Who Owns the Wind? Climate Crisis and the Hope of Renewable Energy

12 Min Read

January 20, 2022

David Hughes teaches Anthropology at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. He is author of Energy without Conscience: Oil, Climate Change, and Complicity (Duke, 2017). As a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Hughes serves on local and national bodies dedicated to climate justice. His latest book, Who Owns the Wind? Climate Crisis and the Hope of Renewable Energy, is available now from Verso.

In the short time since my book’s release, its title has surprised many readers. They are intrigued by the question – “Who owns the wind?” – while puzzled by its premises. Some on the Left assume that I am talking about the infrastructure of wind power: principally, wind turbines. The Labour Energy Forum in the UK has issued its own “Who owns the wind?” report calling for the nationalization of wind farms. That’s a good idea, but it’s not what I’m talking about in my book. Other readers think I’m writing metaphorically, as if “wind” stands for the entire energy transition to renewables. Everything about it should be democratic and communally owned. Again, that is a good idea—and I am exploring it now in relation to solar power—but I wrote the book in order to make a more focused proposal.

To own the wind is to own the kinetic energy of moving air. Airborne kinesis is a hard concept to grasp. Nitrogen and oxygen, moving invisibly and silently through (or as) the atmosphere, actually carry energy. That energy travels across the ground, so a stationary rotor can harvest it and use it to grind grain mechanically or convert it into electricity. The ground is important here. One cannot use wind energy for either of those purposes on an unmoored boat or in outer space. This fact—combined with some unfortunate legal precedents—gives landowners unearned rights. Neither upwind neighbors nor the firm which installs and operates a wind farm nor residents within sight of the wind farm have the right to sell (or withhold) access to the wind. That is the short, legal answer to my question: the landlord owns moving air too. 

The longer, political answer in my book is that larger collectivities should own the wind in their vicinity. I came to that conclusion though ethnography in a tiny village in Andalusia, Spain—one surrounded by and, as many locals insisted, ruined by wind farms. These people gain no income from that landscape-altering machinery. Worse still, a handful of elite families—descended from minor nobility—reap those rewards as owners of land beneath turbines. In this area, then, the wind industry has grafted itself onto late feudal conditions of agrarian inequality and exacerbated them. So, people are “enfadados” (fed up), as the mayor told me on one of my first nights in the village’s most political bar. Establishing a wind commons would go a long way towards appeasing them. The villagers would hold the wind rights in common and earn royalties by selling them to the wind power industry.

Image courtesy of the author

This is what energy justice looks like. The vast, abundant renewable resources, which are already widespread, accessible, and relatively cheap to harvest, should remain public goods. It would simply be unfair to allow corporations and land barons to capture and monopolize wind. It would also be inefficient. By that, I mean something a little counterintuitive. A corporate-driven, centrally controlled energy transition ought to be faster than one negotiated with a thousand villages. Or so I thought before encountering los enfadados. They were so fed up, I learned, that they stopped the energy transition. Local protestors blocked the road past that very bar and detained the cement mixers not long enough to prevent turbine installation around the village, but definitely long enough to shelve all future projects for new wind farms in the vicinity. These and similar local revolts have slowed the energy transition in Spain, Germany, the UK, and now in the US, too. Thus, the only energy transition that will succeed—at least in minimally democratic countries—is one that gives local communities a piece of the pie. “To make enough electricity,” to stabilize the climate, I write in the book, “wind needs justice.”

This is what energy justice looks like. The vast, abundant renewable resources, which are already widespread, accessible, and relatively cheap to harvest, should remain public goods.

What about sunlight? Does it need justice too? I’m getting my head around this question now, in thinking about a subsequent big project on solar energy. Photonic insolation differs from aerial kinesis. Whereas landowners have done nothing to deserve rights to wind—and few even know they might claim those rights—farmers have been appropriating sunlight for millennia. Photosynthesis preceded photovoltaics, and barley and flax fields are the original solar panels. Solar architecture—gently disparaged as “passive solar”—goes back to the first millennium BCE in China and Greece. So, no one can simply shove aside private sunflowers and skylights in favor of collectively owned panels. No recognized tradition of sunlight socialism would justify such a move.

The sunlight commons could, however, draw credibility from a less visible but still historically rooted legal practice. Under the US Homestead Act of 1862, white settlers could claim indigenous land and gain permanent titles if they “improved” it within five years. That bulldozer of displacement came with a reverse gear. Settlers who failed to develop their claims within five years lost the land. It “reverted” to the public domain (although unfortunately not to indigenous people). Let’s apply that logic to unimproved sunlight. The owner of a plain parking lot or warehouse roof has forfeited her claim on light. Let the city or the county retake those photons by climbing up a ladder, installing panels, and wiring them to the grid. Under this threat, Amazon might well layer photovoltaics above the square kilometers of their distribution centers (they have already started doing so, slowly). If Amazon refuses, a municipality near you can take those photons and make electrons with them.

So, there is a route to public ownership of wind and sunlight, one way or another. This path also leads to socialism through what one might call the back door. The back door beats the front door, in fact. If coming through the front door, one would nationalize the existing energy sector, which mostly consists of oil wells, pipelines, and refineries. Even if one could pass through the often attempted, largely obstructed front door, it has become a detour. The fossil fuels behind that door are stranded assets, or soon will be. Where those liabilities are private, let’s keep them private. Also, the assets are relatively small, only the tail of a much larger dog. A friendly St. Bernard of sunlight rushes at us constantly: 162, 000 terawatts hit the atmosphere, of which 86, 000 terawatts strike the ground, and 870 terawatts push the wind. Compare that to the 12 terawatts we get from fossil fuels. Literally, we stand at the threshold of a huge resource frontier, presenting a moment to rethink property, equity, and power. Don’t miss this opportunity: for Alberta, Arizona, and Andalusia, let’s claim the wind and the sun, and claim them now.

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