Un-contained Democracy Spill

Protecting the Borough from hazardous fossil fuel infrastructure, protecting the local economy from energy price shocks, and protecting the planet from avoidable climate change means leaving trillions of dollars worth of coal, oil and gas in the ground.

Which means drying up end-users, like the West Campus Steam Plant, by replacing the plant’s current output with conservation and renewables.

It’s important to figure out the engineering specifics of what should be done with the crumbling energy infrastructure we’ve inherited from the decision-makers of the 1940s, who were guided by the plentiful, cheap fossil fuels of their day. It’s important to figure out the engineering specifics of what new energy conservation, production and distribution systems should be developed to replace those fossil fuels for our generation and the next.

But several crucial democratic self-governance questions need to be decisively answered too:

  • Who should decide how much energy our community needs?
  • Who should decide which energy sources our community will rely on?
  • Who should decide what kinds of energy infrastructure go where?
  • What decision-making frameworks should those people use?
  • Who should design, fund and build the energy system components?

And above all:

  • Which community values should guide energy system planning?

In November 2011, State College voters re-opened that democratic conversation, by adopting the Community Bill of Rights. It was a direct challenge to preemptive state and federal legal and administrative rules that give corporations the power to make those decisions on behalf of communities.

That corporate control of key community decisions is, I think, a big part of why it’s so difficult to get people to participate in Borough planning activities, serve as appointees on local boards, and run for elected office. When all the key decisions are made by distant legislators and corporate executives, why bother getting involved?

But last month, the Borough Council and Borough Manager joined residents in our struggle to wrestle back democratic control of our community – by refusing to consent to new fossil fuel infrastructure that threatens public health, safety and welfare and violates the Community Bill of Rights.

At their Thursday meeting, the Planning Commission members have an opportunity to deepen our local assertion of community rights, when they publicly review and discuss plans for the conversion of the West Campus Steam Plant from coal to gas.

For starters, I’d like to see the Planning Commission organize a public workshop on Local Energy System Planning and Design, as the technical counterpart to the June 14 & 15 Democracy School and as an addition to Councilwoman Sarah Klinetob’s proposal for a community-wide energy audit. Community members need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to design and build locally-controlled energy and governance systems. We need to continue undermining the perceived authority of experts who only tell us what we can’t do, and keep connecting with experts who want to help us develop our “can-do” capacity.

Sponsoring a public energy system planning workshop could also influence Penn State by setting a different example of energy planning and by reducing the Borough’s demand for fossil fuels, leaving capacity available for the university.

Beyond public education, the Planning Commission can take the lead in crafting and advocating for Borough ordinances to establish an Energy Commission, with authority directly derived from the Community Bill of Rights, not from the Pennsylvania Legislature.

The Commission’s job would be to meet the borough’s energy needs through local community-controlled energy systems, similar to how the local water authority is empowered to raise funds and manage facilities to provide safe, reliable public water supplies, or how the school board manages the public school system to educate our children.

The Energy Commission would be committed – through the ordinance – to renewable, sustainable, locally-controlled energy production, transmission and distribution. Month to month, year to year, through committee work and public meetings, the Commission would supervise community-and neighborhood-scale energy audits, conservation projects and energy production facility design-build projects.

The laws of geophysics are immutable.

The laws of humans are not; they change with changing circumstances and changing priorities.

Our community situation now – full of new information, vigorous debate and ruffled feathers – is exactly what it looks like when lots of people come together to grapple with important questions about what our community needs and how to meet those needs.

It’s an un-contained democracy spill.

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