To combat climate change, many leading states have adopted the aim of creating a “participatory” grid. In this new model, electricity is priced based on time of consumption and carbon content, and consumers are encouraged to adjust their behavior and adopt new technologies to maintain affordable electricity. Although a more participatory grid is an important component of lowering greenhouse gas emissions, it also raises a new problem of clean energy justice: utilities and consumer advocates claim that such policies unjustly benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, given the type of consumer best able to participate in the grid. These arguments pitting clean energy against equity often prove persuasive to energy regulators considering whether to adopt or maintain clean energy policies.
But these arguments fail to seriously engage the question of how energy law’s historical equity norms should be interpreted and applied in the era of climate change. This Article concludes that there are legitimate and underappreciated equity concerns with the participatory grid, given that participation in the grid is likely to stratify along income lines. However, these equity concerns do not justify slowing progress on climate change, given the extreme inequities raised by that problem itself. Fortunately, however, there is a longstanding tradition of attention to equity concerns within electricity law that paves a way forward. Throughout the twentieth-century project of electrification, electricity law focused on expanding the range of Americans able to access affordable electricity. Twenty-first century regulators, in contrast, plan to require consumers to participate in the grid in order to maintain affordable power. This new vision requires a new instantiation of electricity law’s long-standing equity commitment: a project of “clean electrification,” which seeks to expand participation in emerging clean energy marketplaces to all Americans.
Shelley Welton, Clean Electrification, 88 U. COLO. L. REV. 571 (2017).