This article was prepared in collaboration with After the Storm magazine.
Founder and co-editor Alex Mell-Taylor of After the Storm magazine chats with Tom McBrien, a DSA activist for the public energy initiative We Power DC. The two chat about problems with neoliberal energy policy, why electric cars are the worst, some of their favorite pieces of media, and the future of energy policy in both the greater Metro DC area and the United States. If this area of policy has ever confused you, this is not an interview you will want to sleep on.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
Alex: Hello! My name is Alex, co-editor and founder of After the Storm, a futurist magazine looking to tell essays, stories, and interviews with better futures. And I'm joined today by Tom McBrien of We Power, an energy initiative in the greater Metro DC area. Hi, Tom. Thanks for joining us.
Tom: Thanks so much for having me.
Wonderful. So could you just very briefly introduce yourself and explain what you do in the realm of energy policy?
Yeah, so again, my name is Tom McBrien, I use he/him pronouns. I've been involved in We Power DC, which is Metro DC DSA's priority campaign. It is a public power campaign, and I'll talk a little bit more about that soon, but basically, public power is a specific type of campaign that's focused on energy justice issues and environmental justice issues, mainly centered on how we get electricity and power in DC.
We are one campaign among many across the nation right now working on this issue. There have been a lot of successful public power campaigns over the past few decades, more than 50 of them. So, we're really hopeful about this. I do all sorts of stuff for We Power. I do some internal organizing work, some communications work, you know; we all dabble in a lot of different things.
So I wanted to talk a little bit about the current state of energy policy. What are the main problems and barriers that you see?
Oh, good question. So there are a few.
One, I'll just start off with this: It's really wonky. It has its own vocabulary. It has its own history that can be complicated and inscrutable and hard for a regular person to understand or even care about. To be honest with you, it sounds so boring and technocratic. And in a lot of ways, it is, until you are thinking about the impact it has on a lot of our day-to-day lives, or until something happens to you, like having your energy shut off or going through some sort of environmental disaster, that was either directly caused by a utility company or comes from climate change. It's a bit more indirect, so that's something that we try to tackle as a public power campaign. We try to make the issues understandable. We have a lot of really good political educators at We Power who've been doing some cool presentations lately.
Secondly, there is a lot of institutional complexity. There isn’t always a clear-cut enemy. It involves a lot of local systems that aggregate up into regional systems and into national systems of energy. Utilities can do anything from (1) creating energy to (2) transmitting it across state lines to (3) distributing it once it's within the place where it's going to go. Some utilities do all three of those things, while others only do one or two. And these companies really don't want people to necessarily understand all the ins and outs, because if ratepayers did that, they may feel angry about how certain things work.
This is probably really simple for you, but could you explain what a utility is? I know most Americans have to deal with them, but they might not necessarily know what they are outside of paying their bills.
There are certain things like water or electricity, where a lot of people agree it might not make sense for this to be a competitive free market type thing. It might be better for one entity to just handle this on its own because you don't really get the benefits from a free market competition system with that type of service.
In the US and in other places, sometimes the government's the entity that does all that (i.e., a public power utility). Other times they've created this public-private partnership system, where they say, “Hey, this one company — let's say Pepco in DC [a utility company that supplied power to the DC area] — we're going to give you a monopoly on this service. So what you get is guaranteed revenue every year. What [the utility company owes] is that [they] have to pass certain decisions by [the public]. If you're going to try to raise rates, then we're going to have a special commission that says you can do this or not, you can't do this.” So, they're just more regulated than a lot of other companies. That's basically a utility in a nutshell, it is a very highly regulated monopoly.
You're getting to my next question. Why is that a problem?
There are a few reasons why it's a problem. One: a lot of times, when these entities get extremely powerful, they can capture that little group, that commission, that is supposed to regulate them. We see this all over the place. A lot of the time, these people might run an election, and because of our campaign finance laws, you have the same corruption issues that you see across politics. So often, these monopolistic utilities are the ones pulling the strings about their own rules. Obviously, that's going to lead to abuse and just things that aren't as good for the community.
I'd say the other big problem is that even if that system is working well and isn't necessarily captured or corrupt, at the end of the day, when these utilities are owned by investors, that's who they're legally beholden to. They are going to set aside a certain amount of their revenue for investors. They are going to make decisions based on what's going to get them more and more revenue, and that might be incompatible with other goals that the community might have, like lower rates or a cleaner energy supply. All those concerns might be irrelevant to them as opposed to the profit motive. So those are the two big problems.
I want to do a little bit of a thought exercise. We've talked about corruption. We’ve talked about some of the barriers. Imagine a world where, for whatever reason, the other side that you spend your time fighting right now (the politicians that are in bed with public utilities like Pepco that are blocking legislation), they don't exist anymore. One day, we wake up, and the political tide is completely turned in your favor. There are no barriers. What would that world look like in terms of energy policy?
It is such a good question. It's almost tough to envision, but you know, that's why we do this. We have to have some imagination. I would see energy policy not be this incredibly complicated thing above everyone's head, an area of policy set up by these big companies and certain government bureaucrats to the exclusion of everyone else.
Instead, I would imagine a system where energy policy is tied in with environmental policy, housing policy, and transportation policy, and each person who's affected by energy has a say in the decisions about how and where to get that energy from: how it's used and how it weaves into our everyday lives. I think there would still be hard policy questions and political fights over certain trade-offs that are inherent to energy, but instead of Wall Street making the decisions for all of us, we would be hashing that out with each other and have a sense of ownership.
So to put that in more concrete terms, I would imagine a system where we've decided that nobody's energy gets shut off just because they can't pay that month. No longer will people have to make decisions between paying an energy bill and having enough groceries that month. That's one of the really big energy justice concerns that we're really worried about, and we've seen people hurt in DC by it.
I think another really important thing would be for people to be able to feel like they can contribute to where our energy is coming from in DC. Pepco has provided a lot of barriers to people being able to put up solar panels on their houses and connect it with the rest of the grid or really taking matters into their own hands by adopting more renewable energy. I would imagine a public utility where that's encouraged and gives more ownership and agency to the people who live here.
To play devil's advocate, we exist in a democracy. Some would argue energy decisions are dictated by us, indirectly, through representatives. How would that political democracy that you're describing — and it doesn't have to be perfect — be different from our current system?
You're right. In the current system, there is a very small, but existing, amount of political control. But remember that political control has so many levels and barriers between the actual energy decisions being made and us. The democracy part comes in because we elect Council members, and those council members vote to appoint people to the commission that says ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to certain utility decisions.
We could imagine a public power utility, one run by and staffed by DC government officials, where we are voting directly for who's in charge of these decisions. There's a lot more transparency about what the decisions are and what the effects of those decisions are, so people can actually react to what's going on and exercise an ability to approve or disapprove more directly of the way things are working.
There are a lot of different models out there for what different public power utilities look like. And at We Power, we're still working with members of the DC Council to decide what some of these alternatives for DC are, and that isn't completely hammered out yet.
I want to probe a little deeper. There are always going to be political hurdles to overcome, but what is the next step you would imagine after this victory? What policy would you like to see after achieving this first goal of a public utility?
That's a really good question because something we need to address is that public power is not a panacea. It gets rid of one of the biggest barriers to making good energy and environmental policy, which is the fact that the decision maker and actor [currently] is a private company that's putting profit above everything else. But once we have gotten rid of that barrier, we still need good energy policies. They'll be easier to achieve then, but there will still be political battles.
An important thing to understand about energy policy is how much energy intersects with everything else. I know you've done work with different residential models and how to improve housing access and affordability (see Alex’s future of housing interview in the March issue of Washington Socialist). Those questions and transportation issues all play into each other.
One example is that there's been a lot more excitement about electrical vehicles lately, and some people see EVs as a very important answer to climate change. And while they're obviously much better than combustion vehicles that burn fossil fuels, at the end of the day, the amount of mining that has to take place to produce the batteries and the metal for [electric vehicles], the environmental and energy impacts of having all these roads and parking lots are really destructive.
The more fundamental answer would be rethinking how transportation in our cities works. An energy utility could either play into this dream of EVs by pushing for charging stations all over the place and doing other things to invest in that vision. I think we would hope that the energy utility would push back against this notion and, instead, support things like building new housing, making sure new buildings are properly electrified and insulated, and those sorts of things.
I notice this tension a lot where the current, neoliberal consensus — and neoliberal just means that it's the economic philosophy that you want the market to dictate all interactions — is electrifying the power grid. And that's why electric cars are such a talking point, but it's not just electric cars. It's sort of everything. And I'm hearing that is not a good solution. Could you explain why that is?
First off, why EVs and overall electrification isn't necessarily the answer? Oh man, there are so many issues with it. It's hard to start. I'll start with one that we haven't really gotten into yet so far: producing EVs. You need certain materials like lithium or cobalt, which are extremely toxic, just to get out of the earth, and if you see where these minerals are coming from, they're generally not coming from the US. One of the reasons is that it's so harmful just to produce them that it's clearly against a lot of environmental laws.
So what do we do? Of course, we look to countries in the Global South that don't have as strong protections for their workers and for their environment and communities. In a lot of instances, we’re kind of indirectly trashing these other places and putting people in really hard conditions. And then we feel all good about ourselves because we're driving an electric vehicle without thinking about the supply chain that led there. That's just one example, but I think that's a really important one.
I've forgotten to mention one of the huge policies that would be available with the public power utility. It's reinvestment in our DC community and reparations. Exelon, which is the parent company of Pepco, has paid more than $4 billion in dividends to shareholders over the past three years. And, of course, we would imagine a public utility that probably wouldn't be making those surpluses, because it would be charging more reasonable rates. But even if it were a fraction of that, if you could imagine what that money could do for people in DC, especially low-income folks, and people of color who have borne the brunt of smog environmental pollution, it could be really transformative. What those communities face is similar to what the community mining for the materials to make EVs right now are facing. The other positive side of the coin is not only the bad things that we would stop but the good things that we could do through reinvestment.
Let’s focus on a micro level. Right now, power is such a huge part of my life. I pay bills. I'm constantly worried about brownouts. Let's say that I exist in this future. Let's say 10 years from now, in DC, maybe the Virginia area, they have a public energy utility. Energy is completely free. How does my day-to-day life change as a result of this innovation?
It depends on what your relationship to energy is right now. Let's say you are a relatively affluent progressive person in DC who believes in environmental issues but doesn't think that much on a day-to-day basis about your energy bill or about these kinds of things. Your life would still improve in this situation. For one, if we establish a cleaner grid, you may not have to feel this lingering guilt and doom about climate change all the time because, suddenly, some of the guilt around energy has been decoupled from its use, and you can feel better about that. And even more importantly, you know that your neighbors, who may be more low-income, aren't struggling as much to meet their energy bills.
But to focus more on the [low-income group], their day-to-day lives would shift. The money that they would save on their energy bills can go toward so many other useful and important things core to human survival. And especially when we consider this campaign also in light of the campaign for universal health care, free public transportation, and others, it makes me excited. The benefits that people would get from not having to spend all of their paychecks on just the basic necessary means of survival, would be transformational.
The other part of it is blackouts and brownouts and energy shut-offs. We've been lucky to have a pretty mild winter here in DC this year, but that's not always the case. And even worse is the summer when it gets so hot and so humid. And that's only going to be increasing, and for people who have had to deal with that who maybe haven't always had access to AC, it's already a crisis. People are dying every year, dozens to hundreds of people in our region, and that's only going to increase. This is also a matter of life and death.
By having people either not have their energy shut off or through more innovative ideas, we can stave off catastrophe. To go back to some of the urban planning things we've been talking about — having cooling centers where you go to get cool, where you can have child care, where you can get meals, where you can just engage with your community and hang out. Those can be really effective for saving lives during heat waves and would also improve the lives of people by building ties with communities.
Let’s dive into these cooling centers. Could you explain them? Maybe juxtapose them with a library and how they’re different.
I would say they fulfill pretty similar purposes. I think the library just has this because of its historical roots as a place to borrow books. It still retains that connotation as the ‘book place’ even though it does so much more than that. In fact, libraries could be great cooling centers. I think of the cooling center as a separate institution. As I said, it does a lot of the same things the library does, but it's a building where it can have activities. It can have food, it can have services, but the idea is, it's a place for people without the ability to find a cool place themselves.
Maybe they're unhoused or something along those lines. Maybe their energy has been shut off. It’s a place to go to make sure that they stay safe, but it can be so much more than that, right? That's kind of the immediate life-saving goal, but to the extent that it can take on other functions that libraries provide, with that same kind of civic-like, free ethos, then I think it can be really powerful and helpful.
I want to ask about renewables. A public utility doesn't necessarily mean the portfolio is green. How do you think you'll be able to avoid that moral hazard in the DC area? What sort of policy innovations do you think will exist in this future we're talking about here?
That's one of those issues that I was talking about earlier, where having a publicly owned utility or a municipal utility wouldn't automatically solve every problem. And one of the problems is the trade-off between having green energy and having cheap and reliable energy.
Sometimes that's overplayed. A lot of times, people in the private utility space, or conservatives or neoliberals more generally, like to overplay this by saying, “You know, renewables are so intermittent, they're not reliable at all or are too expensive.” It's not necessarily true, but there is a nugget of truth there that sometimes these things are trade-offs. There will be arguments and decisions to be made in the future, but compared to how it's working right now, there are a few things a publicly controlled utility could do that Pepco doesn't do that would be incredibly helpful.
One is that Pepco, to my knowledge, pushes pretty hard for DC to be lenient on it, regulatorily speaking. DC passed a law mandating that a certain amount of renewables must be purchased per year –I forget the exact percentages (see Clean Energy DC Omnibus Amendment Act). But there's a loophole in this law, and it's a clean energy credit loophole (see reporting here). So Pepco will miss the amount of renewable energy it should be purchasing, and then it can just pay these fines that pale in comparison to its goals. It just makes economic sense for it to do that now. Pepco pushed pretty hard for that regime to exist, but with a municipally run utility, the idea would be, “Oh, there wouldn't be the economic incentive for this type of loophole anymore.” The DC voters voted for a renewable standard like that, and the people in charge will lose their job if they fail to deliver.
Pepco has made it very difficult for people to install their own solar panels and hook up to the grid. They charge a really big fee to do that, and it's only been getting harder as time goes on. A publicly owned utility wouldn't have that same incentive and, with direct control from the voters and city government, could more easily help that become a reality.
One last thing I'll mention is that Pepco can hamper renewables by the fact that it purchases a lot of its energy. It doesn't necessarily generate at all. The market that it purchases from may only have a certain amount of renewable energy. Sometimes it may not even be Pepco's fault on a certain day that there wasn’t more energy that came from renewables. But they do have a lot of sway with what’s called that overall market, which is called the PJM Interconnection. It covers a bunch of states, and the bigger utilities in the states that it covers have more political sway and power. And as you can imagine, Pepco is not pushing that hard to increase the number of renewables made available to utilities. So, if we ran and controlled our own, I could imagine putting a lot more pressure on PJM, so that wouldn't just affect DC, but a lot of other states around here too. (See more about these issues in this Washington Socialist piece.)
It's sounding like renewables will become easier to implement because you don't have these short-sighted political entities. In this future, we're building, if I wanted to put a solar panel on my house and feed it into the grid, how would that work?
The way it generally works is that you are connected to the grid, and you're connected to your solar panels, and they're connected to the grid. So when you are using energy in your home, to the extent that your solar panels can handle that, it's directly powering it. You're not pulling from the grid at that point. You're pulling from your solar panels. If your use exceeds what your solar panels are providing, the grid provides extra, and if your solar panels are exceeding what you're using, they feed back into the grid. It's a symbiotic relationship.
It's also complicated, and it's part of what makes energy utilities so difficult to run. And a lot of times, investor-owned utilities will say things like, “Oh, this complexity is why we need to be in charge, and we need to be monopolies, and we need to be paid a lot of money, and why we want to slow down the adoption of solar panels.” But the truth is, a lot of times, those are excuses.
There are ways to handle these types of shifts and loads. You can install more solid storage, which is just a fancy word for batteries, or you can do cool things like pumps. Let's say you have some extra energy. You pump water up, and then when you don't have enough energy, you release it back down, and it goes through turbines, kind of like a dam giving you back your energy. There's even stuff like demand response, where a lot of times utilities will pay people not to use energy at a certain time to lower the amount of demand, and you know, you could imagine this being done on an equitable basis with the municipal utility. Maybe certain businesses shouldn't be using as much energy on something luxurious when other people are trying to power their homes in the middle of the summer. These are the kind of policy innovations that we could be thinking of when we had municipal control that's just out of our hands right now.
This naturally brings me to my next question. We've crafted this society where energy is free. We've built in more renewable infrastructure and introduced policies to be able to handle spikes. We have cooling centers. We're creating a more holistic environment. Now, if I were a neoliberal or conservative, my natural question would be, how are you going to pay for it?
I think that question is composed of two questions: (1) What's the mechanism, and (2) Where's the money coming from? The money's there. I just said over $3 billion was paid to Exelon, which is just one of the dozens of enormous utility companies. They're all paying billions, tens of billions of dollars to their shareholders every year. They're funneling money from all of us to a very few people who can afford to invest in these holding companies for investor-owned utilities. So, one of the answers is, “Hey, that's where the money comes from. We will be reinvesting what we get from all of us back to all of us in a more equitable way.”
A lot of it can and should come from the federal government. I think there's an understanding that money spent on clean infrastructure today will more than reward us through mitigating the effects of climate change and climate disaster. I would love to see the figure on this. I know it's out there. I just don't have it handy, but part of the enormous California wildfires from a few years ago was because PG&E [Pacific Gas & Electric], California’s utility, was doing a terrible job, which they've been warned of for decades, maintaining their transmission infrastructure. Meanwhile, [they were] paying massive dividends to shareholders. If they just reinvested some of that in the safety of their transmission lines, they would have saved, however, many tens or hundreds of billions of dollars that were lost to these horrific wildfires.
The second question is, how is the DC government going to buy out Pepco? We are working with policymakers on that. You can either raise bonds, or you can hope to recoup it with rates over the first however many years. Again, these are profitable entities, so you would think that they'd be able to pay themselves off in a certain amount of time. But the whole financing structure conversation is still one that I'm learning and that we're working through.
I want to go back to the personal level. We have this public utility, and I no longer have to worry about paying my bill for energy. Let’s say that I am a huge energy sink. What are the mechanisms that you would imagine in the future to solve this grievance?
These are governance questions that would be voted on, developed, and voted on by DC residents.
A lot of these questions are crucial, but it's just not time yet. We have an enormous barrier right in front of us. I don't think it's even appropriate for the organizers trying to remove this barrier to say: “Hey, here's what we would do with big energy sinks.” The whole point of energy democracy is coming up with these answers as a community. We know that wealthy people are huge energy sinks, and instead of me, a relatively recent DC transplant, saying, “Here, here's what I think we should do with energy things,” I really think everyone in DC should have an opportunity to contribute to the solution to that problem.
Utilities already handle those in certain ways that I'm not fully aware of, but there are mechanisms, and it would just be adopting the mechanisms they use now in a more equitable way that we agree on.
The concern that a lot of people have is who's going to make these decisions. If you don't have companies, what I'm hearing from you, is that we all will make these decisions, because that's how democracy works. And that's how democratizing power will work. Knock on wood.
And hey, there are still problems with that. We know the DC government doesn't always serve the people of DC. It's not a magic wand where democracy is always the answer. Democracy is better than private monopoly, but this campaign will only achieve energy justice. Other environmental justice goals require other campaigns ongoing in DC to be successful, you know?
We've talked about the problems of power. We've talked about all the good that can come from this sort of policy innovation. How do we get there? If I am very interested in this issue, over the next ten years, what should I be investing in? What sort of campaign should I work toward and keep an eye out for?
Getting involved with energy justice campaigns like We Power is really helpful. I think it is obvious from some of my responses here that we still have a lot of need for people to help us do research. You don't have to be a social scientist to help us. It's just normal people. For example, there are a lot of places where public power is already the norm, where the city governments have already taken over and started running their own energy systems. Figuring out how they did that, what their governance structures are, and what they do with big energy sinks is really important, and we just need more people helping out with those kinds of tasks.
Also, engaging with the community. At the end of the day, the DC Council is the one that will make this decision alongside the mayor. There is important electoral and political pressure work to be done to ensure that we have a majority on the council. We definitely have a few. We have council members who we are working with, who are on our side, and who want to introduce legislation soon, but the more we have, the better. So getting involved in those campaigns is really helpful.
Also, getting involved in other campaigns around DC is helpful, such as affordable housing and tenant organizing. The nexus between housing and energy is so crucial. And having people with ties to the housing community who know what people are looking for in housing and can push back on some of these neoliberal ideas of what housing and cities should look like. This will be crucial for creating a new city with a municipal energy system that works for all of us. The same goes for transportation. If energy isn't your thing, I do think that all these movements share some DNA and are moving toward a vision of the future for which they're all going to contribute and be important to.
If I wanted to learn more about all the issues that we've talked about, do you have media that you would recommend to people?
I'll start off with a few nonfiction books, which provide a really useful background. I'm saying they are nonfiction, but they're juicy nonfiction. They're interesting and sometimes dramatic and can really help make this kind of inhuman energy system feel more human and important.
One is called Revolutionary Power: An Activist's Guide to the Energy Transition by Shalanda Baker. This is a really good overview of the US energy system, the different types of utilities that are out there, and, importantly, why frontline communities should be the central voices in the energy transition. It's a really helpful overview that's grounded in anti-racist and socialist beliefs.
If you want to read something more locally based, I recommend City of Quartz by Mike Davis. It's a social history of Los Angeles that emphasizes the environmental history of the city, and that can be useful for understanding the municipal level of things, the citywide level, and imagining how cities can be different.
One more I'll say for nonfiction is Reconsidering Reparations by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò. He discusses reparations as a world-making project that responds to the climate crisis. So that's kind of what I was drawing on when I was talking about some of the issues like the extractive nature of EVs. Reparations can go from that city level that we're talking about to the whole world level.
For fiction books, I'll say two. One is Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. This came out in 2020 (read the Washington Socialist review). It's not a perfect book, sometimes it's kind of technocratic. He leans into crypto at one point, which he's said is his biggest regret about the book. But he's an incredibly imaginative author who really takes climate change seriously and explains what a somewhat technocratic, somewhat socialist response to the climate crisis could be and how it could play out over the next five decades. I thought it was very challenging, and gave me a lot of interesting ideas. It's not as much on the level of public power, but just as a response to climate change.
Lastly, I have to shout out my favorite author Ursula K. Le Guin. Even though it's not necessarily focused on public power, The Dispossessed, the system of the world in that book, is good. She considers it in a pretty unflinching way. The way people decide what they want to do, and spend time on when and how they want to sacrifice to create a better future for their society is really inspirational. It is something to emulate and strive toward.
Finally, do you have any plugs that you wish to share?
Well, if you're in DC, please check out wepowerdc.org. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If we are not your thing, there are a lot of great environmental groups doing work in DC. Sunrise and Sierra Club. All sorts of amazing groups that I'm just blanking on right now, but they exist, and we can put you in touch with them, too.
Fantastic. And you can find us at afterthestormmagazine.com. We're also on Medium, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Thank you so much for joining us, Tom.