For real environmental justice, our energy systems must be decentralized

Decentralized renewable energy systems are a “power”-ful dual solution to our environmental and social ills

The growing threat of climate change has, for decades, pushed us to reconsider current models of economic development to chart a path towards long-term sustainability. Knowing this will inevitably require a transition to a net-zero economy, stakeholders and climate action groups worldwide have mobilized in support of power generation that is exclusively reliant on carbon-free, renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal energy. 

Indeed, the renewable energy push has been framed as the ultimate remedy to one of the gravest threats facing humanity. And this notion does not lack merit. But, before accepting it outright, we must ask ourselves: if we do survive the climate crisis, what type of world do we ultimately want to live in? One that is simply climate-stable, ecologically sound, and biodiverse? Or one that is characterized by both these environmental ideals and by conditions of social justice, universal welfare, and equitable livelihoods? 

If you, like many others, favour the second option, I challenge you to join the growing movement of young leaders pushing for the inclusion of the word “decentralized” into our calls for renewable energy systems. Analogous to a branching network of roads rather than a one-way highway, a  “decentralized” energy system is one in which energy is channeled from multiple supply points to select nearby receivers rather than from a single supply point to many distant receivers.

Without decentralization, we risk re-articulating our entire energy model along the same lines of power, corruption, and greed that underpin a monopoly-driven system of power generation that has failed 940 million people worldwide who still lack access to electricity. 

Most importantly, centralized power generation, in the form of large publicly or privately owned fossil-fuel-fired power plants, nuclear power plants, and hydroelectric dams, lies at the heart of a fundamentally flawed economic model — one that strips small businesses of market potential, physically displaces communities residing in and around resource-rich lands, and contributes to gross inequalities in global wealth distribution. To think that a switch to a centralized model of renewable energy will, by nature of rescuing us from climate devastation, also salvage us from the economic and social injustices of the day, is optimistic at best and ignorant at worst. 

As stated by Henry David Venema, vice president of business development at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, “[r]enewable energy does not ensure a positive environmental management outcome, but with sound physical and institutional design, renewable energy contributes positively to all the environmental management drivers associated with poverty alleviation.”

But how, precisely, can decentralized renewable energy systems provide a dual solution to our environmental and social ills? The answer lies in community-run energy cooperatives which, with adequate government investment, can independently harness the energy from our thankfully pervasive supplies of sun and wind. 

Characterized by voluntary, open membership and democratic member control, renewable energy cooperatives represent the antithesis of a top-down corporate governance model. Renewable energy cooperatives enable collaborative community ownership over energy supplies and providing low-skilled, yet dignified, jobs to thousands. What’s more? By “decentralizing” electricity networks, not only in a governance but also in a geographic sense, we can significantly reduce the required infrastructure and energy for channeling electricity from centralized distribution points to geographically distant receivers, making electricity generation more efficient and affordable overall.

With these promised benefits, it is not surprising that the push for renewable energy cooperatives is already well underway, with groups mobilizing to provide affordable clean energy to communities in various parts of the world, from Kenya, to Nepal, to Bolivia. While such grassroots energy entrepreneurship is certainly a step in the right direction, we can only hope for it to become the dominant form of energy supply when adequate public and private finances are invested into truly developing decentralized solutions for all. 

Experts have already stated that transitioning to decentralized energy systems will be one of the key success factors for achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 7 before 2030, with mini grids being touted as the primary solution to global energy poverty.

With the climate crisis occurring in tandem with long-standing crises of unequal wealth distribution, global labour exploitation, and widespread poverty, we need to look towards solutions that offer answers to more than just the environmental challenges we face. Without doing so, we will miss out on an unprecedented opportunity to restructure our flawed ways, so that if we do finally “reach the other side,” we can say it was, indeed, for the purpose of a world worth saving.

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