Empowering Electricity: Co-operatives, Sustainability, and Power Sector Reform in Canada

Empowering Electricity: Co-operatives, Sustainability, and Power Sector Reform in Canada

Julie L. MacArthur

Reviewed by Nichole Dusyk

Empowering Electricity is a detailed examination of the political and social economy of electricity co-operatives and power sector reform in Canada. The co-operative movement is commonly, and rightfully, viewed as a model of grassroots organization that supports democratic participation in many of the essential services of modern life such as housing, food provision, transportation, banking, and energy provision. However, without abandoning the transformative potential of co-operativism, this book provides a more nuanced picture of the role of co-operatives in the energy sector.

Julie MacArthur positions electricity co-operatives as a middle ground between public and private power development. This leads to a contradictory role for co-operatives; one that may simultaneously enable citizen engagement in an inaccessible power sector while also making private power development appear more equitable and community-driven than it actually is. This is supported by the historical record of co-operative development in Canada that illustrates how co-operatives thrive when basic needs are not being met by the state. The first wave of electricity co-operatives was made up of rural, distribution co-operatives that incorporated between 1940 and 1960 in Alberta and Quebec as a result of right-wing governments who would not publicly fund rural electrification schemes. Because it was unprofitable for private utilities, farmers were forced to collectively organize and fund the expansion of electricity networks. The second wave, which began in 1990 but flourished after 2006, has primarily taken place in Ontario’s deregulated power sector. Although Alberta also has a deregulated power sector that similarly resulted in rate increases and failed to spur the development of renewables, Ontario has implemented public policy that has supported renewable community energy. Specifically, Ontario’s feed-in-tariff has enabled co-operatives to gain a foothold in renewable energy generation and allowed co-operative organizations to grow in size and influence. However, even in Ontario, co-operatives remain a marginal player in a sector dominated by well-financed, politically savvy private utilities. This creates challenges for the success of electricity co-operatives and makes them vulnerable to co-optation.

MacArthur persuasively argues that electricity co-operatives can contribute to more renewable, democratic, and locally-acceptable forms of development. However, this will require public intervention in the form of supportive policy and partnerships. In particular, fostering partnerships with municipalities and First Nations may be able to ensure that co-operative energy can both succeed and stay firmly within the reach of democratically accountable institutions. It is also critical to examine the provincial context of electricity co-operatives and whether they help sanction a move away from public power, as they may well do in BC. Finally, MacArthur argues that enacting transformative change will require that co-operatives look beyond the pragmatic value of membership and embrace the political potential of the co-operative movement.

Although the technicalities of electricity reform make for a dense read, Empowering Electricity is an empirically-grounded contribution to the literature on citizen engagement and energy policy in Canada. In particular, it provides a fresh take on BC energy politics that gets beyond the entrenched public/private dichotomy to explore one possible middle ground. While MacArthur implies that electricity co-operatives have the potential to erode public power in BC, her suggestion of co-operatives partnering with municipalities and First Nations may actually offer a new, politically viable approach to public power development that is both more democratic and locally acceptable than the current model. 

Empowering Electricity: Co-operatives, Sustainability, and Power Sector Reform in Canada
Julie L. MacArthur
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016 224 pp. $95.00

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017