Taking Back The Grid: Struggles For Energy Democracy In Canada And Beyond
By: Alex Griffin and Sarah Vukelich
The term “energy grid” typically refers to electricity networks, which move power from suppliers to our homes and communities and originate from multiple sources—coal, gas, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind.
We’re actually surrounded by a multiplicity of “grids”—networks of energy flows which sustain our lives. We have systems of agriculture and food distribution, streams and rivers and reservoirs and water pipes; long-distance communication through the internet and postal services, transportation via bike lanes and train tracks and highways. As with all those other grids, access to energy is a common good. Electricity is as integral to the creation of a commons as healthy water and food or vibrant public spaces.
Frameworks for “energy democracy” and “energy justice” have been developed by researchers, organizations, and social movements. They vary somewhat, but are grounded in the value of asserting social control over energy generation, distribution, and waste disposal; advocates often envision publicly and/or locally-owned energy systems, created to provide safe, sustainable, and affordable power. These struggles are further motivated, of course, by the dire need for a rapid transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewables, a shift that is fundamentally impossible within the logic of the capitalist market.
Energy must be wrested from private hands, in ways that protect the rights of workers and unions, work to dismantle global systems of imperialism, honor the rights and title of Indigenous peoples to their lands, and support the growth of vibrant communities.
Energy democracy advocates often look to decentralization as a strategy for increasing social power—though many also hold complex and nuanced understandings of its promise and pitfalls, which vary with the local context. One notable downside is that decentralization can often be tied to deregulation and other neoliberal policies. While such measures may at first create space for cooperatives, they ultimately expand the private sector and can strengthen the dominant market logic of capitalist firms, creating the conditions to both squeeze out community-owned companies and shape them from within.
Furthermore, in some places energy cooperatives are an eco-bourgeois phenomenon, in which those who can afford the upfront investments are able to benefit from ownership, while costs increase for those remaining on the grid. Corporations with financial clout, too, have the option of sourcing cheaper renewable energy—for example, by paying to leave the local utility and buying electricity on the wholesale market. Many of these options aren’t readily available to poor communities and people of color.
Movements for energy democracy, where they are possible, may also include campaigns to democratize utilities, which can either target state-owned enterprises (seeking greater transparency and accountability) or aim to “municipalize” or nationalize privately-owned power companies. Unlike decentralizing strategies, these battles have significant potential to redistribute wealth—both in the energy sector itself, and by financing other programs and projects for the public good. On the other hand, poor cities seeking to municipalize may not be able to wage expensive legal battles with corporate utilities.
Energy democracy is being used and redefined by social movements fighting against privatization and for decentralized green power across the world, from Nigeria to South Africa to Germany to Canada. The NYC-based global network Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is doing significant work to build this framework into the political strategy of unions internationally. And in the US, The Next System Project recently developed a “deck of strategies” that movements can use to support the transition to renewable, worker-owned, and/or socialized energy systems, from municipalizing grids to revolving loan funds to solar cooperatives.
For the next few months, we’re partnering with The Leap: System Change on a Deadline to publish dispatches from the world of energy justice, highlighting related projects and debates in Canada. We’ll look at the involvement and critical importance of unions and Indigenous nations in these efforts.
And we’ll explore some of the limitations, possibilities, and tensions of different energy frameworks.
For example, what does it mean to use the language of democracy—or “justice,” or “sovereignty”—to talk about reclaiming our energy systems? What political analyses and strategies inform the use of each of these terms? What does de-colonizing energy look like? How are these debates playing out in the global South?
Finally, the emphasis on energy as an avenue for radically transforming society can be limiting. How do we engage with the green transition without undermining other urgent needs? Where does it fit into the broader struggle for full socialism? How is organizing around energy democracy connected to other fights to expand essential public goods and services in Canada?
In posts to come, we’ll be exploring some of these questions and many more—and, as well as sharing stories about how communities in Canada are starting to answer them. Stay tuned.