Changing the Power Structure of Energy: Using Community Control to Create an Energy Grid that Serves the Public
Author: Andy Entis
Institution: Washington University in St. Louis
Instructor: Patty Heyda
Studio: Climate Action Now: Energy and Design for the Cities We Need; Undergraduate Architecture; Spring 2021
Despite the pervasiveness of energy in modern life, it is something that is thought of very rarely. While we consume energy without thought, energy companies have created a corrupt system that prioritizes short term profit over the needs of the consumer and the long term well-being of the Earth. Energy companies, such as Ameren and Spire, the electricity and natural gas providers of St. Louis, often have total monopolies over the energy sector. They make a guaranteed profit on their respective services and in return are supposed to be strictly overseen by the government. However, these companies take this profit and misuse it, giving it to shareholders and politicians who work to uphold this system by blocking a shift towards renewables that is becoming more urgent with time.
Instead of relying on big energy companies, my project proposes the decommodification of energy through publicly controlled energy production. Ideally, this would work with federal grants to create small local power grids that can directly address the needs of a neighborhood. These local grids would be similar to existing rural electric cooperatives, which provide inexpensive energy to rural areas across the country, but they could go even further than rural cooperatives and have a role in redesigning neighborhoods. With a rare opportunity to rebuild a system that touches everything in modern life, Neighborhood Energy Authorities can use grant money to both create inexpensive local renewable energy systems and new public spaces and goods that benefit the collective well-being of residents.
Climate Action Now remakes the city according to radical—necessary—new models of renewable, public controlled, distributed energy resources. It is well known at this point that climate warming is a global crisis. Species survival relies on curbing green-house emissions within the next few years. Currently, our centralized systems of fossil energy generate 55% of the U.S.’s toxic greenhouse gas emissions causing climate warming (EPA, 2018). Climate Action Now means, not only addressing how a post-carbon city can shape new paradigms of public and private life, but innovating the policy ideas for how to actualize it. Fossil capital, after all, provides power just as it holds (political) power. To that end, we will leverage the Green New Deal—the non-binding congressional call to arms—by giving it the teeth it needs via a testing of concrete new formats of American energy post coal, oil and gas. We will speculate on the design possibilities of a truly public decentralized energy city. Can we imagine an urbanism of people over profits; planet over pilfering? Public utilities? Sharable power, distributed energy resources; ground-up micro-grids? New paradigms of subsidy, regulation; property? And how do these transformations manifest in urban space and program across scales? An ecologically connected urban and landscape design approach will envision forward thinking scenarios of the post-fossil city we have no choice but to achieve. Students will first conduct research on existing energy systems in the context of St. Louis, MO. Then they will propose new energy economy frameworks (in small teams). Finally, through individual projects, students will play out the material-spatial design possibilities that those frameworks enable across scales. The St. Louis, MO region is home of the United States’ 14th most CO2 polluting coal-fired power plant, and Missouri is the third largest consumer of coal in the United States. St. Louis has thousands of vacant lots and the region still reels from ongoing racial tension and compounded inequality. Following on Van Jones’ Green Collar Economy (the original Green New Deal call!) the studio will explore how neighborhoods long underserved could become key participants and beneficiaries of the energy transition. The deurbanized city is a prime location for this new just energy economy.