Now is a crucial time for citizens to get involved in shaping the future of the GB energy system.
Our current system is highly dependent on fossil fuels, leading to climate change and other negative social and environmental impacts. However, new technologies for energy systems have been developed since the 1970s in response to climate change, and out of a desire to become more self-reliant. They promise decentralised and renewable electricity generation and energy storage. The old system was designed for centralised generation and distribution to passive consumers, with extremely complex regulations which lack transparency. But now there’s an opportunity to move towards greater participation: toward energy democracy.
Here’s a short film where I had a go at showing how complex the system’s rules are:
What does that mean? As this guide explains, energy democracy is an approach to ensuring that the sustainable energy transition secures just outcomes, in terms of who has access to energy, who shapes the narratives of the future, and the number, quality, conditions and distribution of jobs.
Democracy is not always easy to define. For people attempting to transform our energy system, it’s important to decide what it involves. Does it mean state ownership of energy infrastructure? Community self-reliance? Worker control of industries? Participation in construction (planning?) and jobs?
Are the rules of the current system are too complex, or is that complexity necessary for reliable energy supply? Why is 100% reliability seen as non-negotiable by government? Is it really the most essential goal for social wellbeing? Could we safeguard energy provision for those whose lives depend on it, but let go of some of our unlimited demands for the sake of treading a bit lighter on the planet?
It is difficult to ask these questions if we can’t imagine things being different to how they are now. This guide is designed to untangle the things we can easily shift and the things that are harder to change, to make space for imagination. At one end of the scale, we have the laws of physics, which are simply facts we need to work with. At the other end, we have infrastructure – a mix of technologies and human-created systems of rules and regulations – which humans could redesign, if we look at things through a different lens.
Who is this guide for?
This guide is intended for two main audiences:
- Climate campaigners – who want to have a more concrete understanding of an energy system we can say yes to. The guide will explain what can be changed through policy processes and what can’t change due to physical and infrastructure fundamentals.
- Community energy practitioners, especially those new to the sector, to gain practical knowledge that more experienced colleagues have gained over time but may not have shared.
This will promote more strategically targeted campaigning on energy system change for democracy and decarbonisation, and enable a greater diversity of people to participate at a strategic and creative level in the community energy sector.
The guide may also be of value for civil servants at local and national level who want to understand more about the energy system.
This guide adds something new by being both comprehensive and accessible, and having a focus on democracy. Other books, websites and guides already provide information about how renewable energy technologies work, specific aspects of energy system regulation, and how to make energy generation and consumption add up in GB. The bibliography proposes additional information you might find useful if you want to learn more.
Why Energy Democracy?
What is energy democracy? Broadly, energy democracy means that ‘the people’ have power over how our energy system works. This includes users of energy and people working in the energy industry. The term energy democracy is being used by many different groups, including climate campaigners, community energy activists and trade unions.
For all of them, it goes beyond just having a say in how our energy system works, and includes three main issues:
- Having a say in how our energy is produced and consumed
- Shifting our energy system to be environmentally sustainable
- Ensuring that everyone has access to energy to meet their needs
GB vs UK – a note on geography
This guide focuses on the GB (England, Wales and Scotland) scale, but at times uses UK (GB + Northern Ireland) energy statistics from UK government publications. The GB scale is important because this is the scale of an energy market for gas and electricity, and the scale of regulation by Ofgem (the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets). Northern Ireland is regulated separately by NIAER (the Northern Ireland Authority for Energy Regulation).
Both GB and NI energy systems are affected by EU regulation and EU energy markets. However, the way that EU energy regulations are implemented in each country is different, so this guide focuses on GB. A lot of the content is also transferable to other parts of the world, particularly to other overdeveloped countries which have a history of centralised electricity generation and distribution, and neoliberal market economies.
Don’t worry too much about scale – the main point of the guide is to give a clear understanding of how energy works, and what needs to and could change.
How to use this guide
Each chapter of this guide adds a new layer to our understanding of the UK energy system. It is designed so that the layers build on each other, starting with the social value of energy, building up through layers of physical infrastructure and technology, before coming to governance and worldviews, which feed back into how we conceptualise the social value of energy.
Other guides to the energy system tend to describe the physical infrastructure, ownership and commercial market arrangements of each part of the system together. This guide intentionally separates these different layers, to enable us to imagine different forms of ownership, money flows and governance processes for the existing infrastructure. The ‘energy system roles‘ reference page gives you an overview of how the different layers fit together.
This guide does three things:
- Explains the energy system as it currently is, including the traditional structure and new emerging trends, and how it came to be that way
- Describes new energy system models being proposed – different models of ownership and governance
- Discusses cutting edge real pilot projects, experiments and attempts at creating a more democratic system
These are distinguished by colour.
The guide has an agenda, as every piece of communication does. I have tried to be transparent and clear about my stance, so that you are free to question and disagree. To find out more about where I am coming from, read the section on worldview.
If you are new to working on the energy system, you may want to read the guide from start to finish. If not, you may want to go straight to the chapter that you want to know more about, and skip the ones that are more familiar.
For more resources on how energy systems work, see bibliography.
About the author: Emilia Melville has been involved in the community energy sector in Bristol since 2010. She has been passionate about sharing her technical engineering knowledge with the climate movement since 2009, partly inspired by David MacKay’s “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air”. She believes in democracy and participation, and wrote her PhD about how Ostrom’s understanding of commons can be applied to energy systems.
About illustration and design of this website: Design & Cover Illustration by Jenny Rén and Book Illustrations by Liz Snook.