What if the Wind and Sunshine Really Belonged to All of Us?
May 23, 2022 - The Nation Blogs
There are old and new ways of promoting renewable energy. the difference does not center on the speed or scale of technological shifts. Certainly, we need—in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s felicitous phrase—“a solution at the scale of the crisis.” We also need solutions at the scale of the resources. That is the difference: Free-flowing wind and sunlight allow for a far more democratic energy system than fossil fuels ever have. Let’s not miss that opportunity.
The wide sky lends itself to public ownership and public rights. If utopia is anywhere, it is—and has always been—in the heavens just above humanity’s head. Our star’s fusion reaction blasts in all directions. A tiny fraction of that energy hits the surface of Earth—86,000 terawatts—of which 870 terawatts power the wind. The resource is vast, ubiquitous, and universally accessible. Compare it with the nearly 12 terawatts we get from coal, oil, and gas. Those who aspire simply to replace about a dozen terawatts are thinking small and planning narrowly. Now apparently dead, the Build Back Better bill would simply have repositioned the entire corporate battleship of electricity from one berth to another. Dating back to the Clean Power Plan of his vice presidency, Joe Biden has sought to replace the gigawatt smokestack with a gigawatt wind farm. Such proposals merely swap energy resources, attempting to fit the round peg of wind and sunlight into the square hole of private fossil fuels.
While pollution levels would certainly decline under Biden’s plan, little would change structurally. Even small-scale, residential solar panels are mostly owned by Sunrun and other large corporations. They lease roof space from millions of homeowners, amassing oligopolies from paneled archipelagos. The sky can do so much more. Renewables can power utilities and the grid—and then empower people currently marginalized by both.
Some on the left have already suggested something slightly different from what Biden has offered: nationalizing wind farms, solar farms, transmission infrastructure, and even the whole fossil fuel sector (in order to retire it). I’m not opposed to such energy democracy. It just seems like expropriating assets long claimed and expertly defended would be a tough fight. It is also an unnecessary one. The Public Power NY Coalition wants to avoid that fight by building new infrastructure for renewables in a publicly owned utility. That form of energy democracy seems more likely to succeed in the United States. But it still misses an opportunity.
To truly control the energy system, one also has to own the root resources: wind and sunshine. Currently, almost no one is claiming them. Big-box stores seldom consider their roofs and the photons wasted there. Few landowners have even heard of wind rights. Energy resources orders of magnitude larger than oil are lying unfenced, unprotected, and virtually free for the taking. We only have to look up—to the sky—to see the widest frontier for the commons and energy justice.
In fact, energy justice is not optional. Simply getting off fossil fuels would, of course, stabilize the climate and preserve life on Earth. That promise ought to be enough to make renewables wildly popular—but it hasn’t so far. In both the US and Europe, rural, anti-corporate movements are resisting solar and wind farms. They have killed projects and slowed the rate of installation dramatically. Urban communities—a huge reservoir of potential support—often oppose the smokestack down the road. But as potential supporters of specific wind and solar farms, they have been sidelined and uninvolved. To succeed politically, the energy transition needs diverse, dispersed movements. We’re not there yet. In what follows I discuss three more radical forms of post-fossil-energy justice. The sooner we explore these solutions-at-the-scale-of-the-resources, the faster Americans will mobilize for the transition away from fossil fuels.
Ladders to Socialism
Federal policy already encourages roof owners to install solar panels. It doesn’t require anyone to do so. Additional tax incentives might promote public, cooperative, and community solar projects, but the legislation doesn’t give them roof space. Sun-catching surfaces remain all too private. Hence, as the first of my proposals, let’s empower solar-minded neighbors and the neighborhood itself. Imagine the typical big-box store or warehouse. Its roof captures sunlight and—unless there is a skylight, garden, or tanning deck up there—throws it away. What if a city, a community organization, or even high-tech protesters could climb up, install panels, and wire them to a local micro-grid? Let the ladder be the next tool of socialism.
This property-busting scenario sounds far-fetched, un-American, and without legal precedent. Not necessarily. In 1862, as the US was expanding westward, President Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act allowed white settlers to grab Indigenous land, put it under the plow, and gain permanent title. As Martin Luther King Jr. once remarked, America “undergirded its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.” That basic-income-in-land plan excluded Blacks while, of course, displacing and immiserating Native Americans in favor of settlers. So, not an obvious precedent. But the act also imposed a penalty on many settlers that would serve as a useful model for the expropriation we need now. Within a five-year probationary period, any settler who “abandoned” his parcel for even six months lost it. Those idle, unfarmed acres “reverted” to the government and “the public domain.” The Homestead Act smuggled socialism onto the prairie and as far as Alaska until the last successor act lapsed in 1986.
Climate policy could pick up that recently relinquished legislative thread. Let’s apply Homestead thinking to sunlight—as modern, democratic, and urban “solar homesteading.” Big-box stores and their parking lots abandon sunshine. In summer, the unharvested photons warm surfaces and create unbearable heat islands. Tax incentives and building codes would persuade some businesses to solar up. Otherwise, let the city bring the ladder! In fact, publicly owned urban panels would provide something beyond the reach of private—and especially rural—solar farms. They would generate electricity where people already live, rather than at the other end of our brittle, unreliable grid. Public urban solar power could bring resilient electricity to so many more people, including thousands of marginalized, Black, and brown communities across America.
The Common Wind
The wind is equally ripe for public ownership. right now the opposite is happening, as the air’s kinetic energy is being privatized, accumulated, and concentrated. In Texas and the big wind states north of it, wind companies make a deal with landowners: Allow us to put up huge turbines and we will pay you rent for the “pads” they occupy and a royalty on the wind itself. Landowners often go for this lucrative deal. But their neighbors—stuck with the ugliness (as many see it) of turbines with no financial compensation—often feel differently. So they sue, write to their representatives, and otherwise gum up the works. These anti-turbine activists—who are often pro-fairness—are slowing and stopping installations across North America and Europe. And the deeper battle has hardly begun. Five white families own as much land in the US as the entire Black population. Should they own all that wind above their land too? For the sake of fairness, certainly not. For the sake of reducing carbon emissions as well, advocates of renewables can hardly afford to exclude Blacks and the great majority of Americans from their ranks. Private wind rights, in short, tilt the energy transition toward elites—and give everyone else a reason not to support it.
Public ownership would make wind popular. No one will have to homestead or bring a ladder in this case. A legislature only has to “sever” wind rights from land rights. (Or, more artfully, one could reclassify private wind rights as an easement—a legal term conferring the right to use someone else’s land for a specific purpose—within the public trust of wind.)
Why should wind rights and land rights belong together in any case? Unlike sunlight—which farmers use every day of the growing season—almost no one harvests wind for production on land. How did wind rights become attached to land in the first place? This precedent goes back to Cino da Pistoia, a 14th-century Tuscan jurist who sought to adjudicate among neighbors with wide roofs. A man’s property goes ad coelum, or to the sky, he wrote. “From molehills grow mountains,” and this phrase now gives the planter of waist-high wheat the right to sell 30-story-high wind.
But private wind rights make no sense. “To the sky” applied to space rather than energy. That spatial principle—which airplanes violate every day—prevents your 30-story tower from rising diagonally over my adjacent lot. Fine. The wind, however, has nothing to do with any local parcel. Regional, even planetary, forces produce it far above us. Vertical resources differ from horizontal ones, as other countries recognize. Mineral and oil rights usually belong to governments, rather than to whoever owns the surface. Because of incentives for prospectors in the early homesteading era, the US almost uniquely attaches mineral rights to land. But Alaska, which has almost no private land, is different. Publicly owned oil contributes to a permanent fund that pays every Alaskan an annual dividend check. As a result, Alaskans have an emotional, political, and financial investment in petroleum. We who prefer renewables could learn from their example.
Make the wind a commons and invite every breeze-blown community into the energy transition. In Germany, Denmark, and New Zealand, communities have already erected wind farms on municipal land for the common good. Pistoia’s “to the sky” principle allows them to sell royalties and benefit. Under a post-Pistoia wind commons, any municipality could do the same for breezes above private land. Wind rights could rest with the town, the county—or with an entirely new unit bounded by the viewshed, which might help smooth the path for offshore wind farms. These collective wind-owners would sell wind rights and earn royalty checks. Private landowners would still receive compensation through rent for the pads sitting on their property. But imagine these neighbors—instead of banding together to fight a wind farm—jointly advertising their wind and recruiting operators. Urban and suburban residents could negotiate for smaller turbines or even vertical rooftop axis machines. Those models are relatively expensive in terms of maintenance—but, when popular, are still a lot cheaper than legal fees. Wind farms could be the new community gardens.
A Right to Light
Finally, as the last, perhaps-not-so-radical proposal, let’s think outside the box of electrons. Passive solar energy—which entered modern architecture in the 1940s—refers to nonelectrical means of harvesting sunshine for illumination and heating. It is not passive at all but relies on specific building designs: wide, triple-glazed, south-facing windows to bring light inside, stone floors or other thermal masses to store heat and re-radiate it at night, and—for the sake of cooling—overhangs positioned to block the high summer sun. The US Green Building Council (author of the LEED standards) and the Passive House Institute have perfected these conservation techniques over decades. They can cut your consumption of electricity, methane, and heating oil by up to 90 percent. Programs for clean energy, however, hardly consider southerly windows and thermal masses. Why? Passive solar houses don’t consume substantial electricity—not from a coal plant and not from solar corporations. And the equipment that captures photons doesn’t generally roll off an assembly line, as panels and heat pumps do. You have to build a passive house or apartment from the ground up and at greater expense. Except for a few start-ups, solar architecture is not profitable enough for any corporation.
Fortunately, cities and states already regulate buildings with various market-defying rules. New standards might require southern exposures, high window-to-wall ratios, thermal masses, and so on. For new apartment buildings, a passive solar code would require setbacks from the street—allowing light to enter balconies and balcony doors—and appropriate shading. New developments could include such features as light-maximizing districts. Who wouldn’t want to live in a well-lit apartment—with a terrace to boot? Few are being built, though. Rather than mandate or subsidize such structures, policymakers are simply pushing photovoltaics. In 2021, the California Energy Commission voted to require solar panels on all new houses. That’s progress, for sure. But, California, while you’re revising the building code for roofs, why not mandate a skylight too and perhaps a “solar tunnel” that would bring light through the attic to habitable space? We don’t need a huge federal bill for these reforms. We just need legislative innovation—and moxie—in the sunny suburbs where many Americans are moving. And, in northern cities like New York, we need to restrain billionaire penthouses from casting shadows over the neighborhood. The right to light is a right to the city.
Everyone lives beneath the sky—a public sky. Yet the increasing use of sky-given resources is turning them into private property, leaving most of us behind. Renewables should put something in the average person’s pocket. Biden wished to spread tangible benefits widely, as cleaner air for polluted communities and jobs for displaced oil workers. Maybe things will work out that way. When they do, those people may get very excited about the next Build Back Better bill. Because politically, this is a chicken-and-egg problem. Clean energy needs popular support in order to proliferate and provide people with the tangible goods necessary to motivate support in the first place. Right now we’re stuck: People rally against fossil fuels, but actual wind and solar farms remain marginally popular at best.
In the aftermath of Build Back Better, why don’t we reset? Start with a jubilee that confers rights to wind and sunlight to every community and jurisdiction in America. Give groups of people terawatts, and give people the right to use them for reading a book in a sunlit living room—or for making electricity. States and municipalities can direct much of this work through zoning and building codes. In Washington, a better Build Back Better bill would turn renewables everywhere into common property. Wind, sun, turbines, and panels would become common in the sense of popular too. Let these technologies spill out of corporate boardrooms and onto the streets. That is the pro-renewable movement we need—a movement wide and deep enough to actually stabilize the climate.
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