Last week I wrote about the benefits of floating wind farms, and the British government’s plans to power every home in the country with offshore wind. Because I wanted the article to be specifically about the benefits, I didn’t investigate one of my hesitations about the idea. But I do have one in particular, and it has to do with energy democracy.
Energy democracy is one of the great co-benefits of renewable energy. It is expressed best in community energy, but also in self-reliance or being off grid. Because it can be done at small or large scale, renewable energy can break down the power of the big energy firms. Big infrastructure such as coal power plants or nuclear power stations can only be built by big forces. Solar panels and wind farms can be funded and built by local communities, giving them a stake in the energy that they rely on, and recycling profits within the local area. It can help reduce inequality, as people tap into energy services run for their benefit rather than for the profits of shareholders.
Discussions around renewable energy tend to focus on decarbonisation and how it displaces fossil fuels. But there’s huge potential for a double win here, when we consider the social advantages of renewable energy. Delivered on a local basis through people’s homes, schools, and in community energy schemes, renewables could play a major role in creating a more inclusive economy. (In ‘fully grown’ economies like Britain’s, inclusivity is a useful form of progress beyond growth, something discussed in my book The Economics of Arrival.)
This is where I hesitate over the government picking the winner and throwing all its support behind offshore wind, instead of a broader portfolio that includes onshore wind and solar. Offshore wind addresses carbon, but it doesn’t deliver the same social benefits. It doesn’t lend itself to community ownership in the same way, because it relies on scale and sophisticated technology. If Britain puts all its effort into offshore wind, it will decarbonise without addressing the inequalities of the energy system. It would leave the monopoly powers of the big utility firms intact. It would be a big missed opportunity.
There are a other forms of renewable energy that don’t include the social side, such as concentrated solar or large scale hydro, which can have considerable downsides. The World Commission on Dams estimated that four million people are displaced every year by the construction or operation of dams. They don’t need to be ruled out entirely, but context is important. In some places they can make inequality worse, piling the costs on the dam on marginalised communities who may not benefit from the power.
Offshore wind does not disadvantage people the way that large scale hydro does, but it won’t capture the added benefits of energy democracy either. I still support the government’s ambitions, but they also need to drop their objections to onshore wind power, and undo the sabotaging of community energy. They need to support small scale solar, particularly for councils, schools and public buildings, and encourage local heat networks.
The clean energy transition can be done in a way that reduces inequality and creates a more inclusive economy. Or it can be done in ways that maintain inequalities of power and keep the profits flowing upwards to the richest. As Green New Deal advocates understand, there is a powerful story to be told about energy democracy alongside clean power.