This post is part of an ongoing focus on Energy Democracy as a force within the energy transition.
Polling conducted in the wake of the most recent US presidential election showed held results that would surprise both national Republican leaders and climate activists. 60 per cent of respondents who labelled themselves as “very conservative” supported action to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy.
Pollsters say that the economics of renewable energy (Solar power passed wind this year as the cheapest source of electricity around the world) are more important than environmental factors for conservative voters. But advocates from outside climate activist circles are fond of another argument, which runs along these lines: Renewables have the power to decentralize our energy grids, making them more secure, competitive and responsive to their stakeholders.
But these benefits are far from inevitable in the outcome of the energy transition. Few of the politicians and businesspeople who extol the benefits of a decentralized system take the time to ensure that such a system is possible, to wonder where investments in the new system are coming from and who will own it when the dust settles.
It is to address these concerns that US organizations like the Center for Social Inclusion, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network and the Next System Project have made energy democracy a priority. Energy democracy is the idea that, as we transition to cleaner sources of energy, we should do so with an eye towards putting the control and ownership of this new system in the hands of local stakeholders.
When your city is deciding the pollution standards for a soot-spewing coal plant, nearby communities—which in the US and around the world are disproportionately less privileged—should be included in the process. When electricity prices rise, the revenue should go to reinvestment in energy infrastructure, and not to inflate the bank accounts of wealthy investors. When costs drop, the savings should be passed on to consumers. Utilities should be accountable, providing equal service to all of their customers, regardless of geography and economic class.
All of these goals will be best served when consumers have maximum control over their energy supply—when they can choose who produces their energy or can produce it themselves.
We’re at a point now where our technological capacity—ever cheaper renewables and storage capacity—are making these goals feasible for the first time since electricity first became widespread. And driving towards them are a profusion of new ideas and models.
Many of the groups that I hope to highlight over the coming months and years combine several of these mechanisms and ideas. To take just one example, about which I’ll go into more detail later, SOM energy is an energy cooperative based in Spain. They supply 100 per cent renewable electricity to more than 45,000 people from all around the country, producing about 10 per cent of their consumption from their own solar, hydro and biogas installations, and buying the rest from national energy markets. They operate as a democratic and not-for-profit organization, with each member holding a single vote in major decisions and funds being reinvested into expanding the cooperative’s generation capacity.
The ability of these organizations to function in a given market often relies on the framework of regulations that defines their market. For example, SOM’s model relies on a recent liberalization of the Spanish energy market that allows consumers to choose where they buy their energy—something that is still impossible in many US markets. Large utilities in the US have often fought hard to maintain their state-enforced energy production monopolies rather than retreating to a reduced role in maintaining and updating the electrical grid.
Groups working for energy democracy in America also have an uphill battle to fight in terms of culture. Even in the same areas of America where rural energy purchasing cooperatives have thrived for years, I’ve run into icy stares at the mention of community ownership of energy production resources.
On the more radical end of the spectrum, a group in Catalonia known as the Energy Sovereignty Network (Xarxa per la sobirania energètica) argues for the “right for conscious individuals, communities and groups to make the decisions surrounding the generation, distribution, and consumption of their energy, such that they are appropriate to their ecological, social, economic and cultural circumstances and as long as they do not negatively affect outside parties.” (their emphasis)
In my encounters with energy democracy, what’s most impressed me is how much there is to know, from the myriad approaches to achieving its goals, to their philosophical antecedents, to the on-the-ground political, economic and cultural realities that confront them. Regardless of the complexities that quilt above, today I believe the following: if renewables now make it possible, we should be the ones to decide the future of our energy systems and to experience the increased health and prosperity of our society and ecosystem.
Header Photo Credit: SOM Energía