Academic journal article Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law

The Democratization of Energy

Academic journal article Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law

The Democratization of Energy

Article excerpt


The electricity industry is changing in dramatic ways. Most significantly, as demonstrated by the Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan, the country is witnessing the merger of energy and environmental regulation. Historically, energy regulation was driven by the need to produce more power for economic growth. By contrast, environmental regulation attended to the pollution of the environment. Production of energy depends upon the use of natural resources, and throughout the fuel cycle from extraction and transportation to the burning and disposal of those resources, the environment is directly affected. Most dramatically, greenhouse gas emissions present climate change challenges. In order to effectively address those challenges and transition to a clean energy future, it is necessary that we rethink our energy and environmental politics. This Article argues that we are experiencing change in energy/environmental politics and as a consequence of that change, decisions are being decentralized and consumers have a greater input into their energy choices. This expansion of decision making constitutes the democratization of energy.


     A. Production and Delivery of Clean Energy
     B. Consumption and Control of Clean Energy
     C. Regulation and Enforcement of Clean Energy
     D. Governance and Legal Institutions of Clean

Natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, (1) Superstorm Sandy, (2) and the typhoon that devastated Fukushima, (3) the technical weaknesses that caused the Northeast blackout in October 2003, (4) and regulatory failures that ended California electric industry restructuring efforts (5) share one commonality: all affect the energy system at enormous costs in economic losses and disrupted lives. (6) The reason the economic and social costs of such disasters are so significant is that the centralized structure of electricity generation and transportation guarantees concentrated losses upon such occurrences. Unfortunately, such costs can be expected to be incurred in the future (7) because "[electricity systems are increasingly expected to be prepared for more frequent and intense storms, to rapidly respond to any disruptions, and to minimize all kinds of environmental impacts of their operations." (8) One response to these risks is to restructure the electric system through greater decentralization as well as through increased competition and consumer participation.

These natural and human-caused disasters raise a large number and variety of concerns about our energy future. The energy sector constitutes approximately 8-9 percent of our country's gross domestic product (GDP). (9) Additionally, the United States has developed an approach to the production, distribution, and consumption of energy that has lasted well over a century. (10) Our energy history can be put into another perspective: significant financial and legal resources have been dedicated to designing and sustaining our current energy system. Consequently, any attempt to change a century-old system entails myriad political, policy, legal, and economic issues to mention a few. Nevertheless, the reality is that changed energy and environmental circumstances and policies demand our attention and demand new policies and a new politics.

The United States and large parts of the world are experiencing an energy transition. Even though the United States is decreasing its fossil fuel dependence because of increased domestic production, it may appear as if we are neither dramatically nor aggressively moving away from fossil fuels. Nevertheless, an energy transition is underway as we consciously add renewable resources and efficiency to our energy mix. At bottom, the scope and speed of that transition depend on a new politics of energy.


The word "politics" can be elusive and subject to several definitions. …

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