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Engaging energy citizens to advance the low carbon just transition

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By Yousra Salem

· 6 min read

Families grappling with the energy crisis

In the bustling halls of the energy conference, I found myself seated across from women in various fields of energy and sustainability. Upon hearing my colleague’s exasperated sighs when the speaker mentioned the relentless burden of rising energy bills, we engaged in open conversations, reaching out to more women at neighboring tables. Our discussions about the future of energy sparked deeper dialogues that went beyond conventional energy discourse, revealing unexpected narratives and connections between energy and human needs.

Desperation led another woman to make a tough call – instructing her children to reduce study hours to save on energy bills. “We used to take electricity for granted,” she reflected, frustration evident. “Now, every flick of the switch feels like a gamble with our budget.” The constant worry about making ends meet weighed heavily on her shoulders, especially in winter, adding to the complexity of every critical decision for her family's well-being. These stories ignited my thoughts about the intricacies of our energy system and its fitness for purpose; problems with affordability and access, our basic needs will continue to clash with other aspirations of development and education to secure a better future. The persistent energy crisis hints at a potential setback for people’s progress, notably lower income groups impacting the broader economy by jeopardizing future generations’ possible contributions to society.

As we confront these energy challenges, we must never forget that we are racing to save both the planet and the economy. Reinventing energy demands rapid carbon emission cuts, expanding renewable use, and reshaping production and consumption. Creating inclusive spaces for people to participate ensures meeting socioeconomic needs while safeguarding the environment. Energy citizens face helplessness due to rising prices and inadequate subsidies, highlighting moral imperatives grounded in justice, fairness, and human rights.

The fragility of the current energy system

Industrialization and fossil fuel combustion have significantly raised global atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas levels. Consequently, climate warming has accelerated, leading to more frequent and intense extreme weather events like sea level rise, desertification, ecosystem loss, torrential rainfall, food shortages, and forced migration. These are direct results of human-induced climate change. These trends are likely to worsen under carbon-intensive systems. Some countries will continue to grapple with mounting challenges, including grid outages and power cuts during climate disasters and extreme weather events, as witnessed in recent years. This leads to extensive areas enduring prolonged energy shortages. Addressing these impacts is a top priority, necessitating systemic solutions to curb rising temperatures and promote local innovation in reducing fossil fuel dependency, enhancing resilience, and averting catastrophic and irreversible consequences.

Furthermore, the declining fossil fuels supply, which some energy analysts term “peak oil,” will fundamentally impact the energy system. Individuals often misunderstand peak oil; it doesn't signify oil is running out. It primarily concerns the decline in oil production (as remaining reserves are increasingly difficult and costly to exploit) and the persistent turmoil in oil markets, urging customers to seek stable options to meet the energy demand of the growing world population.

Fossil fuels addressed fuel poverty through centralized, top-down planning with a technocentric focus and one-size-fits-all solution detached from people’s diverse needs and experiences on the ground; consequently, they have failed to meet the growing demands for affordable energy. Regulations aimed to lower energy prices through market competition. However, with no success in a profit-maximizing system, it lacks the incentive to drive a change in lowering prices and bills. Therefore, it couldn’t offer solutions to energy poverty and rising prices wreaking havoc on people’s lives and exacerbating injustices for the fuel poor.

Access to a clean, affordable, secure energy supply highlights the current system’s constraints. As we embark on a structural change to construct a fairer, greener future, we must initiate and develop alternatives rooted in different values by prioritizing people in the energy transition, diversifying energy solutions to address varying needs and income levels, and empowering energy citizens to engage actively in combating climate change.


Community Energy unveils solutions to complex problems

The centralized approach to energy production obscures the connection between energy supply and demand, causing consumers to lose sight of and disregard the impacts of their energy choices. With limited market options and a lack of diverse approaches to address different needs, energy use is primarily viewed in financial terms as a progressively costly commodity. Our capacity to shape energy sources is severely restricted, and our control over who benefits from its provision is non-existent.

Local community energy schemes allow us to generate electricity through community renewable energy projects rather than buying it from a big supplier. People can come together to take action on climate change and social justice by installing solar panels for electricity generation on properties, helping people reduce their energy bills, tackling fuel poverty, and reducing carbon emissions. Other projects might explore alternative non-solar-related methods. Some community energy groups are more interested in education around energy, net zero, and social inclusion; others are doing heat projects, and some are interested in electric vehicles or helping people with energy efficiency advice. This facilitates varying forms of community involvement; it is a pluralistic sector encompassing a wide range of technologies (solar, hydro, and others), social enterprises, funding models, actors, and goals, opening broader market opportunities to enable the diversity we need in energy. 

Expanding market options and engaging new entrants will empower local actors to address their issues and offer solutions for all to ensure no one is left behind in the energy transition. If we consider market structures outside of energy, like choosing between a small bakery and a big supermarket, consumers have more choices for competitive prices. Additionally, energy citizens will increasingly participate in decarbonizing the economy, creating local employment opportunities, generating investment returns within the community, and, most importantly, raising awareness of consumption behaviors and promoting responsible, sustainable living.

Traditionally, the UK has seen few citizen-led renewable energy projects compared to other European countries like Germany and Denmark. Germany's community energy policy was interwoven with broader national targets for a long-term energy transformation, ensuring more precise planning and decision-making. The Feed-in-tariff incentivized renewable energy development, small-scale technologies, and sociotechnical innovation. In the UK, only 12% of energy comes from renewables as fossil fuels power heating and transport. Government reports suggest community energy has potential ten times greater, but restrictive market structures and policies limit community participation, hindering its full potential.

The local electricity bill is still being debated in parliament, and community energy groups are calling upon the government to engage in discussion and reform market rules to accommodate more participation in the people-led energy transition. The government is open to these discussions and some MPs are working out the details. Community energy could create the foundation for the significant infrastructural and cultural change we need to address the threat of climate change, energy affordability and energy security.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Yousra Salem is a sustainability professional specializing in supply chain and energy. Yousra started her career in oil and gas, working globally in 8 countries. After seeing the ecological crisis with her own eyes, Yousra decided to move to sustainability and work to overturn socio-environmental injustices.

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