Local Energy, Local Democracy

David Cromwell


their 1996 book "Who Owns the Sun?", solar energy campaigners Daniel

Berman and John O’Connor rightly declared that "democracy is a false

promise if it does not include the power to steer the energy economy". It’s

a crucial point that not even Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth appear to have

grasped; should we really be leaving it to the oil companies to create the solar


Climate change is arguably the greatest threat facing humanity. Society’s

addiction to fossil fuels – hard-wired by corporate greed and government

handouts to the fossil fuel industry in the form of tax benefits and subsidies -

is driving us relentlessly down a highway of self-destruction. Diverting from

such a suicidal course will require a twin revolution: switching to renewable

energy generation and, at the same time, boosting the power of local democracy.

This may seem an odd combination at first sight, but the reasoning behind it

encapsulates precisely why opposing economic globalization and replacing it with

an ecological alternative is so important for the well-being of people and the


Here in the UK, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has just told

the British government in a new report that carbon dioxide emissions must fall

by 60 per cent in the next 50 years if there is to be any realistic possibility

of even "a tolerable effect on the climate". But how likely are such

"huge cuts" while transnational corporations dictate how society

produces and consumes energy? According to the San Francisco-based Transnational

Resource and Action Center (TRAC), "Big Oil’s long-term strategy is still

dictated by the urge to explore". New exploration as well as oil or gas

pipelines threaten the survival of peoples in the Amazon basin, Southeast Asia,

and North America. BP Amoco, the world’s largest solar company, is committed to

spending $5 billion in the next 5 years on oil exploration and production in the

sensitive environment of Alaska alone. This dwarfs the trifling sum of $45

million recently spent on its solar business division. Meanwhile, Shell proudly

proclaims that it is "focusing [its] energies on developing [renewable

energy] solutions" even as its annual reports project fossil fuel growth

and depict maps highlighting the global reach of its oil and gas enterprises.

Shell’s investment in renewables is only 10 per cent of the oil giant’s spending

on hydrocarbon exploration ($1 billion annually), 0.8 per cent of its global

investment ($12 billion) and only 0.06 per cent of its global sales ($171

billion): a drop in the barrel, in other words. Other companies such as the

combined Exxon-Mobil, the world’s largest oil corporation, are doing even less

to develop renewables.

In the global economy, the unsustainable expansion of corporate activities into

ever-larger markets means that there is an almost irresistible force driving the

formation of mega-companies of all types. Growth demands further growth, and if

companies do not expand in today’s "internationally competitive"

markets they stagnate and die. Smaller enterprises are swallowed up whole or

trampled underfoot in the stampede to maintain or increase returns on short-term

investment, or even simply to repay loan capital. The business of generating

energy is no different in this respect to other industrial operations; there is

an inherent trend away from small-scale, community-based enterprises towards

large-scale, centralised operations. It should therefore come as no surprise

that oil companies are engaged in a frenzy of mergers in a similar manner to

news corporations, investment firms and biotech industries. Describing the

ongoing BP Amoco merger, The Independent newspaper in London coolly reported

that "the existing cost reduction plan involves 10,000 redundancies, of

which 6,000 have already been achieved". At Exxon and Mobil, job losses

will exceed 9,000. As TRAC notes, Exxon had already been cutting jobs at the

rate of 4 per cent every year for over a decade.


than pursuing such a destructive energy policy – in which corporations continue

to overload the atmosphere with global-warming gases, destroy jobs and damage

sensitive ecosystems – society could be using local renewable energy sources.

These come in many forms: wind, wave, solar, geothermal, small-scale hydro,

biomass fuels. Some of these are available at every location around the globe.

Consequently, small-scale decentralised economies would be able to make use of a

range of local energy sources for local needs. On the other hand, large

industrialised economies with urbanised centres are locked into centralised

power sources that convert fossil fuel or nuclear power into electricity, which

is then transmitted over hundreds or even thousands of miles. This is extremely

wasteful: two-thirds of the energy in fossil fuels is lost in the production and

transmission process. Electricity is an indefensible luxury for 90 per cent of

our energy uses. Lighting and heating homes, for example, can be made much more

energy-efficient by adopting "passive" solar building designs,

low-energy lights and tight insulation.

Energy efficiency is vastly underexploited. US journalist Ross Gelbspan points

out that "as a bridge to a new energy era", the economics panel of the

UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified a number of steps,

called "no regrets" policies. At virtually no cost, these could reduce

greenhouse gas emissions by around 20 per cent. They include such simple steps

as implementing known efficiency and conservation techniques, planting more

trees (to absorb carbon dioxide), and instituting international standards for

energy-efficient appliances. Such measures should be encouraged at the same time

as a switch to green energy. Removing fossil fuel and nuclear tax credits and

subsidies which currently promote the destruction of the global environment and

diverting them to windmill farms, home-based fuel cells, photovoltaic panels and

hydrogen fuel plants would provide the necessary boost to propel renewable

energy into the big league of global industry.  Renewable energy analyst

Scott Sklar estimates that for every million dollars spent on oil and gas

exploration, only 1.5 jobs are created; for every million on coal mining, 4.4

jobs. But for every million spent on making solar water heaters, 14 jobs are

created. For manufacturing solar electricity panels, 17 jobs. For electricity

from biomass and waste, 23 jobs.


modern "civilisation", the population tends to cluster in large cities

in which a high-consumption lifestyle is encouraged. Profligate energy use,

international trade and the concentration of millions of people in urban centres

are therefore intimately linked. This is why a decentralised, solar-based

economy must go hand in hand with a revitalised locally-based democracy; one

cannot succeed without the other. What would such a society look like? Based on

suggestions presented by Berman and O’Connor in "Who Owns the Sun?", a

blueprint for a solar society would incorporate:

  • Public

    ownership of energy – just as is the case with water or schools in some

    countries and American states.

  • Massive

    investment in renewable energy technologies and building design, by

    diverting tax breaks and subsidies from fossil fuel and nuclear energy.

  • Access

    to loans, tax credits and rebates for photovoltaics, solar water heating,

    wind and small-scale hydro generators, and other forms of renewable

    energy-generating and energy-saving technologies.

  • Net

    metering (i.e. monitoring electricity flows) and rate-based incentives, so

    that independent home- and business-based electricity producers are paid the

    same price for electricity they supply to the grid as they would be required

    to pay for the grid power if they used it.

  • Partnerships

    between industry, government and local communities to oversee the new green

    industries, in order to ensure that the public knows what is being produced

    in a factory, by what means, and how any wastes and by-products will be


  • New

    government legislation to ensure that all this is carried out.


of the above will happen if we simply leave it to the giant oil corporations to

tinker with solar renewables – as Shell and BP Amoco are doing – while they

bulldoze ahead with exploration and production of new oil and gas reservoirs.

Citizen control over a decentralised solar economy is in direct competition with

the profit imperative of such large companies. The present policy of governments

and mainstream environmental organisations is to leave it up to fossil-fuel

corporations and big utility companies to bring about a solar revolution. As

Berman and O’Connor warn: this will "guarantee that the coming Solar Age

will arrive a century behind its time, and that it will be every bit as

autocratic as today’s fossil-fuel economy". Decentralised renewable energy

directed by local communities will only be won at the expense of the private

energy monopolies who are currently engaged in cut-throat competition to protect

and expand their share of the energy market. Warlike metaphors abound in company

rhetoric. Earlier this year, Shell group chairman Mark Moody-Stuart glowingly

described his company as "a great fleet of destroyers and torpedo

boats". It’s time to scuttle this fossil-fuel armada and launch a new fleet

of solar-driven vessels fit for the twenty-first century.


Cromwell is an oceanographer and writer in Southampton, UK. His first book

"Private Planet" will be published later this year by Jon Carpenter

(Charlbury, UK).