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The Need for Energy Democracy

In recent years, a new discourse on sustainability and the green economy has begun to emerge among labor unions and other social movements. (See Chapter 21.) It opposes the idea that putting a price on natural resources is key to solving the profound ecological crisis that we face as a species. This new discourse informs the idea of “energy democracy” proposed here. It shares the view that the economic and environmental crises are two sides of the same coin, and that they must be addressed simultaneously.

Current regulatory and market-based approaches—including carbon markets and taxes—have failed because they do not confront the power of the corporations and have not been able to impede the rush toward rising energy demand, rising fossil fuel use, and rising emissions. (See Chapter 11.) A timely and equitable energy transition can occur only with greater energy democracy, which requires that workers, communities, and the public at large have a real voice in decision making, and that the anarchy of liberalized energy markets is replaced with a comprehensive and planned approach. This does not rule out a targeted deployment of carbon taxes and other “polluter pays” options, but such an approach is at best secondary or supplementary.

The alternative path of energy democracy steers clear of the neoliberal framework and also pivots away from the centralized power generation model that was built around fossil fuels several decades ago. Energy democracy is a public sector approach: it allows space for community-owned/operated, decentralized, or on-site generation, but it also sees an important role for “reclaimed” and restructured public utilities. Renewable energy technologies— particularly solar photovoltaics (PV)—have the potential to completely transform the global energy system by 2030 and also change the political and class relations around energy production and consumption. But the transition must be planned and coordinated in a democratic manner.

Undoubtedly, the political obstacles to energy democracy are enormous. Part of the fight will consist of a struggle to change perceptions about what is real and what is possible, and to assert an internationalist vision that is based on cooperation and sharing. Energy democracy can be the vehicle for a new set of values and a new sense of purpose—values grounded in solidarity, sufficiency, and true sustainability.

The quest for energy democracy entails three broad and strategic objectives: (1) resisting the agenda of large energy corporations, (2) reclaiming to the public sphere parts of the energy economy that have been privatized or marketized, and (3) restructuring the global energy system in order to massively scale up renewable and low-carbon energy, aggressively implement energy conservation, ensure job creation and local wealth creation, and assert greater community and democratic control over the energy sector. By addressing some of these issues, a compelling agenda for energy democracy could emerge in the years ahead.

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