New Definitions: Energy Democracy

Ryan Pollin for Zondits, October 13, 2015. Image credit: Sara


The term democracy gets thrown around a little bit. For general purposes, a system is democratic when each of its constituent members is involved with decision-making. Democracy is good for lots of reasons – chiefly that it decentralizes power, so that everyone’s opinion is valuable, which ripples to a multitude of other benefits, including limiting the latitude for a few people to dominate the decision-making process.

But there are only a handful of places where these ideals of democracy play out, and they don’t all work well. Our government is supposed to act like a democracy, but in many ways it doesn’t work that way. Our workplaces our not typically democratic–unless you are lucky enough to be a part of a cooperative, and families tend not to be good democracies, either. But a new arena for democracy could to be emerging.

Enter the energy democracy. It’s a term being used by the likes of Richard Kauffman, the energy czar of New York leading the REV process, the Institute for Local Self Reliance, and others as we all envision the possibilities of energy and electricity in the age of easily accessible distributed generation technologies. Why have your energy source chosen for you by a utility, why not have utilities act as platform providers upon which many buyers and sellers interact freely?

For a hundred years in the United States, electricity has been a one-way service provided from utilities to consumers. Well, what if each (or many) consumers had their own means of generating electricity? Suddenly there is no longer a single energy provider, but millions of providers all mixing and mingling to match their produced energy with the energy needs of consumers. It’s awfully different from today’s electricity grid, but it’s one of the guiding ideas of the New York REV process and what the industry terms “Utility 2.0.”

Call it a vision for more resilient communities, or a less hierarchical or monopolized economy, or just a new way to market distributed generation, but energy democracy is becoming increasingly important – because it’s becoming increasingly practical and affordable. Better yet, it strengthens the appeal of distributed energies like solar and wind, and opens up new pathways to address our urgent need to revolutionize the way the world creates and uses energy to mitigate climate change.

Read more on energy democracy from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.