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Repowering Democracy: Community participation in the energy transition

Dr Julie MacArthur of the University of Auckland addressed a workshop on community ownership and clean energy on Thursday, 9 January 2020

Hosted by Dr Amanda Slevin and Professor John Barry of the Place-based Climate Action Network (P-CAN), the interactive session addressed energy democracy and the role of local communities in making a just transition to a system based on renewable power.

Dr MacArthur pointed out that the transition to clean power is not necessarily going to be democratic: it was perfectly possible that authoritarian governments could impose a transition while retaining central control, for example.

A democratic transition, furthermore, means more than simply installing community owned renewable power sources: it would involve democratic political power too, and would extend not just to the generation of electricity, but to the ownership of the grid, transportation, charging points, and other infrastructural issues, as well as an emphasis on low-carbon employment options.

If democracy is to be repowered along with the grid, certain questions need to be asked, said Dr MacArthur: “who controls the transition, what variant are we going to get, one with same actors doing more or less same things, or opened up to people and groups not usually empowered – including women, and indigenous communities?”

Dr MacArthur set out a range of possible models for reclaiming democratic ownership, including co-operative ownership, community benefit companies, municipalisation, and a return to nationalised, public ownership of the whole energy system. 

Inviting the attendees to participate in thinking the issues through, Dr MacArthur emphasised the importance of bringing society and local communities along with the process of transition. This should take the form of something more than just a token 'consultation': decision-making power could be delegated to the citizens affected. An "authoritarian route may be appealing in terms of getting things done quickly, but there is the danger of a backlash".

Calling on examples from the UK, Canada and New Zealand, Dr MacArthur illustrated different ways of building citizen participation into the renewable electricity system. Citing a Scandinavian example, she added that in Denmark, wind turbines have become a tourist attraction, with tours, educational boat trips - and even stag parties - visiting a co-operatively owned off-shore power plant. 

For more on the work of Queen's under the theme of Sustainability, visit this page.