As global energy systems shift from centralised fossil-fuels to decentralised renewables, communities are helping with this transformation to a more sustainable, fair and equitable model.
As global energy systems shift from centralised fossil-fuel generators to decentralised renewables, Monash Sustainable Development Institute’s Research Fellow, Dr Dominique Coy, suggests that this transformation can empower communities in ways that could make energy systems more sustainable, just, and inclusive. But this ‘empowerment’ needs to be more than just a buzzword.
The world is feeling the effects of accelerating climate change, which is increasing pressure to enable communities. Communities, whether defined by geography, interests or shared values and goals, are stepping up and taking an active role in the transformation from ‘customers and users’ to ‘owners and producers’ of their energy needs.
All of us need energy all the time. Globally, we are witnessing a major transformation, from centralised control of energy generation and retailing to a more decentralised model where individuals and organisations can generate renewable energy and sell it back into the national grid. Wind and solar energy are cheaper to produce than fossil fuel power plants, so new actors are entering the energy system as it transforms away from older, high-emissions technology.
This transformation is a radical socio-technical challenge, requiring many factors to interact and overlap; social, engineering, technological, policy and environmental issues all play a role in delivering real empowerment to communities. It’s complicated and it’s happening now.
Access to reliable and affordable energy is a social equity issue (and has become politically sensitive with rising energy costs). The goals of reducing emissions while maintaining supply of affordable energy are wicked problems, and there are clear barriers to community involvement; adversarial politics, for-profit business models, ageing infrastructure and institutions, regulation, resources, and awareness of these very issues. But it’s also clear that when communities are meaningfully engaged in sustainability and climate initiatives, we get better outcomes.
Our definition of empowerment is “The process of an individual or group increasing their capacity and relational power to meet their own goals, leading to their transformative action.” Moving from a world where energy is owned, distributed, and sold by a privileged few to one where energy is managed, owned, generated, and sold by local communities means a series of step-changes. Individuals will have to participate in decision making, develop a sense of agency, learn autonomy and to self-govern, and reach a point where the power shifts to the community and their control over resources and ownership of problems and solutions.
The social and behaviour drivers of empowerment show that this isn’t just a matter of upskilling individuals, a whole range of factors are involved at the personal, interpersonal, community, societal and finally the systemic levels.
The energy democracy movement envisions a more sustainable and equitable world, where we move from energy consumers to energy citizens. The key to this is effective governance and enablement – finding ways to include community voices and decentralise decision-making.
Empowerment is both a process and an outcome, and needs to be understood in clear, concrete terms; roundtable discussions, town hall meetings, calls for input to ‘nut it out’ and create shared visions where communities have real resources, control and the authority to plan and implement their future energy initiatives.
Yet, this isn’t a problem that is just for communities to solve. For communities to become empowered energy citizens, governments and industry have to come to the table. New ways of working where these actors give up some of their power or enter joint decision-making arrangements need to be found. This requires a willingness from all actors and, in some places, is already happening.
Bringing all stakeholders along, especially those challenged by this innovation (including governments, network providers and fossil fuel companies) is not going to be easy, but we all have an interest in reducing emissions, to lessen the impact of climate change, and to share in the economic and social benefits of a more democratic energy system.
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Written by Geoff Paine
Coy, D., Malekpour, S., & Saeri, A. K.(2023). Putting the power back in empowerment: Stakeholder perspectives on community empowerment in energy transformations. Environmental Policy and Governance, 1– 15.
D. Coy, S. Malekpour, A.K. Saeri. From little things, big things grow: facilitating community empowerment in the energy transformation. Energy Res. Soc. Sci., 84 (2022)
D. Coy, S. Malekpour, A.K. Saeri, R. Dargaville. Rethinking community empowerment in the energy transformation: a critical review of the definitions, drivers and outcomes. Energy Res. Soc. Sci., 72 (2021)
D. Coy, S. Malekpour, R. Dargaville. People power: everyday Australians are building their own renewables projects, and you can too. The Conversation.(2020)
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