The U.S. electricity grid faces more challenges on a wider scale than ever before—climate change, energy poverty, crumbling grid infrastructure, the pending onboarding of millions of new grid devices, etc. Preparing the grid for these challenges is not an engineering problem, but rather a governance one: we need a new model for how to govern our grid.
Grid experts often advocate for one of two centralized governance models: the command-and-control system associated with the early development of the electricity grid, or the neoliberal system associated with more recent market reforms.
This article argues that both of these models are wrong. Neither model accurately describes how the grid has functioned in the past or how it ought to function today. Instead, a close examination of the grid and its history reveals a highly decentralized network in which private firms, industry associations, public utilities, local organizations, and state and federal regulators all influence grid governance. This landscape is more aptly labeled a “nodal governance system,” wherein power is wielded by a variety of state, sub-state, and non-state actors.
The nodal governance model is not only descriptively accurate, but also useful. First, using a nodal governance framework, we can develop a true topography of all the players and “power” flows on the U.S. electricity grid. Second, a nodal governance system carries certain benefits we often associate with decentralized governing systems and may even provide a path forward for current policy issues, such as the regionalization of California’s electricity grid or the Green New Deal. And third, the nodal governance model reveals the threat that a grid jurisprudence premised on centralized models—recently embraced by the Supreme Court—could pose to our grid. This article argues that we ought to preserve the grid’s nodal nature and leverage it to prepare the grid for the future.
The past decade has brought on some of the worst cases of flooding due to natural disasters and the resulting leaching of some of the most hazardous environmental contaminants back into nearby, often low-income, communities. Natural disasters are not “great equalizers” when it comes to recovery. Lower-income individuals are more likely to live in neighborhoods that are more susceptible to flooding and are near industrial areas and hazardous waste sites, leaving them more vulnerable to toxic leaks from storm damage. There is also a serious inequity when it comes to access to recovery based on average income levels of neighborhoods. More affluent people are relocating out of flood zones, while housing prices decline and poorer families move in. These trends will continue, all while federal resources are often not enough to sustain or even rebuild areas most in need and those in power are not doing enough to address disaster prevention.
We are experiencing stronger hurricanes on the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard, which scientists have shown is due to climate change. In the past two years, we have seen storms that have created flooding of biblical proportion in Texas and North Carolina, yet these states continue to build in areas known to flood for the sake of economic development and tourism. And, they do so with little regard to the scientific consensus of the impending impact of hurricanes and flooding on coastal areas of the United States.
As cities assess modifications to zoning, land use, and real estate development, it is critical to acknowledge climate science, however inconvenient, and take measures to address disaster preparedness, aimed particularly at helping the most vulnerable communities. Instead of waiting for changes to federal environmental laws, this article argues that state legislators and city planners should be planning and executing rules that acknowledge climate data; actively engage community leaders and businesses to assist low-income communities; and enhance, not suspend, the oversight process of industries capable of leaching environmental contaminants during and after a hurricane.