Can You Really “Own American Wind and Sunshine”?

Plus, are they serving Coke in the Pepsi Center?

Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana. Click to expand image.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana 

Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer delivered a speech focused on energy policy that brought the crowd to its feet, particularly for the line “The petro-dictators will never own American wind and sunshine.” Can anyone really own wind or sunshine?

Only after you’ve harnessed it. Wind and sunshine, like water, are public goods. But just as a property owner has a right to drink from a stream that runs through his land (though he can’t drain it at will, and exact rules vary by jurisdiction), he can set up a wind turbine or a solar panel. He can then choose how to avail himself of the energy he captures. He can use it to heat his home, for example, or sell it to his neighbors.

Wind and solar-energy ownership is still an emerging area of law. Unlike natural gas, which is delivered primarily through pipeline networks, wind and solar-energy producers must rely on the aging energy grid, which was originally constructed to accommodate only local utilities companies and isn’t set up to connect long distances. So while mineral rights and geothermal energy are highly regulated, both wind and solar energy remain local issues, somewhat minimizing large-scale federal regulation to date.

There have, however, been some local conflicts over who owns sunshine. There’s no universally recognized legal right to receive sunshine. So if you want to install solar panels, but your neighbor has a large oak tree in his backyard that shadows your roof, you can’t legally force him to chop it down. That said, in some states, such as California, if you’ve already installed panels and then your neighbor plants a tree or builds a shed that blocks the sun, you can force him to remove it.

There’s been less conflict over wind-ownership rights so far, since turbines are usually located in isolated areas. However, as the industry expands, there have been instances in which adjacent wind farms complain that an upwind farm has created so much turbulence that their own output is damaged.

Although in theory anyone can turn their property into an energy-producing wind farm, the renewable-energy field has high barriers to entry, with expensive equipment and specific climate requirements. Much of the most promising areas for harnessing either wind or solar power in the United States—on the ocean near the coastline—are contained  in federal land preserves and thus owned by the government.  Large oil companies have also made significant investments—buying up land and building equipment to secure a chunk of the renewable-energy market in the United States.

Bonus Explainer: Can you buy Coke inside the Pepsi Center?

It depends on where you’re sitting. On the first floor and upper concourse, only Pepsi is served by Aramark, the vendor. However, those who are lucky enough to be sitting in the private suites, which are purchased for use by media organizations during the convention and which encompass much of the second level of the Pepsi Center, can request a Coke. That’s because a different vendor, Levy Restaurants, services concessions in the suites. And even on the ground floor, Coke has a presence: Coca-Cola Recycling LLC is the official recycler at all DNC venues, including the Pepsi Center. 

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Dan Farber of the University of California at Berkeley Law School, Jody Freedman of Harvard Law School, and Steve Weissman of the University of California at Berkeley Law School.