The possibilities of energy democracy

The price of energy has been much discussed in recent months, and it’s been a tough winter for a lot of people. Many households have experienced fuel poverty for the first time. Businesses have struggled with rising costs. Organisations, including churches, have had to re-arrange budgets and forego other spending to pay the bills.

And yet, at the same time, energy companies have posted record profits. Some people are impoverished by high energy prices, others profit handsomely.

Can we imagine a more inclusive energy system, where people aren’t at the mercy of energy generators? Where people have a stake in the services they depend on?

In her book Diversifying Power, Jennie Stephens advocates for ‘energy democracy’, and how it naturally ties together with renewable energy:

“Energy democracy connects the renewable transformation with redistributing political and economic power, wealth, and ownership to create a more just and equitable world. Leaders who embrace energy democracy recognise that investing in renewable energy is much more than a substitution of energy technologies. Rather, the renewable transition provides an opportunity to reverse the economic oppression associated with concentrated wealth and fossil fuel reliance by empowering local energy production and control.”

This is the opposite of narrow and technocratic approaches to climate change, says Stephens, that are all about crunching the numbers and substituting technologies. Energy democracy looks at the picture more holistically, puts people first, and delivers wider benefits alongside clean energy.

To give some practical examples, my local council recently put solar panels on all its council houses on a nearby estate. This is renewable energy that will benefit some of the most vulnerable people in the town. The POWER project in Walthamstow, where activist artists have organised their neighbours to turn their street into a power station, is another good example. Or the community-owned school that was built in Scotland using the proceeds from a nearby community hydro project.

Lots of community energy projects would also support energy democracy, though some more than others. Some are going to be investment vehicles for middle class households with a bit of surplus income. Repowering London is a good example of an organisation with wider goals. It aims to reduce energy poverty at the same time as carbon emissions, and they are behind Britain’s first inner-city community energy schemes in Brixton, Vauxhall and Hackney. In Hackney, a solar array was installed on the Banister House estate, and young people worked alongside the engineers as paid interns, fitting the panels that would power their own homes.

In the Old Testament, the law of Moses gave particular attention to land ownership. The long-term security of land ownership was vital to prosperity in an agrarian society. With land, everybody was able to provide for themselves, and that security was mandated in divine law.

I wonder if ownership of services is something of a modern equivalent. If ordinary people have a stake in the energy they use – or childcare, broadband or transport for that matter – then those things can’t be taken from them. Those services will be run for the benefit of the users, rather than exploiting the users for profit. Is there a principle that we can draw from this?

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