Who Owns Energy, Anyway?

wind turbine in iowa

Can revenue generated by wind power be put to community well-being rather than corporate profit? UC Davis professor Keith Taylor explores this question in his book, Governing the Wind Energy Commons (West Virginia University Press, May 2019).

“Who owns wind energy development, and does it matter for rural livelihoods?” asks Taylor, a faculty specialist in community economic development with the Department of Human Ecology.

His book reveals a sleeping giant in the electricity sector: rural electric cooperatives. Owned and governed by 42 million rural Americans, these co-ops generate more than $40 billion in annual revenue.

Through case studies of a North Dakota wind energy cooperative and an investor-owned wind farm in Illinois, Taylor examines how regulatory and social forces are shaping this emerging energy sector. He draws on interviews with local residents to assess strategies for tipping the balance of power away from absentee-owned utilities.

Taylor’s research finds that, despite the reach and potential impact of these electric co-ops, economic development and investment policy tends to favor traditional, investor-owned models of ownership. This diminishes the potential to use renewable energy development to positively affect the livelihoods of rural Americans.

Not just ‘do-gooderism’

In comparing co-op and investor-owned wind farm communities, Taylor concludes there is a difference: The co-op does more. It is more transparent, participatory, creates more jobs, and pays more in taxes for the resource-starved rural communities it serves.

Head shot of professor Keith Taylor in gray suit
UC Davis professor Keith Taylor.

“Many people dismiss the co-op model as some sort of inferior business model, oriented just to do-gooderism,” Taylor said. “But I have observed a remarkably sophisticated system that achieves economic power through linking a national network of smaller co-op firms together to compete with major corporations. The implications are that small and rural can scale for national impact.”

This line of research is important in light of climate change, but also in holding energy developers responsible for benefiting the communities hosting them, he said. For example, in PG&E’s recent bankruptcy, why aren’t California policymakers engaging with the electric co-op sector for the future of California energy and economic development policy?

Electric co-ops have remained silent about their community economic development impacts for too long, he says. Taylor seeks to use the book to intervene in today’s discourse around energy, climate change, economic development, and environmental justice, by revealing how community ownership of renewable energy can benefit rural American livelihoods.

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Karen Nikos Rose is a news and media relations specialist with UC Davis Strategic Communications. She covers social sciences, law, arts and humanities, and the School of Education. She edits the UC Davis Arts Blog. Find her at @UCDavis_KNikos.

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