We need to talk about (deep) energy democracy

By Iain Soutar, Energy Policy Group, 12th November 2018

The concept of energy democracy is gaining ground across a range of actors engaged in research, advocacy and policy for sustainable energy. Incorporating a broader set of ideas relating to ‘democracy’ – where power (kratos) is exercised by the people (demos) – energy democracy relates to a shift towards enhanced civic, community or public/municipal control of functions previously fulfilled by private energy companies. Under many understandings of energy democracy, these functions (but are not limited) to a) more dispersed ownership of electricity generation and distribution assets, allowing self-generation/reduction in energy costs and b) increased civic participation in the governance of our collective energy futures. Together, these underpin ideas of popular energy sovereignty, i.e. reflecting the fact that all citizens are stakeholders with an interest in energy system outcomes. At a fundamental level, energy system democratisation represents a shift towards a new set of roles for energy citizens in relation to the wider energy system of which they are part.

The democratization of energy can perhaps best be understood as occurring alongside multiple forces of change across energy systems. It has been influenced by, and will itself further catalyze change across, what has becoming known as the other three Ds: Decarbonisation, Decentralisation and Digitalisation. Taken together, these trends can be expected to continually change the rules of (public) engagement in energy systems.

While energy democracy has become something of a political buzzword, appealing to those frustrated by both political inertia and unjust outcomes, it can increasingly be justified by pragmatic, as well as moral rationale. Of course, opening up the governance of energy systems to ‘the majority’ would remove it from a ‘moral vacuum’, and result in more ‘just’ outcomes. But energy democracy is also of increasing pragmatic necessity. Much of the momentum in energy system change is at the grid edge, hosted and financed by householders and communities, making it increasingly important to gain meaningful public consent for the transition at large. Importantly though, integration of renewables is increasingly dependent on flexing demand, rather than supply, meaning that energy democracy (like democracy itself) is as much about responsibilities of energy citizens as it is about roles. As the public interest issues of energy continue to evolve, so too perhaps, should the social contract between individuals and the energy system within which they are part.

Energy democracy is of course thus not a given, and will in practice be shaped by the interplay between technologies (their nature, scale and geography) and their governance (i.e. the principles, policies and practices of energy system stakeholders), all of which affect outcomes across the 3Ds. As with democracy proper, the democratisation of energy is not all about bottom up action; rather it will require institutional structures that can develop and nurture an informed and actively engaged energy citizenship.

However, while focusing on the changing needs, roles, and responsibilities of the majority is without doubt a step in the right direction, it is useful to remain critical of the efficacy of increased energy democracy in shaping beneficial outcomes. As with democracy proper, energy democracy too may have shortcomings, not least by focusing attention on the majority, rather the entirety, of the energy citizenship. Those actors able to engage most fully – for example by being an active and informed consumer, investing in multiple and synergistic generation and storage technologies, participating in flexibility markets and other novel business models, and perhaps even getting their voice heard in new governance structures – will be able to access the benefits of engagement (in terms of cost, comfort and convenience) far more readily than the less-engaged. So, while any future energy system is certainly likely potential to be more democratic, the depth of energy democracy is very much up for grabs.

For these reasons, the concept of deep energy democracy may thus be more valuable in reflecting more usefully in the principles of energy policymaking. Deep energy democracy removes the focus from the majority to the entirety of the energy citizenship, attending not only to those most willing or able to engage, but to everyone.

Focusing only on the engaged may well result in sub-optimal outcomes, both for the system and for society. First, the flexibility required for deep decarbonisation would be harder to unlock if there are limits to the number of households able to engage. Second, since the least engaged/engagable are also often those living in the poorest quality housing, it would be prudent to attend to those as a priority to reduce the overall scale of the decarbonisation challenge (the recently amended regulations requiring landlords to install energy efficiency measures is welcome, but will still leave those renting the very worst homes in the cold). And third, it seems sensible to acknowledge the possibility that a future energy system – even one that is more democratic – can widen the gap between the engaged and the disengaged. Crucially, deep energy democracy should be considered critical for beneficial electrification, that is, electrification in the public interest.

The breadth and depth of change underway provides us with an opportunity to reconsider not just the roles and responsibilities of individuals within energy systems, but the roles and responsibilities of society at large. Focusing on deep energy democracy, rather than just energy democracy in a broad sense, may help us to do just that.

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