Energy Democracy

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Claire Faucet on Switched On London and similar initiatives for municipally owned renewable distributed energy utilities:

"How can ordinary people challenge the monopoly of the energy companies whose unjustifiable prices leave many with their basic needs unmet, and unsustainable emissions disrupt the ecological systems that we rely on for our survival? How can we create a system that is renewable, affordable, democratic and reinvests in the public good?

Maybe we change the system one city at a time?

Inspired by energy democracy initiatives worldwide, a new campaign, Switched On London, aspires to push London’s public authorities to set up a new energy company that will provide Londoners with progressively priced renewable energy. The proposed company would be a production and supply company – investing in new renewable energy within and outside the city which would feed into the national grid. On the supply side the company would supply customers in direct competition with the ‘Big Six’ companies which control the UK energy market. It would have a radical democratic system with its board of directors made up of the local authority, customers and workers, as well as community energy forums feeding in their ideas.

This may all sound rather pie-in-the-sky but recent initiatives in Bristol, Nottingham, Germany and elsewhere suggest that Switched On London’s proposal may be more achievable than one might think, and that democratic ownership creates space for goals beyond profit maximization.

Nottingham City Council recently launched Robin Hood Energy, a city owned company offering low prices in an attempt to combat fuel poverty, explicitly challenging the Big Six, shareholder profits and director bonuses. Bristol has gone one better: the city is 100 per cent shareholder in the new company, Bristol Energy, which is aiming to source – where possible – from local renewable energy projects and will be subsidizing council services with the profits of the venture. All at a time when local authorities are seeing their budgets slashed by central government.

The current Mayor of London Boris Johnson has also put a proposal on the table for a municipal energy company for London but his aspirations are well below that of either Nottingham or Bristol. The proposal is for a partnership with German transnational RWE nPower and it is limited to big public energy buyers such as Transport for London and the Metropolitan Police. None of these projects though go as far as the aspirations of Switched On London, who see energy democracy and popular participation rather than simple state ownership as central to ensuring that the projects are truly able to deliver a more socially and environmentally just energy system. For this we need to look further afield.

Germany has a strong and popular movement for energy transition – the Energiewende – which aims to eliminate fossil fuels and nuclear power from the energy mix and replace them with renewables. A recent wave of attempts to re-municipalize the energy system has had highs and lows. Since 2007 more than 60 municipal energy utilities have been formed while over 170 communities have attempted to buy pieces of the energy grid back from private providers. The most notable success was in Hamburg, Germany’s second most populous city, where in 2013 a referendum supported the buyback of the grid from Swedish energy giant Vattenfall for between $560 and $620 million. Talks continue on the purchase of the city’s gas and district heating systems when contracts expire in 2018-2019. The referendum was spearheaded by the campaign platform Unser Hamburg Unser Netz (Our Hamburg Our Grid) which aimed for ‘a socially just, democratically controlled and climate-friendly energy supply from renewable sources’. And in Munich, the municipally-owned electricity company has already begun to deliver on the city’s commitment to 100 per cent clean energy supply by 2025.

In Berlin, however, things have not gone entirely to plan. The proposal of Berliner Energietish (Berlin Energy Roundtable) to buy out the city’s grid from Vattenfall was one of the most comprehensive energy democracy proposals yet seen and has formed a very high degree of popular participation. The project envisaged a 100 per cent green energy system with Berlin voters directly electing six of the 15 members of the power company’s Board of Directors, and citizen initiatives and other mechanisms allowing Berliners to directly participate in and influence company policies. They also worked on a progressive pricing structure which would rewarded low users – poorer households and those using energy efficiently, with lower unit prices while large users would pay more per unit – the opposite to most energy systems and certainly to that in the UK.

Over 200,000 people signed the petition which forced the city authorities to hold a referendum on the buyout. The referendum was due to be held alongside the presidential elections but in an attempt to defeat the proposal the senate moved it to a day when no other elections were taking place. Eighty three per cent of voters supported the buyout but, frustratingly, the referendum fell short of the required 25 per cent quorum by an agonizing 0.9 per cent.

In Spain a new energy cooperative, Som Energia, has grown from a group of 150 members in Girona, Catalonia in 2010, to a nationwide movement with around 24,000 members. Like the Switched On London proposal the company invests in green energy and supplies electricity to its members. Unlike the London proposal, the company is not owned by the city but by its members who join through a $113 investment. Som Energia is organized through local groups and campaigning platforms and its general assembly is live-streamed to encourage wide participation. The cooperative combines the desire to transform the energy system from fossil fuels to renewable energy with a desire for an economy based on solidarity and social good as well as putting power into the hands of the citizens and encouraging participation in a transformative organizing processes.

Back in London, the Switched On London team are keen to open out and not be led by funded organizations but to be truly representative of the diversity in London. With their roots in fuel poverty campaigning they have already got disabled activists and pensioners groups on board. They are also keen to involve the many community energy projects, such as Brixton Energy, that have started to get off the ground but which are struggling due to the government’s slashing of feed in tariffs. A municipal energy company could potentially provide a lifeline to these schemes by buying up the energy they produce at mutually beneficial rates.

Jeremy Corbyn’s recent surprise win in the labour leadership race demonstrates the energy bubbling under for a new kind of politics based on a critique of corporate capitalism and advocacy of positive features such as popular participation, social ideals and ecological sustainability. Can London mobilize the people power needed to make this happen? With hundreds of thousands of people being cut off because they can’t afford to top up their overpriced pre-payment meters, a million people living in fuel poverty, 4,000 excess winter deaths in London alone in 2014-2015, food banks oversubscribed, rising rents and slashed local authority budgets – as well as growing fears about climate change – it is clear that only the energy companies have anything to gain from the status quo."


The causal relation of democracy and energy

B. D'Haeseleer:

"Despite anomalies throughout history, the increased usage of fossil fuels and proliferation of democracy align both in the last 200 years, as well as geographically indicating a strong historical and spatial correlation. (Smil, 2017). The 19.800 pre-industrial years before, democracy only existed in meso-scaled exceptions such as Ancient Greece or the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Hegemonic nation-states all enjoying a high energy influx through colonization and slavery, in such a way dependency theorists even call it the externalization of exploitation as the geographic scale of the economy merely outgrew its political borders. (Taylor, 2007) Moreover, the evolution of democratization almost always paralleled with colonization efforts. Historically only 20-30 years after 10% of the people living in Athenians received voting right, Athens colonized the Mediterranean. (Krishna, 2003) Likewise, ‘The Dutch’ became the hegemonic force of their time extracting added value from elsewhere after becoming the liberal hotspot of the world. In the 19th century this duality lead Europe scramble for Africa only decades after democratizing internally. (Taylor, 2007)

The causality in this correlation, is fundamentally explained by Bertold Brecht’s: “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral”, or by an unknown Congolese interviewed stating “you can’t eat democracy”, (Muambi, 2009). Statements strengthened by Anthropological work on energy systems influencing value systems. Varying from 3000 kCal to 8000 kCal at the Poles humans harvest their basic, daily, energy need, from their surroundings given the available techniques. Inability to permanently support a basic group of 30 compels hunter-gatherers into nomadism, a way of life with strategic benefits values, such as economic, gender, social equality, reciprocity and cooperation. (Morris, 2015) Once climate change ended the last Ice Age and opened the agricultural window sedentarization fixed human habitats. This raised the importance of control over energy sources, intergenerational heritage and fixed power relations based on genetic qualities functionally best adapted for relative environments. The acceptance of a hierarchical society, the Old Deal, stood for thousands of years of rise and decline and only changed when fossil fuels broke ‘the organic ceiling’ of daily energy harvest, 35.000 kCal, when energy budgets increased to 250.000 kCal in only seven generations. (Morris, 2015)

Coal-powered steam engines followed by oil, provided an influx of ‘invisible energy slaves’, with each liter of crude oil representing 31 MJ, equalling 114,8 man-hours or two eight-hour workweeks. (Hallett & Wright, 2011) (Avallone & Baumeister, 1997) (Jones & De Meyere, 2016) Mechanic and Industrial production created time for education and leisure. Moreover fossils built the energetic luxury to outgrow the fixed, organic structures of ‘the Old Deal’, genetic gender differences, and freed time to invest in participatory decision making. (D'Haeseleer, 2021) The opening of the first commercial oilwell in Titusville (1859), only preceding the abolishment of slavery by six years, and the resulting spatial division might therefore be more than a coincidence. (D'Haeseleer, 2021) Still, while Athens democratized Sparta militarized, despite both enjoying an energetic influx from slaves and colonies. Besides an energy abundance on average, societies also need to see this abundancy generalized by some sort of distribution or redistribution mechanism. (D'Haeseleer, 2021) Abundancy should be considered the needed condition, and distribution the sufficient condition to democracy." (D'Haeseleer, 2021)

(Source: Translated from the Dutch-language original: D'Haeseleer, B. (2021). Darwins Democratie: hoe piekolie de contouren van het wereld-systeem schetst. Gent: Ugent)

Decentralized versus centralized renewable energy democracy

B. D'Haeseleer:

"Still, if the evolution of democracy is the expansion of citizenship: the liberal revolution including middleclass entrepreneurs; the social including labourers; the feminist including women; the current environmental catastrophes signal an ecological revolution including the expansion of rights to future generations, climate refugees, but also non-humanistic life f.i. animal rights, or even the granting of legal personhood to ecosystems. (D'Haeseleer, 2021) (Hutchinson, 2014) (Hummels, 2019) (Kurki, 2021) (Pecharroman, 2018) (International Rivers, 2019)

Though without energetic expansion a return to ‘organic’, agrarian, Old Deal values should be anticipated as given privileges of who is currently considered a citizen, is being undermined by rising costs and eroding daily energy budgets. For many others the agricultural window is even closing again, forcing a return to nomadic lifestyles and values. Albeit compensating an annual oil use worth 400 years of human labor might look like an immense challenge, current energy-capitation techniques already suffy considering 30% of the annual 174 PW of solar energy directly reflects into space, and only 0,08% is organically captured.. (Hallett & Wright, 2011) (Rhodes, 2010)

Meaning energetically we are far from reaching the limits to growth, the question remains whether this added value will result in more democracy or more space tourism. The current definition of energy democracy through the ICA principles involving direct citizens participation and ownership is only one part of the sufficiency condition to democracy. Yet, given the decentralized nature of most renewable energy sources and weakened state-structures it should be regarded and treated as a crucial element in maintaining a general context supporting democratic values. More capital driven and centralized Hydrogen on the other hand are expected to demand more state overview, intervention and taxation to insure indirect redistribution of the added value." (Boix, 2003)

(Source: Translated from the Dutch-language original: D'Haeseleer, B. (2021). Darwins Democratie: hoe piekolie de contouren van het wereld-systeem schetst. Gent: Ugent)


Pre-industrial energy democracy

B. D'Haeseleer:

"Fulfilling these conditions is influenced by contexts shaped by policy, as well as almost Darwinistic characteristics. Being an island Britain’s colonization goal was land expansion and population growth, structured both top down and bottom-up, it offered land to fortune seekers. (Bertram, 2011) Contrary to the Spanish merely seeking additional revenue, thus keeping ownership while governing through concessions to private companies. (Bertram, 2011) Having already established their positions and assets before new legal frameworks on direct redistribution, ownership, and indirect redistribution, taxation, of already weaker Iberian institutions could be enforced. (Bertram, 2011) Direct landownership, increased participation and made state interference practically obsolete in institutional carte blanche territories. In The United Provinces of the Netherlands, internal abundancy was established by impoldering and windmills, while collectivation and direct participation by downscaling opened the sufficient condition. (Taylor, 2007)

Apart from land, mining other natural resources, such as diamonds, precious metals, even guano can provide extra added value, thus energy. (Dunning, 2008) Contrary to what is commonly assumed resource rich countries do not always suffer from a ‘resource curse’, the direct authoritarian effect of a changing cost-benefit for coup-attempts changes in resource-rich countries due to a higher profit potential (i.e Middle-East, Congo, …). (Dunning, 2008)The added value of resource booms can also either directly pay for social reforms and investments in education, medical sector, housing,…, or indirectly by distribution to elites in return for accepting social rights and redistribution of the classic economy (i.e. Canada, Botswana, Bolivia, Venezuela…). (Barro, 1999) (Ross, 2001) (Jensen & Wantcheton, 2004) (Dunning, 2008) (Karl, 1997) The outcome is determined by the interaction between both effects, and influenced by the resource abundancy or dependency of countries, and the inequality in the classic economy, which themselves are shaped by inalienable features of these resources, f.i. kimberlite versus alluvial diamonds. (Dunning, 2008) (Mitchell, 2011)

The resource profiles of coal and oil lead to analogue conclusions. Coal, being more geographically distributed is decentralized, is less point-sourced controllable, therefore more locally owned. Second, as being solid coal transport costs are higher resulting local less integrated markets. Thirdly, unlike coal, oil locations are more remote, requiring high risk exploration costs, artificially built cities built, organized, owned and controlled by international companies. A remoteness, fourthly, results into imported, temporary, contract labourers, contrasting the social embeddedness of mining communities. Fifth, oils fluidity enables labour independent surfacing and transportation, while dangerous work and subterranean distance from their oversight create an independent and emancipated workforce. Finally, as already being an end product, notably one of which an entire economy solely depended upon, handed mineworkers a historically unique bargaining position, compared to oil still needing a highly technical distillation process to reach a global and more divers market." (Mitchell, 2011)

(Source: Translated from the Dutch-language original: D'Haeseleer, B. (2021). Darwins Democratie: hoe piekolie de contouren van het wereld-systeem schetst. Gent: Ugent)


  • Switched On London is campaigning for a publicly owned energy company that London can be proud of. We want an affordable, democratic and environmentally sustainable alternative to the Big Six.



* Thesis: Energy Democracy, a repositioning in world-history, beyond current day-to-day practices. B.D'Haeseleer.

Alternative title: Darwins democracy, how the transition to renewables is reshaping global democracy.

Translated from the Dutch-language original: D'Haeseleer, B. (2021). Darwins Democratie: hoe piekolie de contouren van het wereld-systeem schetst. Gent: Ugent


"No other issue seems more pressing than climate crisis. Yet, despite an increasing call for more ‘energy democracy’, the idea is underexplored, resulting in its vulnerability in practice. Through a new ecological perspective, regarding energy as ‘the universal currency’, a world-history of democracy can be established in which energy abundancy is the needed condition, and redistribution the sufficient condition. Conditions favorable to meeting the latter, are shaped through an interplay of structural characteristics, inherent to the energy source. Energy democracy, as currently used is one strategy, for achieving this sufficient condition. The current trade-off between renewables and the diffusion of democratic values, should be considered as a shift toward agricultural and even foraging values due to regressing energy budgets, and is avoidable."



"The growing popularity of ‘Energy democracy’ (Szulecki & Overland, 2020) stems from more than the combination of the two power words ‘energy’ and ‘democracy’, yet the connection in world-history is underexplored. The idea, therefore, remains restricted to the application of seven ICA-principles in practice, easing NIMBY opposition. (Szulecki & Overland, 2020) Nevertheless, assuming the coinciding of two of the most important phenomena of the last decade, the energy transition and the crisis of democracy, is accidental, might be too simplistic.

New insights redefining energy as ‘the universal currency’ have recently opened new cross-disciplinary research to cover 20.000 years of energy history, instead of merely 200 years, linking mechanical and fossil energy to organic energy. (Smil, 2017) A perspective, not only implicating the historical and geographical correlation, but a relation which might even be causal as the energy abundancy of fossil fuels directly allowed time away from production processes. (Morris, 2015) The idea of abundancy being the needed condition, and distribution as the sufficient condition to democracy will be introduced as an ecological update of current dependency theories.

Potential strategies to meet these conditions will first be illustrated in three steps. First, pre-industrially, through the different approaches of Britain and Spain towards landownership in their former colonies, but also how similar land reforms emancipated the 17th century Dutch. Followed by describing ‘the curse of additional resources. Finally, how these dynamics are shaped by the structural features of the energy source, in this paper characterized by the different impact of coal and oil. Insight through which current trends could be placed in a different perspective emphasizing the fundamental importance of the ICAprinciples in safeguarding contexts favoring democracy."

From the Conclusion:

"The geographical and historical correlation of the fossil era and democracy evident. As energy is a form of labour, and labour capital, theories on energy and democracy closely relate and update one of the most profound debates in Political Sciences, this of democracy and development. Freeing up man-hours by fossil fuels has opened the option for universal human rights and suffrage. The success with which this option is fulfilled and maintained, the sufficient condition, depends on the relative weight of these three value systems. Renewable energy abundance, therefore needs to elevate a yet to determined critical part of the population above the organic ceiling. A goal, achievable either through state-intervention (statecompanies, taxation) or directly through ownership and participation of which characteristics of the source should determine the preferred option."


Anna Bergren Miller:

"In a December 2014 report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, John Farrell makes the case for a more radical shift, which he calls "Utility 3.0" or "energy democracy." By relocating control and ownership from the utilities to their customers, Farrell argues, Utility 3.0 allows communities to take advantage of the economic as well as the environmental benefits of the shift to clean energy.


Farrell lays out the requirement for true "energy democracy," which include not just the technological developments associated with Utility 2.0 (such as smartphone apps and smart appliances) but financial mechanisms like on-bill repayment and community organizing and education, particularly in underserved areas. "Managing energy should be as easy as managing a mutual fund by selecting a 'moderate' or 'aggressive' portfolio," Farrell writes. "And these tools have to be ubiquitous and affordable . . . to ensure access."




by Woody Hastings:

"Energy Democracy is the first book to show what building an alternative, democratized energy future can look like. It frames the international struggle of working people, low income communities, and communities of color to take control of energy resources and use those resources to empower their communities. Bringing together racial, cultural, and generational perspectives, the book features contributions from leaders of initiatives that range from rural Mississippi and the South Bronx to Californian immigrant and refugee communities and urban and semi-rural communities in the Northeast. It also features a section that focuses on the Community Choice energy movement in California."


More Information

* Article: Energy democracy: Mapping the debate on energy alternatives. By Sören Becker and Matthias Naumann. Geography Compass, Volume 11, Issue 8, August 2017


"Energy is an emerging topic of interest in human geography, and so is the study of alternative approaches to energy provision and governance. These alternatives are often considered manifestations of energy democracy, a notion that has become prominent in energy-related activism. This paper connects alternative approaches towards novel, sustainable, and more democratic forms of energy provision to develop a typology of the practices and politics of energy democracy. Energy democracy refers to political calls for and the institutionalisation of more participatory forms of energy provision and governance. The typology encompasses alternative approaches to energy provision and governance from the Global North and South, including instances of local autonomy in decentralised systems, urban struggles over public or cooperative ownership of energy utilities, and national approaches to energy sovereignty as alternatives to extractivist development. By drawing together this wide range of empirical examples, energy democracy could overcome both localist and euro-centric perspectives and provide an orientation for movements seeking to develop more just and sustainable energy systems around the world."