Guide to Energy Democracy: Potential Solutions to the Climate Crisis

The science is clear: the world is experiencing a climate crisis. According to a 2019 report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a disaster related to climate, weather, or water has happened every day on average since 1970. Each day, these events kill an average of 115 people and cost $202 million USD.

This situation has propelled scientists, community leaders, some government officials, and other individuals to search for sustainable energy solutions. Energy democracy, a concept that advocates for energy efficiency, renewable fuel, and the decentralization of energy systems, may be the answer. 

With equitable implementation, democratized energy may help alleviate some of the effects of climate change. In this guide to energy democracy, we will learn more about this concept, its benefits, and global examples of decentralized energy systems.


Understanding Energy Democracy

Energy democracy is a political, economic, social, and cultural movement that focuses on building stronger, more participative energy systems. It prioritizes individuals who have suffered from a lack of access to energy resources, including working people, low-income communities, indigenous groups, and communities of color.

Proponents of energy democracy want to shift from a corporate-owned, centralized energy economy that relies on fossil fuel to a community-led, decentralized, and renewable system. Communities have control over where they get their power, how much power costs, and how they generate that power.

The energy democracy movement often advocates for the following:

  • Universal access to affordable and clean energy
  • Strengthened local energy ownership and decentralized energy systems
  • Increased reliance on renewable energy sources, such as wind, water, and solar
  • Community-owned power stations to replace corporate-owned infrastructure
  • Electric cooperatives that own and maintain electrical distribution lines
  • Ownership of the energy transition through transactive energy systems, where consumers can purchase and sell excess energy back to the grid

The Importance of a Democratized Energy System

According to data from the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the earth’s average surface temperature has increased by 1.18 degrees Celsius since the late nineteenth century. Most of this warming has occurred over the past forty years, with 2016 and 2020 being the hottest years on record. When we examine this data, it is clear that climate disasters are imminent, and we only have a limited amount of time to fix them.

However, large corporations continue to control many of the energy systems around the world. This monolithic infrastructure prevents consumers from participating fully in the energy economy using a transactive energy framework.

Additionally, many governments fail to implement the renewable and transactive energy policies necessary to drive change. Oil and gas companies and other industries continue to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to 65 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating global warming.

For these reasons, community-led energy democracy movements are necessary. Organizations can advocate for policies, regulations, and systems that promote renewable energy and electrical efficiency in countries around the world. Multiple groups are working to further energy democracy, including the Climate Justice Alliance, the Green Institute Foundation, and the Global Labour Institute, which oversees Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.


Why We Need a Democratic Energy System

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the global average temperature in 2019 was 1.1 degrees Celsius higher than it was before industrialization. At 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world will likely see worsening impacts of climate change, contributing to more deaths, loss of natural resources, and harsh economic consequences.

To prevent warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world needs to reduce emissions by 7.6 percent every year from 2021 to 2030. As of 2021, countries are not on track to meet this goal. To make energy consumption more renewable and prevent climate disasters from worsening, energy democracy is vital.

Democratized energy systems can deliver key benefits to countries, economies, and individuals around the world. It effectively addresses the issue of fossil fuels and their impact on our environment by stressing the importance of renewable energy. The movement encourages the equitable distribution of energy resources and funding to historically underserved communities that have experienced significant discrimination under the corporate energy system.

Essentially, democratized energy paves the way for a more sustainable, equitable energy future. It serves the needs of all people, instead of the economic and political interests of a small group. As the world inches closer to a climate tipping point, migrating to democratized energy frameworks is becoming more and more essential.

Building a movement for energy justice requires a community-oriented approach, as well as knowledgeable partners in policy and renewable energy. By combining science, political influence, and community knowledge, multiple groups can work together to democratize energy systems and build toward a more sustainable future.


How Research and Academic Communities Support Energy Democracy

Researchers and academics may wonder how they can help further the energy democracy movement. Institutions often have access to valuable resources and tools that can help devise renewable energy solutions and resolve common implementation challenges. Researchers across disciplines—from public policy to electrical engineering—can lend their knowledge and influence to organizations advocating for energy democracy.

However, there are effective and ineffective ways to support this movement. In simple terms, researchers and academics will need to actively work to place power in the hands of individuals instead of relying on corporate or institutional leadership frameworks. A hierarchical power structure—even within the research realm—contributes to the systems that energy democracy fights against.

Energy Democracy Is Community Led

If a research or academic institution wishes to support energy democracy, it is important to remember that community leadership is crucial. Community-led organizations understand the inherent energy struggles that people within a certain area face. An outside institution is less likely to fully understand local nuances, relying instead on a one-size-fits-all solution that may not work as effectively.

For research and academic communities to fully support energy democracy, it is important to follow the guidance of frontline communities. Using input from community leaders and speaking to members about their energy struggles can ensure that institutions help to further the mission of energy democracy organizations.

For example, a community may be trying to establish a transactive energy framework using smart grids and solar panels. A local researcher learns about this community and sends the group a long, detailed, and highly technical document on how to best implement the system without ever speaking to the group. However, the group finds that the researcher’s suggestions fail to address their challenges or consider key characteristics of their community that influence the energy framework. As a result, the group ignores the report and does not implement the researcher’s suggestions.

Alternatively, if instead of engaging the community from afar, the researcher visits and spends time speaking with community members. They discover that the community needs a way to facilitate transactions and help smart devices speak to each other. In this situation, the researcher could work with the community to implement distributed ledger technology, also known as blockchain, into these systems. This solution helps devices speak to each other and with the power grid, assessing the availability and usage of energy.

Using a community-oriented approach, the researcher delivers a more effective and personalized solution to a problem that they would not have known about without engaging with the group. It is clear that academics and researchers can contribute more effectively to energy democracy projects by using a community-based research framework.

Types of Aid Available to Support Electric Cooperatives

Lower-income areas often lack the resources and infrastructure to implement decentralized energy frameworks, posing a barrier to energy democracy. However, many sources of aid are available to support rural electric cooperatives around the world. Some examples of available sources of aid include the following:

  • The Ethiopia Electrification Program, an initiative by the World Bank that aims to increase access to electricity across Ethiopia
  • The Rural Electrification Agency, which strives to increase access to energy for rural and underserved communities in Nigeria
  • NRECA International, which uses funding from the USAID Cooperative Development Program to support electrification projects in the Philippines, Haiti, Uganda, Ethiopia, Liberia, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic

Academic and research institutions can help further the mission of energy democracy by supporting—and possibly establishing—clean energy aid programs. Placing resources back into the hands of people who have historically suffered from a lack thereof speaks directly to the mission of democratized energy.


Examples of Energy Democracy

Although many countries have been slow to adopt renewable fuel and the other tenets of energy democracy, this movement is still strong. There are many positive examples of decentralized energy systems in action around the world, and we can derive valuable lessons from each of these case studies.

Thailand Community Renewable Energy Subsidy Program

Between 2013 and 2016, the Ministry of Energy of Thailand launched a community renewable energy (CRE) subsidy program, providing $60 million THB to support twenty-six pilot programs across the country. Each project focused on developing renewable energy systems using solar, water, wind, biogas, or biomass, mostly in agricultural communities.

These projects were successful in implementing renewable energy systems, and researchers identified nine key factors that contributed to the projects’ success:

  • A clear intention and vision within the community to create the renewable energy solution and improve the community’s environment
  • Human resources available to aid in the implementation
  • Management skills to drive the project smoothly
  • Positive participation from the community, leading to widespread social acceptance of renewable energy resources
  • Mature technology and the availability of renewable energy resources
  • Financial support from the Ministry of Energy and other sources
  • Appropriate consultation with experts and academic institutions
  • Support from national and local government authorities

Based on these findings, clear trends emerge. Local communities need meaningful, informed engagement with researchers and governments to enact sustainable change. Financial and human resources are also necessary to effectively implement their energy projects.

Resisting Legacy Energy Systems in Vermont

The state of Vermont in the United States has a powerful and unique success story for resisting legacy energy systems and transitioning to community solar energy. In 2014, a coalition of Vermont citizens successfully lobbied its government to deny the recertification of Vermont Yankee, the state’s only nuclear power plant.

Additionally, citizens also lobbied to change laws surrounding renewable generation units. In response to this widespread and sustained activism, the Vermont government approved group net metering. This new legislation allowed multiple people to own a single generation unit and share the energy, facilitating the implementation of community energy projects.

As part of the agreement for closing Vermont Yankee, the state government appropriated additional funding to the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund. Using these resources and their newfound legislative freedom, communities throughout Vermont began to implement solar programs and effectively democratized their energy systems.

There are many lessons we can learn from Vermont’s clean energy initiatives. Broad community participation, acceptance, and leadership in renewable energy initiatives encourage broader access to a democratized energy system. Additionally, local groups manage and own each solar project, avoiding corporate frameworks and changing how individuals interact with the energy system.


Moving toward a Democratic Energy System

A democratized energy system has the potential to change how we consume, share, and produce energy. However, researchers and community leaders will need to work closely together in order to effectively implement renewable energy projects. Additionally, efficient, equitable, and nonpartisan policies and regulations are necessary to make energy democracy a reality.

Anyone can help support the change necessary to move toward a democratized energy system. If you want to learn more about the concepts we discussed in this guide to energy democracy, read this article from the IEEE Smart Grid Resource Center.

Interested in learning more about energy democracy? Get involved with IEEE Blockchain-Enabled Transactive Energy (BCTE). This program is series of regionally diverse virtual forums addressing Blockchain-enabled transactive energy in the domain of electrical power and energy application development. To learn more about IEEE Blockchain, join the IEEE Blockchain Technical Community to stay informed of latest activities.