Our political systems are not static, but evolving. Democracies loosen and tighten rules, regarding their internal power structure and officially recognized processes for establishing legitimate sovereign rule. Undemocratic states sometimes give way to sudden, monumental unleashings of public engagement. Our energy economy is part of this dynamic, and to understand the future of both energy and democracy, we have to consider what energetic democratization looks like.
The standards are beginning to emerge already: around the world, we see communities organizing themselves into constituencies prepared to push for and defend their rights to manage energy production as they see fit. In the old model for this engagement, electricity-producing cooperatives would come together to negotiate low long-term prices for large volumes of fossil fuels, particularly coal. In the new model, people dependent on such coops are demanding the right to install individual or microgrid solar photovoltaics.
In places like rural India, an expanding coalition of communities, nonprofit organizations, and technology companies, is working to localize and democratize energy access. Villages that could never afford to mobilize new central grid infrastructure are building microgrids that allow them to produce energy locally, using solar, wind or other renewables.
The question is rapidly shifting from How do we bring the grid to these communities? to How can anyone justify making these communities wait, when they can use microgrids to build their own future? It is no longer necessary to put expensive centralized combustible fuel infrastructure ahead of low-cost lightweight local renewables. But policy has not caught up with reality in many places.
Partly from a desire to serve consumers and communities through the establishment of efficient economies of scale, many jurisdictions have built power-generating monopolies into their civic and economic landscape, even going as far as to prohibit other forms of energy production. This was once useful for large-scale mobilization of public and private finance, but today’s world is much more connected, much more technologically agile, and equipped with a new economy of scale: the worldwide market for distributed generation.
In some countries, governments continue to argue that new economic development must ride on the power of combustible hydrocarbon fuels, even as evidence shows the industrialized world is now able to expand economic output while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Energetic democratization is necessary to secure a system that works for people on their terms, and it must include certain key components:
- More direct citizen participation
- Wider use of microgrids and local generation
- Enhancement of financial flows to new local clean development
- A way to measure human-scale outcomes
Direct citizen participation
For examples of effective direct citizen participation, we can look to Cleveland’s EcoVillage, where the community is directly involved in all policy decisions, or to the Green Tea movement in Georgia, where libertarian-leaning and green-leaning citizen advocates came together to remove the ban on household (solar) power generation.
There is also, of course, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, for whose 14,000-plus volunteers I have a particular affection, as well as a day-to-day commitment. CCL is bringing direct citizen participation to the legislative policy process in the US and around the world, making sure citizens are in constructive, collaborative relationships with their own elected representatives.
Microgrids & local generation
For a compelling example of what solar microgrids can do, we can look to Dharnai, in Bihar, India. In a village that had never been electrified before, localized solar microgrid generation is allowing Dharnai to have refrigeration, lighting, and other benefits of electrification, without the need for a major state investment in new central grid infrastructure, oversight and maintenance.
New York City is also proving to be a powerful example, at the other end of the industrial development spectrum, where microgrids are being deployed to provide power generating resilience, in the case of mass outages or natural disasters. This will allow the city to avoid a situation as was faced during Superstorm Sandy, when hospitals lost power and critically ill patients had to be evacuated through flooded streets.
Enhancing Local Financial Flows
The 195 nations that are Parties to the UNFCCC are getting ready to agree a global climate action strategy, rooted in nationally determined contributions, to include the mobilization of $100 billion per year in new financial flows for low-carbon development and climate adaptation needs, through the Green Climate Fund.
Solving the problem of how to get these new resources to communities most in need of assistance in achieving low-carbon development will be a major factor in determining how democratic, how universal, and how enduring our low-carbon future will be. Major financial institutions are also committing huge sums (Citigroup just pledged $100 billion over ten years to low-carbon investments). Careful planning that allows for investment capital to line up with microlending for local off-grid projects, will have the power to transform the global energy economy.
Measuring Human-scale Outcomes
Without an adjustment in our analysis of macroeconomic outcomes, to account for real value as lived at the human scale, we will miss a lot of the information that tells us whether we are succeeding or failing, whether we are ahead of schedule or falling behind, on mobilizing solutions. One way to do this would be through an examination of generative organic optimization demand (GOOD) and first-level resiliency, both at the macro and microeconomic scales.
The Human Development Index also provides a great deal of insight into the lived experience of human communities, as relating to wider global development priorities and programs. In 2015, the UN negotiations relating to the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals as the central economic priorities for the post–2015 period will provide an opportunity for enhancing the degree to which stakeholders’ voices are directly included in the policy process.
A Vibrant Future of Energetic Democratization
We are now entering a period where the energetic democratization of the world economy has unrivaled potential for enhancing prosperity at the human scale and for building economies that can withstand sudden shifts in the availability of basic resources. Our changing climate and still rapidly advancing technological capabilities make it necessary to build such resilience into life at the level of lived human experience.
There will be corners of the world were “problematic” leaders may wish to prevent the decentralization of power-generation, in hopes of preventing the decentralization of power; whether they know this or not, their people, and the enterprises that are working to build out their economies, almost certainly will: such roadblocks will not be conducive to building vibrant, competitive economies that can thrive in the 21st century.
Just as we need to connect and collaborate, we also need to devolve power and decentralize society-wide resource flows. Solar microgrids are one part of that; persistent political participation is another.
We are at the dawn of a new age of direct citizen engagement, both in the generation of electrical power and in the exercise of political decision-making authority. Facilitating that open workflow is what will decide if we can mobilize the best solutions, and build the smartest, most sustainable and most liberated human future.
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