Community Energy has many benefits. It provides economic returns to those that invest in it, provides value to the communities that host projects, reduces our dependence on fossil fuels, helps us fight climate change, and it empowers people at a local level. In addition, and possibly most importantly, it brings us closer to achieving Energy Democracy.
What is the problem?
The concept of Energy Democracy has arisen in response to serious problems in our modern energy system, such as its reliance on environmentally unsustainable fossil fuels, its lack of transparency, and its misplaced prioritization of the needs of large utility corporations over those of the planet and its peoples.
From oil and gas pipelines to offshore drilling, we continue to rely on companies who care little about the needs of the environment and the concerns of the people. Large corporations cannot be the solution to our energy problems because their only mandate is to produce profits for their shareholders. The truth is that despite steadily increasing pressure from many sectors of society, there is no evidence to suggest that we can trust the traditional energy industry to do what is needed. The short-term economic incentive isn’t there, and our government has shown itself keener to please energy industry interests than to obey the mandate of public opinion and enact policies that are socially and environmentally sound in the mid-to-long term. This leaves us in the familiar position of “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself”.
What is Energy Democracy?
Energy Democracy proposes that energy be viewed no longer as a commodity but as an essential right, and it demands that energy policy no longer be dictated by the bottom line of a few private actors, but by the needs of society.
Energy Democracy serves as an umbrella term for a list of objectives that, if achieved, will create a system that is more in tune with the true needs of communities and the imperatives of the natural world. The Energy Democracy agenda is ambitious and transversal. Instead of offering isolated solutions to individual problems, Energy Democracy looks at the bigger picture and proposes a significant shift in our entire energy ecosystem that will not only serve to fight Climate Change but will also result in more empowered communities, the creation of thousands of jobs, a more responsible and healthier relationship with our environment, and a greater degree of energy security.
Currently energy is a commodity to be sold for profit, and this profit motive puts the system fundamentally at odds with our global ecosystem and the needs of communities around the world. In a for-profit energy system it is inevitable that the less well off are left out. Investing millions of pounds in extending grid access to poor rural areas in developing nations doesn’t make sense if the focus is on the bottom line. Likewise, the financial crisis of 2008 has reacquainted us with the concept of energy poverty in Europe, with millions of people in the hardest hit Southern European countries of Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain suffering chronic unemployment and facing severe difficulties to pay their electric bills. Sadly, for numerous winters now we have been hit with stories coming from Europe’s most vulnerable areas of families that freeze because utility companies cut off their electricity. These sorts of tragedies would be entirely avoidable if electricity weren’t a commodity to be sold for profit on the open market.
How can Energy Democracy be achieved?
The biggest shift needs to happen in the ownership model of energy-producing resources and the electrical grid. Instead of these belonging almost exclusively to utility companies (the Big Six of British Gas, EON, Npower, EDF, Scottish Power and Southern Electric, which control over 90% of the UK’s energy market) Energy Democracy calls for public, collective ownership at a local level. There are many ways to go about this, from the creation of new energy producing facilities such as solar arrays, wind farms, and hydro power turbines, to taking old facilities that were privatized back into public ownership. Germany is leading the way in this area, with public opinion being very critical of the privatization of the energy system that took place in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Beginning in 2007, dozens of municipalities including the country’s second largest city, Hamburg, have bought back their energy grids from utility companies. This, together an ambitious nationwide renewable energy program means that Germany has made significant headway in moving to a more socially conscious and environmentally friendly model.
On top of addressing the climate imperative, community ownership of energy producing resources and the elimination of the profit motive would allow us to decide how we organize energy production and to make human and environmental welfare its primary goal. This would of course be no easy task, requiring committed individuals and communities using all the tools at their disposal to foster the development of a friendly regulatory framework that could accommodate a shift towards this new paradigm.
Individuals and organizations will have different ideas about exactly what constitutes Energy Democracy, but a good checklist would likely include these items:
- Rapid development of Renewable Energy and other low-carbon sources,
- Promotion of greater degrees of energy responsibility across all areas of society,
- Creation of a new energy ecosystem based on the principles of sustainability and respect for the environment
- Use the shift towards a new energy ecosystem to create jobs and to revitalize economies in a positive way
- De-centralization, paying attention to the needs of local communities
- Drastic reduction of carbon emissions to protect the environment and combat Climate Change
- Fight to end energy poverty
How Community Energy fits into this picture is obvious. As long as there isn’t a strong institutional drive to design and implement policies that further the development of a healthier energy ecosystem, making it happen will be the responsibility of the people. Forming collectives that plan, fund, and manage renewable energy projects ticks many of the boxes of energy democracy: decentralization, transparency, a not-for-profit focus, respect for the environment and renewable job creation, to name a few. Because of this, Community Energy has an important part to play in altering our energy landscape for the better. While the institutional support may not be there yet, by doing as much as we can on our own to create facts on the ground, we will be influencing public opinion and creating a more favorable context to ultimately be able to achieve this important goal.
You can read more about Germany’s case here.