Taking Power to the People: Direct Democracy and Clean Energy
The Denver Green Roof Initiative wasn’t started by a big environmental organization or a political group with large donors. The lead organizer isn’t a seasoned insider or political operative. He’s Brandon Rietheimer, a thirty year old who manages a restaurant in Denver. Brandon saw that his elected leaders weren’t moving clean energy forward fast enough in his city and so he decided to do something about it.
Brandon and about 50 friends used a little of their own money and free time to gather enough signatures for their proposal to require solar panels and green space on all new buildings in the city.
Once they made it onto the ballot, they were outspent 12–1 by an organization called Citizens for a Responsible Denver, funded by local real estate developers resisting the proposal. The coalition didn’t receive a single dollar from clean energy companies, despite the fact that their initiative would directly create new projects for their businesses. Even the Democratic mayor Michael Hancock (who has taken contributions from the same real estate developers) said it was “too much, too soon.”
It turns out, the citizens of Denver disagreed. On Election Day, the Denver Green Roof Initiative passed easily by over 6 percentage points.
We need more Brandons to step up in cities and states across the country. Clean energy’s biggest growth obstacle is no longer cost or technology, which have advanced to the point that they are now a cheaper alternative to fossil fuels. The biggest obstacle is politics as usual and the army of special interest lobbyists employed full time to stop clean energy’s growth.
This is why we’re excited to start the Energy Future Project, a new advocacy organization aimed at expanding clean energy across America through direct democracy. We’re tired of seeing the political influence of monopoly utility companies and big oil preventing us from getting cleaner, more affordable energy. We’re going to go state by state helping to put clean energy on the ballot to finally let the people decide whether they want clean, affordable energy or the same monopoly system we’ve had for a century.
We know a majority of people want clean energy, yet these views are not reflected by our political leaders and the policies they support. According to a 2016 Pew survey, more than 4 in 5 Americans support expanding deployment of clean energy sources like wind and solar, cutting across every political and demographic group. Part of the reason clean energy is so popular is that Americans have begun to see it in action. More than one million homes in the United States have solar panels on the roof. A huge new American industry has popped up as a result. One in every 33 new jobs in America is a result of the clean energy industry.
Despite the jobs and the broad support from the vast majority of Americans, clean energy is still losing battle after battle in regulatory fights against a very well-financed lobbying effort from the coal, oil, and utility industries. In Nevada, utility regulators approved a utility proposal to make rooftop solar less attractive, creating thousands of layoffs in the state. Only this year did the state legislature step in to reverse course. A similar situation has played out in Arizona, where regulatory changes have allowed state utilities to increase customer bills and reduce the savings residents can get from installing solar panels.
It’s no coincidence that, as the New York Times reported earlier this year, nearly every state has seen similar proposals to change their clean energy policies. It’s part of a coordinated national effort by utility lobbyists like Edison Electric Institute to slow the growth of clean energy. And despite the widespread public support, clean energy policy advocates in the space are largely playing an inside-game — trying to out-lobby a fossil fuel industry that already employs an army of lobbyists and has racked up decades of contributions to legislators and regulators. It is not playing to clean energy supporters’ strength.
We have a different approach. We are working with other organizations and partners to launch statewide ballot initiatives to increase clean energy standards in several states. We plan to organize the hundreds of thousands of people who own solar panels or are employed in the industry in support of those initiatives. Elsewhere, we plan to recruit people like Brandon who want a vote on clean energy for their communities, flipping key state legislative seats where clean energy progress is stalled, and generally demanding accountability from political candidates on clean energy.
There is a great urgency. Our planet is on a dangerous trajectory toward catastrophic damage that will be very hard to avoid if we don’t take steps to make the energy we use cleaner. And even if you don’t connect with climate change as an issue, chances are you oppose the idea of your utility signing 20 year contracts to sell you fossil fuels despite clear evidence clean energy technology is the better long-term economic choice (not to mention making the air you breath cleaner). And who wouldn’t support hundreds of new jobs coming to your community to build it, too?
From small towns looking to save on energy costs to metropolitan areas looking for ways to improve air quality and attract a huge new industry creating thousands of jobs, clean energy is simply an idea whose time has come. But it’s clear that it’s going to be up to us to make that true sooner rather than later.
If we organize, we can demand that our political leaders from both parties stop taking money and marching orders from these special interests that want to slow our transition to clean energy. If you want to get involved or learn how we can help you put clean energy on the ballot in your community, sign up to get involved at energyfutureproject.com.