Q&A with Energy Democracy Contributor Ashura Lewis

Back in May, Island Press co-hosted a webinar with the Security and Sustainability Forum on how the energy democracy movement goes beyond technological solutions to address the legacy of social and racial injustice in the fossil fuel industry. Featured on the webinar was Energy Democracy contributor Ashura Lewis who does communications work for the Mississippi based One Voice.

Below are Ashura’s answers to select questions from webinar attendees. If you missed the webinar, you can view it here.

It seems that the origins of the term or intention of the electric cooperatives has been lost (not much democracy now), but that the legal cooperative context/legislation still exists. Are you simply trying to raise awareness of the power people could have if they just knew it and were more proactive with it?

Yes, this is precisely what our energy democracy campaign is attempting to accomplish within Mississippi’s electric cooperatives. The principles and laws governing the creation and operation of electric cooperatives already exist and support truly democratic functioning. However, because of the historical strife, disdain, and dishonesty found in Mississippi’s race relations, what should have been protective, supportive institutions have
become like the for-profit monsters their inception was designed to avoid.

Our campaign is to ensure that the cooperative members know their own power as member-owners and that control of the energy and economic futures of a community is not left in the hands of a few, particularly if those few do not share the interests of the community itself.

Without energy democracy how can ANY democracy be a whole democracy? In many democracies, energy loss for the poor at night causes children to fall behind on their education in a way that doesn’t happen for children of more affluent families.

This question divided the team so I will give the two answers that dominated our discussion. (1) American democracy, though flawed and inefficient, still exists despite failures of democratic participation in subsets of the overall, subsets like energy democracy. (2) American democracy, with its flaws and inefficiency, is not currently whole nor will it ever be whole and complete until all subsets of democratic participation are fully democratized as well.

As for the second part of your question, communities with lower quality housing stock that often suffer from nightly energy loss, also suffer from compounding issues of persistent poverty statuses, lack of economic security, poor quality of life, and other similar and poverty-related issues.

Any tips on how to pay for renewable energy projects for cooperatives that serve communities with high poverty? Using loans is not an option where I’m at because that would make the projects unaffordable for the member-owners in poverty.

A board of directors can opt to form a relationship with a local bank or other financial institution (or tap into the cooperative’s equity) to offer to their member-owners tariff based ways to make energy-related improvements to their housing stocks. It should be noted that the tariff-based is tied to the meter not the individual who may have requested the improvement. However, that would require a progressive board that is fully engaged and invested into the cooperative principle of concern for community.

What strengths, knowledge and capabilities do you think older generations offer young folks? Do you think it might hurt the chances of making beneficial changes if we emphasize the narrative that it’s all up to young people and everyone over a certain age has screwed up?

While we need the wisdom of our elders and the energy of our youth, in Mississippi history has provided us with a model of community engagement and organization that works well to advance the goals of energy democracy within the particularities that define our political and economic reality.

As to the narrative of previous generations “screwing things up,” it is understood and continually communicated in state-wide, progressive narratives that the only fault, if there was one, was that the previous generations had other directly pressing concerns (lynching, police brutality, rape, etc.) that perhaps distracted from important energy concerns.

How can research and academic communities support energy democracy?

Finding a way to communicate the effects of climate change to the everyday person rather than the term-heavy, very academic approaches used now. Additionally, support would be welcomed if the academic community could find a way to bring the effects and consequences of climate change and community climate resilience to a personal or familial level of impact.

What type of aid is available to support development of electric cooperatives in developing nations?

This book may speak to your question in far more detail than I dare to. It’s called Humanizing the Economy by John Restakis. However, I will say that the cooperative model as used in other countries tend to be better implemented than those here, and as a result are reaping more benefits than American co-ops manage on average.

How is your work connected with or changing the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA)?

The NRECA is a resource for work. It does try to emphasize the best practice models and the seven principles that should guide all electric cooperatives. The NRECA, however, is not an enforcement agency.

How can areas with investor owned energy companies move to co-ops?

The Public Service Commission approves or certifies any investor owned utilities (IOU), municipally owned utilities (MOU), or cooperative moving into an area, which makes the possibility of coops moving into already existing IOU or MOU territory highly improbable.

What are your thoughts on electric cooperatives as compared to community choice aggregators (CCA)?

To a certain extent, cooperatives by their nature are community choice aggregators. This nature is magnified particularly if a cooperative chooses to join with another cooperative or group of cooperatives. This is also one of the principles of cooperatives— working together.

Again in the CCA versus Coop comparison, which vehicle would be more effective in serving underserved community? How would we create a coop in a dense urban area with high concentration of underserved population?

As mentioned in the previous answer, cooperatives are already a type of CCA organization, therefore, it comes down to the control and moral operation of the cooperative of traditional CCA itself. In regard to the second part of your question, to form a cooperative, it only takes a determined group of people. The issue then comes down to funding.

Historically, cooperatives received federal funding under the New Deal. Today and in a highly concentrated area of underserved population, that funding (and connected infrastructure) would be a significant obstacle toward the creation of a new electric cooperative.

Regardless of the entity and how it is formed, it will always come down to the human nature, greed, and a communities’ ability to direct and influence those that govern them or their interests in a democratic framework. If that democratic framework does not exist, however, it is likely inevitable that such corruptions will occur.

Are you familiar with the idea of solar coops?

Vaguely, but they do not exist in Mississippi at this time and the current political landscape likely precludes their introduction in the near future.

These questions and answers were edited for clarity and length