Front Porch Blog

Energy democracy in Virginia: Utopia or a real possibility?

Democracy in our energy system — sounds utopian, right? But energy democracy is simply about including the people who use electricity in decision-making related to our energy system. This isn’t far-fetched at all. It means good process — access and transparency.

Energy democracy is about giving communities more control over how and where power is produced.

Energy democracy is built on three pillars, which say that communities should have more influence over (i) how energy is produced, (ii) where energy sources are located and (iii) how much energy costs and who benefits from its production and sale.

But right now, few people in Virginia are able to provide such input about their energy system and have their voices heard. That’s because our energy system is dominated by monopoly electric utilities that have been guaranteed a service territory by state government. The people in those service territories are called “captive customers,” in industry parlance, for a good reason — they are captive to the monopoly utility and have no other choices for electricity providers.

Monopoly service territories where each electric utility in Virginia is allowed to operate.

In Virginia, investor-owned utilities (Appalachian Power, Dominion Energy and Old Dominion Power), electric cooperatives, and municipal (publicly owned) utilities vary by the size of their customer base, in how they are regulated, and even in how they acquire the power they need to meet their customers’ demands for electricity. But regardless of who your utility is or where it is located in Virginia, each of these utility types shares their monopoly status in common.

This has big implications for how the energy system in Virginia impacts you.

Owing to their monopoly status, these utilities don’t have to compete for your business — there simply aren’t any other electric providers allowed to operate within another utility’s service area. This means that your utility has little incentive to respond to customer preferences for affordable electric rates or new, clean energy technologies. Monopoly utilities in Virginia also benefit from the outsized influence they wield over state lawmakers to influence policies impacting their governance.

It doesn’t have to be like this

We believe electric customers — you — should have more of a say. By working together for energy democracy, we can transform Virginia’s monopoly energy system into one that is more democratic and more equitable. The good news is, the movement for energy democracy in Virginia is growing!

This past summer and fall, Appalachian Voices, Clean Virginia, Virginia Organizing and Virginia Interfaith Power and Light hosted a series of virtual workshops about energy democracy in Virginia. Over 120 people from across the Commonwealth joined us to discuss problems with our energy system and how to work together to create energy democracy in our communities.

Most of the 120 people in our 2020 workshops support energy democracy and clean energy in a variety of ways.

We met many people who had previous experience advocating for a better energy system before state regulators and public officials. Others joined us to learn about energy democracy for the first time.

We asked participants how they defined energy democracy. One person said the “freedom to choose my energy source from available options.” Another referenced “equity in access to energy,” including to green technologies, while a third emphasized “local people making local decisions.” Other people answered similarly, and we categorized their responses into an energy democracy framework with three core tenets: “consumer choice,” “environmental justice” and “local control.”

Consumer choice, local control and environmental justice are key tenets of energy democracy

We sorted the issues that resonated the most strongly with people into a five-pronged vision for a better energy system in Virginia that would prioritize:

  • Access to Essential Services. Electricity should be available for all people, regardless of a household’s ability to pay. Programs to reduce burdensome energy bills and improve access to broadband in rural communities should also be pursued.
  • Access to Clean Energy Systems. Homeowners, renters and low-income households should be able to pursue clean energy technologies, like rooftop solar.
  • A Grid Powered by Renewable Energy. All Virginia utilities should invest in wind, solar and energy storage, and completely transition from coal and natural gas.
  • A Just Transition. Environmental justice communities and communities whose economies were historically reliant on the fossil fuel industry should benefit from the transition to clean energy through access to green technologies and careers in the wind or solar industry.
  • Good Governance and Utility Transparency. Utilities should emphasize customer preferences and principles of good governance, and they should operate democratically where appropriate.

How can you help make these priorities a reality?

Join the rewarding process of building energy democracy in Virginia and become a member of our new monthly working group. This working group will focus on education, community outreach and developing policies to advance your vision for a better energy system. No previous experience or special knowledge required. If you’re new to the movement or a seasoned advocate, we’d love to have you! Working for energy democracy takes all of us working together.

Email Emily Piontek (emily -at- appvoices.org) with questions about the working group or sign up here.

A transplant to Southwestern Virginia from the Midwest, Emily engages with communities and works to build a more equitable and sustainable energy system as our Virginia Energy Democracy Field Coordinator.


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