policy. Energy Policy, 35(9), 4555–4573.

Domonske, C. (2017). Mayors, Companies Vow To Act On Climate, Even As U.S. Leaves Paris Accord. Retrieved June 6, 2017, from

Hirsh, R. F. (2002). Power Loss: The Origins of Deregulation and Restructuring in the American Electric Utility System. MIT Press. Retrieved from

Hoffman, S. M., & High-Pippert, A. (2005). Community Energy: A Social Architecture for an Alternative Energy Future. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 25(5), 387–401.

ILSR. (2016). Introducing the Community Power Map | Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Retrieved January 15, 2017, from

Kaza, N., & Curtis, M. P. (2014). The Land Use Energy Connection. Journal of Planning Literature, 29(4), 1–16.

Kind, P. (2013). Disruptive Challenges: Financial Implications and Strategic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business. Retrieved from

Miller, C. A., & Richter, J. (2014). Social Planning for Energy Transitions. Current Sustainable/Renewable Energy Reports, (September), 77–84.

New Economy Coalition. (2015). What is Energy Democracy and Why Does It Matter? – YouTube. New Economy Coalition. Retrieved from

Pentland, W. (2017). Why the net metering fight is a red herring for utilities | Utility Dive. Retrieved June 6, 2017, from

Rickerson, W. (2014). Residential prosumers – drivers and policy options (re-prosumers).

Shove, E., & Walker, G. (2007). Caution! Transition ahead: policies, practice, and sustainable transition management. Environment and Planning A, 39, 763–770.

Shove, E., & Walker, G. (2008). Transition management and the politics of shape shifting. Environment and Planning A, 40(4), 1012–1014.

Walker, A. (2017). 246 mayors adopt Paris climate accord after U.S. pulls out (updated). Retrieved June 6, 2017, from

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