Toward an urban political ecology of energy justice: the case of rooftop solar in Tucson, AZ

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The rapid deployment of rooftop solar panels in many US cities has raised new concerns about the fair distribution of electricity costs through rates. Electric utilities argue that existing rate structures shift costs from solar owners to lower-income ratepayers, while critics say rooftop solar benefits all ratepayers and helps address environmental injustice. In light of these competing justice claims, this article asks: what are the implications of rooftop solar for energy justice? Drawing on a case study from southern Arizona, we use urban political ecology (UPE) to analyze debates about rooftop solar that speak to three types of justice: distributive, procedural, and recognition. While dominant justice claims revolve around the distribution of costs through rates, competing claims emphasize procedural and recognition (in)justice. Focusing on political economy, power relations, and the materiality of the grid, we reframe the utility company's cost shift argument as a strategic narrative and explain why this understanding of justice is recognized as legitimate while others are not. We propose that UPE can further an energy justice analysis by understanding procedural and recognition injustice as systemic products of rate of return regulation, and the material configuration of the electric grid.

Keywords: urban political ecology, energy justice, rooftop solar, decentralized energy, electric utility regulation

How to Cite: Franklin, R. & Osborne, T. (2017) “Toward an urban political ecology of energy justice: the case of rooftop solar in Tucson, AZ”, Journal of Political Ecology. 24(1). doi: