The term ‘energy democracy’ is often used as an ideal to provide the level playing field for everyone during the transition to renewable energy on a large scale. The word ‘democracy’ is rooted in the Greek word ‘demos,’ which means ‘governance by the people.’ The very idea of governance by the people is based on the concept of choice, so when we look at the term ‘energy democracy,’ what we are literally saying that people should be able to govern the process and choose what energy deliverable system that they want. Of course, with investor-owned utilities, the customer’s choice is limited to programs they can participate in that the utility offers. Indirectly, the people can also choose by electing officials and representatives who support their best interest rather than that of the utility.
With an electric cooperative that is a non-profit, the governance in choice that the people can make is as member-owners of the cooperative. They can let their voices be heard at the cooperative’s meetings, and by electing cooperative board members that represent their best interest. So they have a greater range of participation in terms of energy democracy
While we are transitioning more and more from fossil fuels to renewable energy, we have an opportunity to do more than what has been done before. One thing we do not want to do is replicate models of injustice and limit or take away the democratic part of energy democracy. For example, when we look at the renewable energy industry and the financial plight of most people, energy democracy is far from a reality for most of them. If I live in a mobile home, or the roof to my house is old, and I cannot afford to live anywhere else or to repair my roof, I don’t have much choice if I want to have panels mounted on my roof. Most roof mounted systems are owned by the residential or commercial owner. If I live in an apartment complex, or a mobile home, or a home that does not have a good roof, I may have no other alternative in regards to using solar energy and to be connected to a community-shared solar farm. Of course, that choice means that I’ll always be leasing the use of solar panels but never owning them. If I am a person of means who can afford $30,000-50,000 on the roof that I can afford to repair, I will of course own my panels unless I choose to lease panels instead.
True energy democracy is making sure that all energy users, regardless of their economic status, should have a choice. Some people may think that this a far-fetched idea. However, by engaging all of the stakeholders connected to our energy generation, we can make energy democracy available to all. This is where the rubber meets the roads. This is where we move from rhetoric to reality. Investor-owned utilities can offer subscriptions to low-income customers who meet the federal standard for poverty. Investor-owned utilities can ramp up their energy efficiency programs or look at developing different rate models. State and federal agencies can continue to provide tax credits and can extend them to commercial customers who are landlords. They also need to extend the federal and state tax credits to residential owners as well. We can also have state housing trust fund develop programs to provide forgivable loans or grants to their constituents so that they can repair roofs and/or install solar panels. Philanthropic organizations, such as foundations, can provide funds to their grantee organizations so that they are actually implementing energy democracy and just transitions, rather than just advocating for it. Progress eventually means not only technology, energy generation, or some other external or material thing. Progress for people in these circumstances usually translates into greater democratic and humane gains as well. We must make energy democracy a reality as we transition to renewable energy, and these are the reasons why.