Social value of energy


What is energy for? Why do we need it? What role does it play within society? Why should we care?

In the past 200 years, energy provided by centralised infrastructure in a highly ‘processed’ form has gone from being a luxury to a necessity in GB. We expect to get gas piped directly to our homes, electricity at the flick of a switch, petrol at the pump. This has replaced traditional fuels such as wood, beeswax and tallow for candles and horses for transport and traction.

Modern energy is now needed to satisfy basic human needs such as warmth, cooking, light, social connection, information, leisure, entertainment and mobility, and economic activity. It is vital for health and participation in society and if access is not universal because energy is unaffordable for some people, this has knock on effects on outcomes of social inequality.

The political nature of energy

Energy is is also politically important. ‘Keeping the lights on’ is seen as essential by politicians to satisfy the electorate to stay in power. Energy supply is a strategic concern, for national security and economic growth, core government concerns. The price of energy and the reliability of energy supply affects the international competitiveness of the economy, with impacts on industry, jobs, fuel poverty and investment.

The importance of energy access, provision and infrastructure means that some people would like it to be ‘depoliticised’: ensuring we have a well-functioning energy system should be important for any government, regardless of their political views. However there are choices in  how energy is produced, distributed, managed and accessed, and these are inherently political. Decisions we make now about our energy systems will affect the choices available to future governments who will have to pick up the pieces of anything that goes wrong. To effectively participate in those decisions, we need to understand how the energy system works, from the physics to the infrastructure to the organisations involved and the rules that govern them. That is what this guide aims to explain.

Energy services and human needs

Most people do not think about ‘using energy’ – we think about having a cup of tea, hoovering, using a drill, writing an email, having a shower. These are ‘energy services’.  If we could get the same services using less energy, most people wouldn’t notice or care. Some say we should have the same level of energy services, but use less energy to provide them – through energy efficiency. In political rhetoric ‘our lifestyles are not negotiable’, and we can keep the same lifestyle while using less energy. 

But can we really make big enough reductions in energy consumption just through energy efficiency? Is the way that we use energy services at the moment really the best way to meet our human needs? And have the politicians who claim our lifestyles are not negotiable given people a chance to be part of that negotiation?

We can think about human needs more deeply – not just that we need to send emails, but that we need to connect. Not just that we need to put the heating on, but that we need to stay warm. Not just that we need to have a shower, but that we need to be clean and healthy. Not just that we need to drive to work, but that we need to have a livelihood.

Energy democracy means claiming the political space to think creatively and together about what would really enable everyone to meet our fundamental needs. It means building enough collective power to actively negotiate our ‘lifestyles’, and creatively make them better for us and other species.  It means moving away from a system where consumers are entitled to ‘demand’ unlimited amounts of energy if they have enough money, while those without money are entitled to nothing. It means thinking about where the gains from energy efficiency go – do we use it to consume more of something else, increase profits, or protect our planet?

Imagining a different future and a different past

The way we have used energy to provide services and ultimately meet human needs has changed hugely through the history of human evolution. Hunter gatherer societies use up to 40 times less energy per person than industrial societies. Agricultural societies use 10 times less. This difference is mainly enabled by fossil fuels, which allow us to use  many centuries of ‘buried sunshine’.

UnitHunter-gatherersAgricultural societyIndustrial society
Total energy use per personGJ/yr10-2040-70150-400
Population density/km2 0.025-0115up to 40up to 400
Agricultural population%more than 80%less than 10%
Total energy use per unit areaGJ/ha/yrup to 0.01up to 30up to 600
Biomass (share of energy use)%more than 90%more than 95%10-30%

Source: Adapted from Haberl et al. (2011).

What will our energy usage be like in the future? Improvements in energy efficiency, use of renewable technology and shifts in lifestyles could lead to radically different energy use. Climate change may force dramatic changes in society. It is easy to assume that the future will be similar to the present, but big changes do happen.


Coal. The fuel of the industrial revolution. The worst climate change polluter. The industrial backbone of the north of England. The pride and solidarity of mining communities. The miners strikes and Thatcher’s war against the trade unions in the 1970s. The fire that warms through the night. 

As we argue for a transition to a renewable energy system, and make coal the enemy, ensuring that there are good jobs for the people currently working in the fossil fuel industry is essential to achieving an inclusive and just transition. That includes the oil industry workers of Aberdeen, the ex mining communities of south Wales and the north of England, and others. Imagine if that energy and work was directed to building a green and democratic energy system?

LEARNING POINTS FOR ENERGY DEMOCRACY: Energy is inherently political. It is essential to basic human needs in modern GB society and to national economic and political stability. However, it tends to be governed in a technocratic way that attempts to make it ‘depoliticised’. Energy Democracy means naming the political nature of energy, and ensuring it is governed for the common good, rather than to protect the interests of the status quo. It means thinking about what energy services we really need, and opening up the political space for people to actively negotiate changes to our lifestyles that may enhance well-being while reducing energy service levels.