Since the Solar Patriot project is all about comparing today’s solar revolution to the American Revolution, in my writing about solar power and energy I use some words and concepts that Revolutionaries like Washington, Jefferson and Adams used in their day to talk about public life.
One of the words that 18th Century Patriots loved to use was “tyrant” along with the related forms “tyranny” and “tyrannical.”
While not as common today, tyrant is still the best word for a person or company that exercises massive and unfair influence over government.
Whenever you’re trying to talk about how someone in power has crossed the line from using that power properly to using power to oppress people, then it’s not just overreach…or arrogance…or serving the private interest over the public interest…it’s tyranny.
Patriots then and now on Tyranny
The Declaration of Independence announced that “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”
Individually, every Founding Father also warned against tyrants and their rule.
For example, Ben Franklin said that “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
George Washington said that “liberty, when it degrades into licentiousness, begets confusion, and frequently ends in tyranny or some woeful confusion.”
And Thomas Jefferson called on America’s rulers to “enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day.”
Fast forward to the 20th century, and “tyranny” was used less. But it was still used well.
It was the right word when President Eisenhower used it in the 1950s: “From behind the Iron Curtain, there are signs that tyranny is in trouble and reminders that its structure is as brittle as its surface is hard.”
And tyranny was the right word when comedian Jon Stewart used it more recently: “Our culture is just a series of checks and balances. The whole idea that we’re in a battle between tyranny and freedom – it’s a series of pendulum swings.”
But Are Utilities Really that Bad?
So, when I think of the rule of monopoly electric utilities over America’s electrical grid, the best term to describe that rule today is tyranny.
Just as King George III usurped the rights of Americans to govern themselves before the Revolution, so utilities have started to usurp the right of Americans to produce and share their own solar energy with other Americans who want it.
But just as the American Revolutionaries didn’t paint all monarchs as tyrants — many Patriots drank toasts to the kings of America’s allies France and Spain for example — so I don’t denounce all electric utilities as tyrants.
Utilities in states including California, New York and Vermont have begun to work constructively with solar homeowners and small businesses to share the electric grid to provide open access to those who make their own solar power while still offering utilities a fair profit. When utilities cooperate with small solar producers, then everybody wins.
But when utilities try to shut down rooftop solar producers with tricks reminiscent of King George III’s tax on tea, then those utilities deserve to be called tyrants. Two utility tricks stand out as especially tyrannical:
- Getting state governments to rescind or cut incentives for rooftop solar
- Adding fixed charges and other fees for solar homeowners to stay connected to the grid
Especially when these tricks are retroactive, and take away rights that solar homeowners already had, the utility moves seem especially tyrannical.
Tyranny is a strong word.
But when you consider that utilities are throwing their political power around just to protect their own profits and against the public interest, slowing down the solar jobs and clean energy independence that Americans desperately need right now just so that utilities can make more money, is there a better word than tyranny?
I don’t think so.
— Erik Curren, the Solar Patriot