Photo credits: JosepMonter

If the lesson was not learnt from the 1970s’ oil crisis, it is clear that the future of democracy in Europe revolves around the problem of energy independence. The Ukrainian tragedy delivers an important message: energy independence is a critical asset not only for economic and political power but for democracy too. A recent policy briefing of the Community Power Coalition warns that “wars and conflicts are fueled worldwide by dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources and are often caused by competition for them. We must urgently eliminate this dependence and ensure a just and inclusive transition toward system change that promotes a peoples’ centred sustainable energy model to prevent catastrophic climate change and future military conflicts”. 

This is true for States and governments. But it also holds for families, communities, and workers, as job losses and wage devaluation due to energy-driven inflation demonstrate. At all levels, there cannot be freedom and democracy without energy independence. Energy dependence, on the contrary, undermines human capabilities and emancipation. 

For the European Commission, there is a double urgency to transform Europe’s energy system: ending the EU’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels and tackling the climate crisis. The measures in the REPowerEU plan are meant to achieve this ambition through energy savings, diversification of energy supplies, and accelerated roll-out of renewable energy to replace fossil fuels in homes, industry and power generation. 

While these measures are welcome, it would be useful to clarify that the transition to renewables will not necessarily lead to social-ecological justice. Regardless of critical problems of distributive justice and inequality, renewables risk reproducing the hierarchical and undemocratic architecture of the fossil-fuel political economy. Unsurprisingly, this argument remains a neglected one in EU just transition strategies. Based on the wrong idea that there is a dichotomy between fossil fuels and renewable energy, EU policies focus on the process rather than on the transition outcomes. This is unfortunate since the consequences of the energy transition are not neutral in terms of labour-power and sustainability. 

In 1976 energy policy analyst Amory Lovins coined the term ‘soft energy path’ to describe an energy model alternative to the existing one – the ‘hard path’ – based on fossil and nuclear fuels. The two paths are, according to Lovins, logistically competitive, institutionally incompatible, and culturally antithetical. What ultimately distinguishes them is not their different technical and economic structure but their diverse socio-political impact. 

Like conventional energy production, centralised renewable energy generation and distribution imply large economies of scale where only big corporations can compete, resulting in uneven distribution of its impacts and unequal power relations entailing very few co-determination opportunities for workers and communities. But new technologies offer great potential for the relocation of the energy power around human-scale economies rooted more closely in the communities they serve, allowing the power of the sun and its derivates to be produced and distributed on a scale that matches its use, thus diminishing the need for heavy transmission systems. By decentralising the grid and incentivising people to produce their power from wind, solar rays, biomass, and so on, the socioeconomic dynamic induced by fossil fuels can be turned upside down.

Although the prospect of total disconnection from centralised industrial grids is still difficult to imagine, community-based energy systems could be a realistic alternative to achieving independence for individuals, families, and communities. In addition to providing access to affordable clean energy, community-based energy models can give people a voice to decide on power generation and distribution. Evidence documents cases of firm-based energy cooperatives jointly established by employees and management that provide renewable energy even to industrial plants.

The flourishing of renewable-energy cooperatives and communities in many EU countries, North America and the Global South provides an example of a successful alternative economy, usually characterised by some form of democratic control or shared ownership by the people and communities involved, that shows how democratising the power of energy sources can make an important contribution to sustainable development and its social acceptance. In marking the transition from an extractive energy system to one that is generative and participatory, the spread of renewable energies and the promise of community-based energy models might facilitate the restoration of possible connections between human beings and other forces of nature, involving a sense of limitation and responsibility, an opportunity to savour a return to authentic forms of solidarity and political, economic and social participation.

Critical moments in history might turn into opportunities to reconsider fundamental values in society and policies. In the middle of the energy crisis of the Seventies, a core argument of the European left was that consumerism should have been replaced by austerity. Enrico Berlinguer, for example, noted how “the mass and opinion movements question the essence, the very meaning of development, or what is to be produced, and why (...). The austerity policy as we understand it can eradicate the possibility of continuing to base Italian economic development on the insane swelling of private consumerism (...) and can instead lead to the enjoyment of authentic goods, such as culture, education, health, a free and healthy relationship of people with nature”.

The European Commission has gradually become aware that energy independence could be achieved not only by producing renewable energy but also through energy saving. The energy-saving pillar of the REPowerEU plan goes in this direction, as well as the EU “save energy” communication, where a positive emphasis is placed on energy savings “through personal choices” and on “energy savings partnerships” especially at a local level. The shortcomings of these policy documents include a lack of any reference to consumerism and production of low-quality products as a key determinant of energy waste and a lack of any reference to social partners as relevant actors in energy-saving partnerships. But irrespective of it, workers and trade unions might play an essential role in implementing many of the measures foreseen in this communication and beyond. They should be vocal that the only transition that will ensure a just, sustainable and peaceful Europe is the one that follows a soft energy path. A path empowers labour and communities while protecting the ecosystems they belong.