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The Climate Plan After Paris: Break Up The Energy Warlord Monopoly

By: Dan CarolSenior Advisor, The Beeck Center at Georgetown University

Welcome back to the continuing series, Warlord Leadership Lessons, your handy how-to guide for advancing practical solutions, in confusing times, to our most vexing challenges.

Today’s installment looks at climate change and how we are going to meet this challenge by overhauling the utility business model, increasing energy innovation, and building a 21st century electric grid.

Climate negotiators meeting in Paris this week will soon call it a wrap and then the real work must begin.

The good news, whether or not a final “big” agreement is struck next week, is that cities, states, regions, and nations came to the big “COP-21” climate negotiations in Paris with an impressive number of commitments to take action by 2030. Better yet, we know how to cut carbon emissions by simply deploying the technologies we have in hand.

But the battle to blunt climate change isn’t only being waged on the world stage. It’s also taking place in our own backyards.

Why? Breaking up that local utility monopoly would be significant for the citizens of Idaho. Rather than sending millions of dollars to whoever actually owns the “local” electric company, re-structuring would ensure that money stays at home—some in consumers’ pocketbooks.

Indeed, meeting the clean energy deployment challenge will depend on overcoming the resistance of similar energy Warlords standing squarely in the way of climate progress—both big oil companies and your local power company.

You remember Monopoly the game right?

It used to be a decent strategy to own the electric company and maybe the orange properties (Tennessee and New York Avenues) and grind out a win (with good dice throwing and a railroad or two).

That was pretty much how it has worked for decades in the real world too. Your local power company banked steady returns, took low levels of risk, and limited innovation. This business model defined the US electricity sector for the last 50 years.

No more. We don’t live in that sleepy and quaint world anymore. The craftiest consumers are looking to sell power back to the utilities, not pay them to deliver electrons.

Electric utilities, usually regulated as monopolies by state-level public utility commissions, are watching their business models literally implode before their eyes as innovative new ways to be energy efficient and generate power off the grid change the game.

Not surprisingly, utility executives aren’t so happy about the competition. They liked things the old way and had plenty of time for golf. So they are fighting back, Warlord-style, using lawyers and making misleading arguments to utility regulators designed to scare consumers that the next solar panel that they hook up without paying the utility directly will destroy the grid and erase all of your kid pictures stored up in the Internet cloud. This is straight out of the Warlords’ Playbook: thrown down the classic Monopoly Go To Jail card to stop any innovation that you don’t control. Companies like Duke Power are even duking it out with small churches who want to buy power from someone else besides their local monopolist.

We saw these arguments before — if you are old enough to remember Ma Bell — which was the cute name that we gave to the monopoly that controlled telephone service in America for 75 years. Ma Bell was basically in charge of life before cell phones and they made the same arguments that anyone who messed with their system, the Bell System, would bring down the network.

What’s funny is that the lame attempts by electric utilities to curb innovation and the growth of new energy choices are backfiring completely.

Today’s new energy innovators are battling it out with energy monopolies at the local and state level over rules for how we allocate power on the 21st Century grid. They are the anti-Warlords, the antidote to calcified power (or feel free to share a better name for them #ModernWarlords)

These battles are not happening along the traditional political fault lines, be it Democrat v. Republican or environmentalist v. oil baron (or, in the case of Idaho,Tea Party vs. Idaho Power). They are happening where monopolistic behavior is trying to impede efficiency and innovation.

Being a New Energy Mogul is thus an idea that both EPA-hating western conservatives and Birkenstock-wearing, hippie environmentalists can love.

To be fair, not every utility or utility regulator is fighting against innovation.

In California and New York, the public utility commissions have led the charge to create new incentives for both big utilities and new entrants to make money by saving energy and investing in energy efficiency. That innovation has saved $74 billion dollar since 1977 for California ratepayers alone.

But in states like Nevada and Arizona, ridiculous and often contorted legal efforts to block clean energy are still happening. Which will only make it harder for the US to catch up to countries like Germany who are proving that we can deploy renewables at serious scale, without depending on research breakthroughs to save us in the nick of time. We need to deploy what we have now – which will take fewer think tank projections and more support for frontline warlord fighters like Debbie Dooley. Plus a stronger focus in government to foster our missing deployment expertise.

So are you ready to grab back some power by re-defining how electric power actually gets made?

The game board is open.

The clean energy deployment race is just beginning, not unlike the California Gold Rush of the 1800s. Everyone has a shot to innovate and snag a piece of the action – to do good and do well by deploying more megawatts of clean energy. Look at the growth of upstart companies such as Renovate America’s Hero Program and Mckinstry. Or small business success stories like Berenice Lopez-Dorsey who literally are defining the American Dream. Or innovative partnership organizations like Groundswell.org and Mosaic who are getting schools, churches and consumers to pool their purchases of clean energy.

The old rules of Monopoly are being written after Paris. The new game? It’s called Deployment. Let’s all play.

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