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Perspective ARTICLE

Front. Energy Res., 28 October 2020 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fenrg.2020.499888

Democratizing Energy, Energizing Democracy: Central Dimensions Surfacing in the Debate

  • 1Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3), Leioa, Spain
  • 2IKERBASQUE, Basque Foundation for Science, Bilbao, Spain
  • 3Faculty of Spatial Sciences, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands
  • 4Environmental Humanities Laboratory, Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, Sweden
  • 5Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (BarcelonaTech-UPC), Barcelona, Spain

This perspective piece sets out to contribute to the academic and practitioner debates around energy transitions and democracy initiatives in the age of a climate crisis. For tackling present-day energy challenges in a democratic, equitable and just manner, critical social science and humanities research on meaning and materialities, new actors and narratives, values and democracy is indispensable. In doing so, we centralize our work around three fundamental axes: The Concept, reflecting on the energy itself and revitalizing its essence; The Political, embracing the value laden, political and gendered nature of energy, and recognizing citizens' initiatives as counter currents to centralized energy decision-making; and The People, anticipating the far right’s post-truth narratives that jeopardize planetary futures. We contend that “normative, political and embodied” research and praxis can serve for diversifying the energy transition debate as well as energizing bottom-up community led initiatives in order to democratize the energy playing field of recent times.

Introduction

There has been growing research and practice, notably in the last two decades, attempting to tackle energy transition discussions in a more democratic, equitable, just and sustainable manner. Negative socio-ecological impacts of fossil based economies have been mirrored though extractive modes of production leading to environmental conflicts (Martinez-Alier, 2009; Scheidel, et al., 2020), unequal ecological exchange (Hornborg, 2011) and corporate profits of multinationals that have been perpetuating inequalities and exacerbating disparate vulnerabilities around communities around the world (Stephens, 2019). As a response, energy democracy has emerged as a politically loaded response referring to a process, an outcome or a goal depending on the context it is used (Szulecki and Overland, 2020). Not only does it emphasize a collective demand to democratize production, transmission and consumption of energy; energy democracy at its core also calls for the need to redistribute political power via resisting, restructuring and/or reclaiming energy systems (Sweeney, 2012; Burke and Stephens, 2018; Szulecki, 2018; Van Veelen and Van der Horst, 2018; Stephens, 2019).

Alternative currents to mainstream energy research, have recently also been enriched with the infiltration of a healthy dose of social sciences and humanities perspectives with attention given to the normative dimensions of energy challenges. The study of energy systems, which previously was dominated by engineering or economics disciplines or, at the very best, by mainstream geopolitics of access, is now a thriving field of critical social science research with ever-expanding work on new actors, materialities, values, worldviews, democracy, and justice (Castree, 2014; Sovacool, 2014; Sovacool et al., 2018; Jenkins, 2020). Simultaneously, and confronting the “liquidity” of the modern society, marked by global capitalist economies with their increasing privatization of services (Bauman, 2000), we also observe rising scholarly interest and effort in self-sufficiency, energy sovereignty and planned reduction of total energy throughput in contrast to central forms of governance and provision mechanisms (Kunze and Becker, 2015; Becker and Naumann, 2017; Alexander and Yacoumis, 2018). We see the praxis of these new approaches brought to life by new societal actors materializing in initiatives such as re-municipalization, re-nationalization and citizens’ collective control of energy production and/or distribution. We argue that such research and application is not only central to the energy transition and democracy debate in itself, but is also key in redeeming socio-political dynamics, recently over flooded with post truth political narratives, deteriorating democracies.

In this perspective piece, our aim is to unpack some of the dimensions that we believe are important in discussing energy transitions along the broad spectrum of the concept, the political and the people. We revisit some critical discussions as how we relate to energy, how energy injustices are an end game of political decisions especially in an era of post truth politics and how ultimately the people, are central agents in organizing and leading this transition which not only focuses on green alternatives but on one that also reduces vulnerabilities and inequalities. We believe that several of the dimensions we highlight in this perspective piece fill in some of the research voids in recent literature while representing only some of numerous vital dimensions that need energizing. We have brought these together under the trias of Concept-Politics-People which enable discussions across agency, structure and meaning brought together across descriptive, normative and relational factors (for more details see Figure 1).

FIGURE 1
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FIGURE 1. Agency, structure, meaning; relations, normativity and descriptivity in social theories. Adapted from Sovacool and Hess (2017) under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License.

Our title emphasizes two synergies: first, democratizing energy: highlighting the importance of plurality of disciplines, voices and approaches in energy transitions and democracy principles and praxis; and the latter: energizing democracy; using energy as a means to an end, opening up authoritarian agendas and politically manoeuvred spaces to one that is closer to and governed by the people. Albeit bringing together energy and democracy may provide a “fluid” and “pluralistic” field of research (Szulecki and Overland, 2020), we see this in itself as the added value of energy democracy debate.

Unpacking the Critical Axes in Energy Research

The Concept: Energy

Revisiting the concept of energy allows us to elaborate on its meaning and related aspects which, at times, may go unrecognized and unacknowledged via other analytical approaches (Miller et al., 2013). First and foremost, similar to other scholar’s calls, we claim that we need a redefinition of the concept of energy and a different understanding of how societies relate to and co-evolve with energy in an age of “the great derangement” (Nightingale et al., 2020). Conceptually and somewhat conservatively, most scholarly work to date has envisioned energy as something that “flows in” and “flows out”, interpreting it as a “thing” or a mere “resource” (Huber, 2009)–rather passive stuff that is spiritless (Nelson 2003), essentially raw, brute and dull despite being foundational to life. Instead, the flourishing fields of social science and energy humanities indicate that we need to transcend into a redefinition of energy as a live source, replacing its conceptualization as a prime mover of vitality (Bennett, 2010) thereby giving it a new meaning in terms of its materiality and understanding energy as a social relation interwoven through the material, calorific, geological or topographic aspects (Hoffmann, 2018). This vision is encountered, for example across Māori communities, the Indigenous peoples of New Zealand, where energy is conceptualized in a holistic manner, resembling “a series of relationships in entire ways of life.” (MacArthur and Matthewman, 2018).

Contributions from energy humanities scholarship has, in recent years, established a promising line of research that socially and culturally explores the different ways we interact with energy, wondering the essential need for it (Szeman and Boyer, 2017). Energy researchers therefore have begun to scrutinize transformational behavioral change, to inspire collective action bound by ecological principles (Amel et al., 2017) and investigate instrumental, moral, shared and non-material values to look into intrinsic relations of human/non-human connections (Chan et al., 2018). Furthermore, novel methods rooted in psycho-social methodologies, revealing how people engage with and to energy and climate change, are also emerging (see Hoggett, 2019). Among other topics, there has also been special attention toward empathetic work, listening, collaborative conversations, art, expression and connectivity to nature (Galafassi et al., 2018). Research has also embraced new narratives: those that encourage more intelligent and sustainable engagements with “vibrant matter” that sustains our complex-societies (Tainter, 2011), and those that are ever-so ambitious, to avoid a global carbon lock-in with catastrophic consequences for the most vulnerable of the planet.

The problem is that mainstream energy research often takes the societal “need” for energy for granted and overlooks the fact that energy systems are socially and politically constructed (Shove and Walker, 2014). Particularly, the social scientific study of energy has enabled us to delve deeper into questions of how energy infrastructures are imagined, why they are designed the way they are and how they operate at multiple temporal and spatial scales. Meanwhile such inquiries also inspire further ones such as: who is benefitting from these vital energy flows; and how an object-focused inquiry into assemblages, political economy, and socio-technical shifts can improve our understanding of this “productively chaotic” field (Bridge et al., 2018b; Balmaceda et al., 2019).

Manoeuvring Between Descriptive, Relational, and Normative Tasks

As Van Veelen et al. (2019: 2) suggest, “energy without any social, political, or economic contextual framing, its production and use, historical trajectory, path dependencies, lock-ins, and spatial extent is reduced to its technological aspects: flowing electrons, and engineering and resource challenges.” Critical social science approaches to energy systems, instead, base the analysis across agency, structure, meaning, relations, norms and descriptive tasks (see Figure 1 based on Sovacool and Hess, 2017). While the first three dimensions are linked with the more traditional (descriptive) disciplines of social sciences, relations and norms are rather guided by ethics and social justice. Descriptive claims, however, can also draw attention to moral choices like meaning-making in the hybridity of human/non-human systems as well as our relational values with energy and our interactions encompassing further normative dimensions (Jenkins et al., 2018). In this piece, we bring together the different meanings of how we believe agency, structure and meaning are played out across the three dimensions: the people, the political and the concept of energy itself.

Transition vs. Transformation: Is This the Question?

Similar to the debates that revolve around incremental transition vs. radical transformation in sustainability challenges (Scoones, 2016), analogous discussions emerge regarding pathways for energy transitions. While a narrow definition of resource switching or a wishful technological leapfrogging is often embraced, critical literature indicates that a comprehensive transformation of energy landscape requires new socio-political power relations to counter socio-technical incumbencies avoiding deep decarbonization (Stirling, 2019). This approach is well grounded in action-oriented, transformational climate change science (Fazey et al., 2018).

The evolution of the energy debate, from one being dominated by economic and policy analyses and engineering responses to a wider focus on agency, power and stratification has also triggered multiple contested framings of societal energy challenges (Van Veelen et al., 2019). Despite wishful thinking on the efficacy of transitions, the 2019 Emissions Gap Report (UNEP, 2019) indicates that the world is heading for a 3.2°C temperature rise by the end of the century with G20 nations accounting for 78% of all emissions. Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement fail in terms of ambition, where a threefold reduction of emissions is needed to stabilize the atmospheric system to well-below 2°C and more than fivefold to achieve the 1.5°C target (ibid.). The abrupt decline of emissions driven by Covid-19 pandemic response provides a novel opportunity to rethink the desirability of current energy system and suggest alternatives, although this momentum is unlikely to be sustained in the absence of coordinated downscaling efforts. In this context, the energy transition vs. all-out transformation debate has recently shifted toward the Green New Deal, which seeks to distance itself from mainstream “green economy” arguments. This, Green (er) New Deal emerges as a promising pathway insofar as it diverges away from profit-hungry oligopolies and techno-fixes such as carbon capture or solar engineering. However, unless implemented with a critical vision toward reducing overall metabolism of societies, a global Green New Deal may also risk reproducing the accelerationist business as usual via renewables. Renewable energy alone does not necessarily imply democratic, equal and just access and use since societies could, hypothetically, move to a 100% renewable energy world, that is entirely under corporate control, led by a handful of large and powerful global renewable energy companies (Stephens, 2019). Same goes for local energy, which can be a tool of exclusion under isolationist, xenophobic political contexts. This is where democratizing energy plays a crucial role, in which people have agency as prosumers and hold direct stakes in the decision making of how their energy is generated. In sum, a transformation implying radically changed metabolic dependencies and ultimately challenging the economic growth paradigm itself requires highly ambitious structural, political and social changes that confront the status quo.

Space, Direction, and Time

Spatial, directional and temporal dimensions of the energy debate are much better catered for by critical research today than the recent past. We believe that this is useful, promising and necessary for the following purposes:

Space: In a carbon-constrained world with scarcities (Bridge, 2015) where limits are both real and relational (Kallis, 2019), research on energy geographies serves as an anchor in exploring new energy frontiers for a radically different, sustainable societal re-organization (Baka and Vaishnava, 2020). A switch from the dense, low entropic and geospatially specific fossil fuel-led energy system to a renewable dominant, high entropic, mixed energy provision system, creates new spaces and dynamics in territorial terms (Schiedel and Sorman, 2012) as much as it fuels contestation (Huber and McCarthy, 2017). New frontiers of renewable energy expansion require as much attention as regards the environmental conflicts they produce as fossil fuel production, consumption and distribution systems (Scheidel et al., 2020).

Direction: Exploring the directionality of new forms of energy provision is also very important. Questions concerning the place of origin and final destination of new energy provision systems, on which and whose terms, need to be posed. We must inquire whether the rush to renewables create new spatial fixes and neo-colonial relations by favoring flows from the global South to the global North, from the rural to the urban or between pockets of plenty and none within those broad clusters (McCarthy, 2015).

Time: The speed at which a transition can take place is one of the crucial elements in the transition debate (Sovacool, 2016). Despite global temporal horizons such as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set at 2030 and net carbon neutrality debates picking 2050 as their target, there still seems to be a lack of faith in intergovernmental processes for having failed in the past 3 decades to meet absolute decarbonization objectives. This, we argue, will increasingly be the case in a world ridden with authoritarian populism and nationalist isolationism while facing multiple unknown unknowns that humanity may experience including the on-going and post Covid-19 pandemic itself.

Therefore, we urgently need to create platforms for popular deliberative discussions over where, how and when the objectives that we set out for energy transition are likely to be achieved, and what it is that is ultimately desirable.

The Political: Re-Claiming the Energy Sphere

We claim that confronting the climate crisis beyond slogans requires us to go beyond technical fixes, navigate between descriptive and normative tasks, while also confronting energy injustices with contested politics (Nightingale et al., 2020). Ideally, this implies widening the energy debate about the desirability of multiple pathways through which we imagine more equitable, democratic and sustainable futures. Social, cultural, political, material and immaterial dimensions of energy call for attention to multiple “languages of valuation” (Martinez-Alier, 2009) and value pluralisms in and beyond the energy realm. This value-laden, complex and contested nature of the energy debate makes it an ideal field for putting democratic politics at the center of attention (Burke and Stephens, 2018). Further attention to energy democracy with its deliberative characteristics is perhaps most needed to understand potentials for transition and/or transformation under non-democratic conditions (Delina, 2018).

Energy Security vs. Energy Sovereignty

Energy security, which dominated global debates for a fairly long time, dictates certain transition narratives with priority placed on the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price. However, questions of where the energy comes from and who is in control have long been avoided in these discussions over securitization (Cherp and Jewell, 2011). From renegotiating oil extraction contracts as service provisioning in Ecuador to expanding the extractivist logic as rent sharing in the case of Chinese built dams overseas, securitized narratives of national interest side-line the debates on who controls, regulates and manages energy.a Energy sovereignty contrasts such a framing of energy security by acknowledging uneven power dynamics, values and identities attached to production and consumption.

Bottom-Up Energy Action

The role of community, citizens and local authorities in these democratic energy transitions have been well documented in terms of their transformative potential and nature (Burke, 2018). Advancements in politicizing and understanding community’s roles in the energy debate show that framing responses to energy challenges as a co-evolution of human and more-than-human systems allow for much more rapid transition than top-down cumbersome structures (Islar and Busch, 2016). Opening up of a whole new research field with a clear focus on relationalities and making energy as a public interest is an important step toward that direction (Chilvers and Pallett, 2018). Such initiatives have helped overcome two main hurdles: initially to convince people that climate change is real and important and second to move from acceptance to action while strengthening the idea that community-led action can indeed lead the way. In Europe alone, REScoop (the European federation of citizen energy cooperatives) have over 1,500 European energy cooperatives registered within their network. Moreover, a recent report on the re-municipalization of energy services showed that there were over 370 cases from across the world by the end of 2019 (Kishimoto et al., 2020). This type of community action not only results in a more democratic control, but also increases the quality of services and provide better working conditions to serve the interests of the people and the planet.

The Gendered Nature of Energy Transitions

Although women play a vital role in shaping and driving energy transitions (see, for instance, Allen et al., 2019), this is still far from being the norm. The contemporary energy predicament undervalues and underestimates women’s visions and solutions (Lieu et al., 2020). This landscape often renders women as the most vulnerable group feeling the brunt of unjust energy systems and decisions, with hardly any say on or representation in the directionality of change. Therefore, it is imperative to shed a gender-conscious light on the study of energy-society relations (Ryan, 2014). Gender mainstreaming in energy decision-making and action, both in terms of numbers (representation) and meaningful participation (incorporated voices) need to guide transitions (Winther et al., 2020).

The People: Against Post-truth Energy Politics

Last but not least, the deterioration of democratic processes and the rise of populism over the past decade across the world has given rise to post-truth politics (D’Ancona, 2017). Historically connected with epistemic debates about postmodernity and relativism, post-truth politics today are the lifeline of typical right-wing, populist parties and extremist denialism narratives, and encourage a particular way of doing politics, based on a radically opposite form to scientific methods and inquiry (Stanley, 2018). The late modernity trait of ever-increasing processes of privatization of previously collective affairs and services in the global capitalist economies (Bauman, 2000), makes the particular case of energy transitions debates a fruitful arena for ambivalent and ambiguous narratives (and obviously narrators). The rise of uncertainty and discontent, radically undermining individual aims for collective goals (Bauman 2001) has resulted in collective action becoming increasingly difficult. While the “positional nature of sustainable energy transformation” and value plurality are long-standing topics, how post-truth politics enable and reinforce political polarization in shutting down democratic claims to energy access, control and ownership are still understudied (Fraune and Knodt, 2018). Such distortion of the epistemic field is as much preferred by political interests as they are by private, economic interests (Ruiz Cayuela and Turhan, 2019). Understanding how post-truth politics, as is championed by extremists, affect the role of energy in the context of global democracy requires scrutiny, one which calls for solid, situated knowledge production. Critical social science on energy, working across scales can serve to fight back post-truth politics by showing how distorted bits of knowledge serve to preserve existing structures of social power (Bridge et al., 2018b). We contend that “normative, political and embodied” research strategies (Nightingale et al., 2020) are fundamental to achieve the democratization of energy and defeat the extremists particularly mischievous approach to planetary futures either through denialism or eco-fascism. This requires nothing short of transforming the research practice itself and re-designing it toward “providing adequate food, water, energy, income, education, resilience, voice, jobs, health, and gender and social equity for all, in an ecologically safe operating space for humanity” (Shrivastava et al., 2020: 338).

In practice, the principles of resisting, reclaiming and restructuring have been set as intentional guidelines for confronting post truth politics in action. The most visible resistance, for example has been reflected in the attempts to blocking vs. restoring the Keystone XL pipeline project; which is not only dividing high-level politics in the US but is also urging Canada to reconsider its energy politics in action (Mabee, 2020). Along a similar vein, pressure from advocacy groups has led to half of the public universities in the United Kingdom to divest or pledge to divest from fossil fuels (Taylor, 2020). Reclaiming ownership is also finally playing out, were positive energy districts are emerging in urban centers (JPI Urban Europe/SET Plan Action 3.2, 2020). Several regulatory barriers are also being lifted where in for example in Spain in 2019, the Solar Energy Tax was finally scrapped and a new regulation giving rights to self-production and communal production/management is finally paving way for new models of communal rooftop energy provision in urban communities (BOE, 2019). Restructuring, both in terms of infrastructure and systems, is also slowly making way in the face of the climate emergency. Even though there is still a major restructuring required, BP, a core representative of the fossil lobby, has also recently announced that it is going to shift away from fossil fuels and toward low carbon energy within the next decade (Ambrose, 2020).

Conclusions

In this perspective piece, we offer a pluralist viewpoint from an array of literature such as: climate psychology to energy geographies, to environmental and energy justice as different disciplines which shed light to the contemporary energy debate. We also bring forth several insights from bottom-up initiatives that are rolling forward at tremendous speed, in reclaiming power to the people for democratizing energy projects.

By embracing critical yet care-full scientific principles, our intention has been to unpack several of the dimensions that we believe are important in theory and in operationalization. As the argument goes, we applaud the achievements of bottom-up energy democracy pioneers which energize democratic achievements, while we also highlight the dangers of post-truth energy politics obscuring the agenda with isolationist eco-fascist or techno-utopian fallacies. We highlight the necessity of transcending false promises and not-ambitious-enough-ambitions for a real transformative energy agenda to take off, both in terms of research and action.

A truly transformational energy research needs to go beyond the technical and descriptive while taking on-board critical social science research focusing on agency, structure, meaning while scrutinizing plural understandings and the relations mostly pertaining to the normative. We believe that our role as critical researchers is to nurture this deliberative dialogue with special attention given to differences on how energy transitions may unfold and for whom. Likewise, we feature the importance of discussing power embedded within space, direction and time; gendered dynamics ingrained in voices that are heard that inevitably define core energy decisions and research agendas. This ultimately, urges and prompts those seeking to produce socially relevant energy research to tackle some hard questions on what it means to democratize energy in a period of lockdowns and climate strikes as well as what it means to re-energize the paling democracies around the world today.

Author Contributions

All authors have contributed equally to this paper.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Acknowledgments

Alevgul H. Sorman would like to acknowledge the PARIS REINFORCE project from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 820846 and the María de Maeztu excellence accreditation MDM-2017-0714 of BC3.

Footnote

aFor a global map of environmental (in)justices with over 3,000 cases, see https://ejatlas.org/.

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Keywords: energy democracy, climate crisis, equity, sustainability, energy justice, decarbonization

Citation: Sorman AH, Turhan E and Rosas-Casals M (2020) Democratizing Energy, Energizing Democracy: Central Dimensions Surfacing in the Debate. Front. Energy Res. 8:499888. doi: 10.3389/fenrg.2020.499888

Received: 23 September 2019; Accepted: 29 September 2020;
Published: 28 October 2020.

Edited by:

Joni Jupesta, SMART Research Institute (SMARTRI), Indonesia

Reviewed by:

Jennie C. Stephens, Northeastern University, United States
Matthijs Bogaards, Central European University, Hungary
Felix Butzlaff, Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria
Piergiuseppe Fortunato, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Switzerland

Copyright © 2020 Sorman, Turhan and Rosas-Casals. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Ethemcan Turhan, e.turhan@rug.nl