Opinion: The politics of energy
As millions of citizens struggle with rising energy bills, and large oil companies post record-breaking profits, Dr Marie Claire Brisbois discusses the current landscape and looks at what is changing in the energy sector.
The past six months have been busy for those of us researching the politics of energy. I study the ways that big energy companies use their substantial wealth and political power to shape – and often slow down – shifts to renewable energy as they work to maximise their profitability.
For more than a century, oil companies have had vast political power. They control the energy needed to fuel life as we know it, providing jobs and growth in the process. However, the past two decades have been different. With technological advancement of renewables allowing new companies – and even councils and citizens – to begin producing electricity, and as climate concerns increase, fossil fuel companies have been working hard politically to protect their interests and profitability.
Research in the Sussex Energy Group (SEG) through our CINTRAN (Carbon Intensive Regions in Transition) project has shown that, in practice, big energy companies have been coping with threats to their business models by lobbying to weaken climate targets and maintain fossil fuel-based systems. In the case of UK energy bills, this meant encouraging a support scheme that ensured the public would continue to buy lots of gas at high costs, funded by public debt and fuelling record energy company profits.
Such a massive public spend could have been used to retrofit our homes or finance renewable energy installation. However, those solutions would permanently reduce our demand for expensive fossil fuel energy, transforming not only our energy system, but also the flows of money and political power that go along with it (not to mention making us warmer and healthier).
These types of seemingly obvious solutions have therefore been resisted. SEG research is clear that these kinds of transitions are inherently disruptive for existing companies, but also that they are necessary to redistribute wealth and opportunity, improve quality of life and avert climate catastrophe.
Despite the distress caused by the current crisis, this is a time of tremendous possibility. Renewables are now the cheapest form of energy to produce, giving us the means to address issues of both cost and climate. Technology has also made it possible to transform the model of top-down, corporate-controlled energy provision that has landed us in an expensive energy crisis. Citizen, council and community-owned generation can reduce dependence on expensive energy, and household batteries and electric vehicles make it possible for citizens to actively contribute to the energy system.
Despite the distress caused by the current crisis, this is a time of tremendous possibility.”
Our work at SEG has demonstrated that, especially in the EU where there is supportive legislation, more and more people are becoming active ‘energy citizens’ and cumulatively eating away at the political and economic power of big fossil fuel giants. Models of joint ownership, such as that used by Ripple, allow citizens to co-own large projects like wind and solar farms.
The end of cold, expensive winter days is in sight. However, the work of transforming our energy system is a fundamental challenge for our time, and one that we’ll keep striving to make as equitable, affordable and fast as possible.