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Addressing Energy Poverty

Some unions in the developing world see the potential for distributed generation as a means to promote electricity access for all. India's New Trade Union Initiative, for example, is developing a campaign for sustainable, affordable, and renewable energy, and notes how centralized power has served the country's dominant producers but not served the people. India's energy consumption is rising dramatically, but more than 400 million residents continue to lack electrical power, and more than 668 million depend on traditional biomass for cooking. Unions in the Philippines have put forward similar arguments.

Renewable energy technologies open up off-grid and mini-grid potential for energy access in poor rural areas. Small hydropower plants, small wind turbines, biogas and other forms of bio-energy, and a range of solar technologies are potentially important tools in the fight against energy poverty. Fulfilling the potential of these technologies will depend on the willingness and capacity of local and national governments to arrange the financing, develop the human skills, and oversee the development and deployment of these technologies. Thus, although distributed energy may provide the most likely means of ending energy poverty, this will happen only if it is developed by public authorities committed to providing affordable access to electrical power.

Energy democracy will require taking greater control over global supply chains so that developing renewable energy in a country or region leads to job creation and social benefits close to home. Today, just a handful of countries and a few dozen companies dominate the global market for solar PV, wind turbines, and many other renewable technologies. Under these conditions, the scaling up of renewable energy will mean that only a limited number of companies and countries—such as Germany, Spain, and China—will enjoy the bulk of the jobs and other economic benefits associated with equipment manufacturing and infrastructure development. (Installation and operations and maintenance work is likely to be more localized.) In a bid to establish a domestic renewable energy industry—and the associated employment—some governments have adopted “domestic content requirements” that compel manufacturers or project developers to source a specified share of equipment (or a portion of overall project costs) from domestic suppliers. These suppliers can be domestic firms, local subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies, or joint ventures between domestic and foreignowned firms, but the key is for suppliers to invest locally rather than import equipment. Countries that have either implemented or are considering such policies include Brazil, Canada, China, Croatia, India, Italy, France, Malaysia, Morocco, South Africa, Turkey, and Ukraine. To be successful, domestic content policies need to be linked to a learning-by-doing process and to be part of comprehensive industrial, research and development, and training and skill-building policies.

Unions are already engaged in the fight to control and localize supply chains. In Ontario, unions like CUPE and Unifor have supported domestic content provisions. But several countries have brought complaints against such policies before the World Trade Organization (WTO)—including against Ontario's Green Energy and Green Economy Act. The WTO's ruling against Ontario in December 2012 (and the subsequent rejection of Canada's appeal in May 2013) could be a harbinger for policies in other countries.


To say that human civilization stands at a crossroads is hardly an overstatement, given the threat of climate change and the likely breach of planetary limits. The struggle to control and radically change how we produce and consume energy will be a crucial political battle in the next decade or two. Presently, nearly all of the economic power and political arrangements are on the side of the fossil fuel companies committed to an “extreme energy” agenda that will expand the use of fossil fuels—including unconventional (read: dirtier) fuels like tar oil and shale gas—in the expectation of tremendous shareholder profit. For the sake of climate stability and social equity, ordinary citizens, unions, and social movements need to organize alternatives to this deeply destabilizing and polarizing agenda.

Meanwhile, renewable energy is poised to grow spectacularly in many countries, but even the most optimistic global assessments are insufficient from the perspective of mitigating climate change. The energy transition that the world needs desperately will happen only if energy policy is brought under greater democratic control, with social and community ownership, and if changes in the system are carefully planned and coordinated. It is technically possible; it needs to be made politically irresistible.

Liberalized energy markets and marketized public utilities and energy companies have led to competition, whereas greater cooperation is needed. As efforts to remunicipalize utilities from Boulder, Colorado, to Berlin, Germany, suggest, this must give way to new public and community-based entities producing renewable energy for social need and not simply for private gain. The struggle to reclaim and restructure the world's energy system is already under way, but it has barely begun. Another energy system is possible, but not inevitable. Energy democracy can and should be a call to arms for unions and other social movements. There is, it seems, no alternative.

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