Power for the people
The UK is currently in the throes of an energy crisis driven by volatile and unstable natural gas supply. With the price cap set to rise tomorrow by 54% (having already risen beyond affordability for millions of people in October), millions more who were already struggling with fuel and wider poverty face being plunged into total destitution. Layer into this the spiral of mental and physical stress that absolute poverty entails, and the ice-cap of debt that will inevitably thaw on top of everything, and we face not just a crisis of energy, but a massive crisis of social justice that had already been steadily worsening throughout the pandemic. That’s before we even get to climate.
To address this from the energy side of things, a few essential fixes have been suggested, all of which will play some role or other in mitigating the worst impacts in future. The first of those is direct financial support for those most affected by rising energy bills. This will be extremely important in the short-term to help tide people over and is a matter of urgency, alongside a reinstatement of the universal credit uplift at the very least. With the Chancellor’s spring statement less than promising on this front, there is a desperate need to maintain political pressure to this end to get support to people who can’t afford to wait until the autumn.
The second is accelerating a mass retrofit programme to improve energy efficiency and bring down energy bills from the ground-up. Given how poor the UK’s housing stock is where energy efficiency is concerned — we boast some of the worst housing efficiency credentials in Europe — this is a crucial solution that will have long-term climate benefits, too. The cheapest energy is the energy you don’t use, as the saying goes, and this doesn't have to be ridiculously expensive either (not doing so since David Cameron scrapped the “green cap” in 2013 is a large part of the reason why we’re in this mess at all).
The third is accelerating the rollout of domestic renewables, to better insulate us from international shocks such as the current Russian invasion of Ukraine and wean us off gas altogether. This is the bigger, longer-term need, and will require a massive push on electrification. Fortunately, that push and electrification can go hand-in-hand to create a raft of other benefits for people, too.
Each of these is critical and ultimately has to happen. By getting them done at scale and pace, we can protect the most vulnerable people from further hardship, improve health, reduce inequalities, and bring down emissions all in one. These things also require masses of jobs too, if that’s your thing. In terms of bang-for-buck, few policy packages are more urgent and potentially impactful for people and planet alike in the UK at this moment in time.
For the clear benefit of these important measures, however, a fundamental issue remains that is (1) getting in the way of pursuing them at the scale we need to, and (2) likely to lead to history repeating somewhere down the line. That issue is how and what we do energy for at all.
Energy in the UK (and in plenty of other places) remains privatised and operates predominantly for profit. Since utilities were taken out of public ownership across the late 80’s and early 90's, the UK energy market has mostly served a small number of multinational, planet-busting fossil fuel-adjacent investors in a market dominated by the Big 6. At least partly because of this, we’ve grown to accept energy today first and foremost as a commodity to be bought and sold, best governed by market forces that are currently failing before our eyes to devastating effect for lowest-income people, communities and the planet alike.
But energy is so much more than this. In the right hands it is a seriously transformative thing, especially the clean energy revolution we stand on the brink of at this moment in time. Clean energy is essential to combatting the climate crisis, but it can also bring down bills for people; improve health and housing and wellbeing; alleviate poverty and inequalities; create new jobs and opportunities and bring power and wealth into communities in lots of different places in lots of different ways. Without question, clean energy can serve a much, much bigger social and planetary purpose than it does under the current prevailing orthodoxy, if only we’re willing to be bold about it.
The problem is that, while energy — clean or otherwise — is still privatised and subservient to the profit margins of multinationals and their big money backers, the scope of what we can do with that energy is restricted and the likelihood of crises like the one we’re in now repeating is substantial. This is why even bigger renewbale installations have such limited community benefit (if any at all). You will always have winners and losers when your primary aim is the maximisation of profit, and those at the sharp end will almost always tend to be the same people: low-income, working class, people of colour, people with disabilities and particularly women across those groups. This is of course wrapped up in a wider addiction to capitalism, but it poses big problems for any hope of a low-carbon transition that leaves no-one behind. You’re unlikely to achieve any kind of justice under a fundamentally unjust system, with only the beneficiaries of injustice pulling the strings, and greening inequalities isn’t good enough. If we have to first satisfy a failing and harmful energy market that relies on extraction and exploitation, and which remains beholden to the whims of fossil fuel barons whether we like it or not, we will always be restricted in unlocking its real potential.
In time, I think we will come to regret persevering with this capitalist, market-addicted model of energy more than we know. Not only are we exacerbating virtually every social and climate justice issue you can imagine; we’re missing out on tonnes of the enormous social and planetary good it could be doing, if only we had the self-awareness to admit the current failings of the privatised energy model and address them head-on, rather than handing more money and power to extortionately wealthy companies, propping up a model that is failing before our eyes and that ultimately got us here in the first place.
If we want to do something bigger with the opportunity we have at this formative historic moment, to avoid future crises while also unlocking new ways of doing energy that could be genuinely transformative for us socially, economically and environmentally, and to protect those on the precipice of irreversible destitution today, we need to seriously reckon with what we see as the fundamental purpose of energy. At the very least, we have to ask ourselves: can we do better than the way we do energy now? Whatever your political leaning, as prices soar and plunge millions into complete destitution, I think invariably the answer to this question, deep down, is yes.