democracy energy

What is energy democracy?

Last week I wrote about energy democracy, which happened to come up in the book I’m currently reading, Jennie Stephens’ Diversifying Power. She’s something of an expert on the topic, and has written about energy democracy in a variety of contexts. She offers this summary of the benefits:

“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.”

The energy democracy movement has three key activities, Stephens argues:

  • Resist the legacy power of the fossil fuel industry.
  • Reclaim decision-making around energy so that it serves the public interest rather than corporate interests.
  • Restructure energy systems to deliver benefits regionally and locally.

The opposite of this is what she calls “climate isolationism”, which is a narrow and technocratic approach to climate change. It’s all about crunching the numbers and substituting technologies, but it forgets to look at wider benefits. Energy democracy, on the other hand, puts people first, and ensures that investment in energy also secures environmental and social co-benefits.

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 solar PV on Hope Rise, the social housing development I described on Friday, would also be a good example of energy democracy. 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.

Renewable energy that displaces fossil fuels and reduces carbon emissions is all to the good. Renewable energy that also reduces inequality and spreads wealth into local communities is even better.


  1. An example from the past of what energy democracy looks like – and what energy power in the hands of outsiders does to people.
    Just up our valley is what is likely the world’s last remaining in-situ working water powered grinding hull – putting blades on Sheffield metal from 1584 until 1930. There were over 300 in the valleys around Sheffield.
    But work could only be done when there was sufficient water – and apparently during dry weather, the dam would empty in as little as one hour every morning. However, the water wheel was in farming country and summer dry weather was just when the harvest needed getting in – so work was varied, seasonal and relatively healthy.
    With the arrival of steam power after 1800, the energy was now controlled by factory owners, so grinding became a mass full time wage based occupation, and with it the increase in ‘grinders asthma’ (fibrosis/silicosis), and a life expectancy as low as 27. “a disease that was unknown in 1750 had almost completely disappeared by 1950”.
    Also in this example is an answer to the big question of what to do when there is insufficient energy – when the wind is not blowing, the sun not shining and tides not flowing. The answer is contained in this further question: who says that energy must be continuously available?

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