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Editorial: All power to the community

Our current energy system is an exercise not just in destroying our common environment but in entrenching existing inequality, writes James O'Nions

September 7, 2013
5 min read


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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rp-cover-augsep13-medStand on the banks of the Mahakam river in Kalimantan, Indonesia, and you can watch an unending procession of coal barges go by. Opencast mines pockmark this island, which is twice the size of Britain. Each year more than 200 million tonnes of coal passes through Samarinda, the region’s coal hub, on its way to coal-fired power stations around the world. It leaves behind a wrecked environment and few benefits for the local population. According to the Indonesian anti-mining network JATAM, in one area, East Kutai, only 37 out of 135 villages have electricity.

This visceral energy inequality is repeated time and again around the world. From the opencast coal mining near Merthyr Tydfil to the autocrat propped up by oil and gas extraction in Azerbaijan, it seems there’s an urgent need to keep fossil fuels in the ground even before we consider the climate change impact of burning them. But consider it we must. Atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in human history this spring. The earth is probably already committed to a surface temperature rise of between 3 and 5°C on pre-industrial levels. And though some of the extreme weather events could affect any one of us, in general those without power and resources will be hit much harder by the changing climate.

Our current energy system is an exercise not just in destroying our common environment, but in entrenching existing inequality. Understanding this, we can begin to see why, despite scientific evidence over decades, despite public opinion being mobilised on a huge scale and despite numerous high-profile global conferences, carbon dioxide levels have continued their inexorable rise.

In the UK, our energy system is a private oligopoly, dominated by the ‘Big Six’ energy companies. This has simultaneously retarded the development of renewables while inflating bills (and profits) to the extent that 7,000 people died from being unable to heat their homes adequately in the winter of 2011/12. As Aneaka Kellay argues George Osborne’s ‘dash for gas’, which will result in a whole new generation of gas-fired power stations, may be sold as a way of reducing the carbon intensity of our energy production – in fact it will not allow us to meet our carbon dioxide reduction targets and maintains an energy infrastructure built around corporate profits that is at the root of the problem.

So do we have to just cross our fingers and hope for a revolution before the planet fries? Not exactly. The Zero Carbon Britain report from the Centre for Alternative Technology details how exactly how we could reduce the UK’s net carbon emissions to zero by as soon as 2030. The just-published third iteration of the report deals with a common objection to a renewables-based energy system – that peak electricity demand and variable supply don’t match. Their solution involves smart appliances, energy conservation and energy storage using relatively small amounts of biogas and carbon neutral synthetic gas. Crucially, the overall scenario uses only technologies that are already proven and viable.

So it is possible for a large-scale, complex and modern society to be carbon neutral. But important questions remain. Given the corporate interest in maintaining the status quo, how might we bring about such a transition? Zero Carbon Britain references the Green New Deal concept of public investment in low-carbon infrastructure, which would simultaneously create jobs and rapidly decarbonise the economy. But it also matters what kinds of technologies we invest in and who owns them.

The ability to start small with renewable technologies such as solar PV, wind and micro-hydro means they lend themselves to a community ownership model. As Kim Bryan explores in this issue, the confluence of open source technology development, including hardware as well as software, and energy co-operatives could open up exciting possibilities for what we might call ‘energy democracy’. Mobilising around this ‘positive’ vision of reclaiming our ability, as communities, to produce our own energy is a real possibility – especially as some energy co-operatives already exist, covering places as large as Brighton and Bristol. Public investment could bolster energy democratisation, not just provide jobs.

August’s Reclaim the Power camp was conceived in opposition to the government’s ‘energy austerity’ – the phenomenon of making ordinary people pay while upholding big business interests in the energy sector. The initiative was clearly organised on the model of Climate Camp but in the context of the cuts it had a sharper focus on inequality, capitalism and the need to assert popular sovereignty over energy. We need both these noisy challenges to our current energy economy and practical democratic alternatives like energy co-ops in the process of rebuilding our energy economy from below and to the left.

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James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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