Our energy system is riddled with problems – it is causing dangerous changes to our climate while neglecting and further impoverishing many of the poorest in society. But these are not isolated issues that can be tackled one by one – these faults are all part of the overarching failure of a neoliberal approach to energy.
This is an approach that says profit-making enterprises are the best custodians of our collective future and that we should leave environmental and social justice to be championed by markets. But these are merely assumptions that we have been experimenting with for the past few decades. They are not natural or inevitable advances in the way we organise society. It is high time to face up to the fundamental failure of this approach and instead to start exploring the many alternatives available to us.
Five different faults of the neoliberal approach to energy illustrate the problems and alternatives we face.
We were told that the only way to ensure consumer satisfaction is to maximise competition between different energy providers. But this ignores the risks and costs that come with competition, including exploitation of supply chains and price obfuscation tactics. It also exaggerates the benefits – energy prices are high and consumer satisfaction is at rock bottom. We should abandon the fiction of competition and seek cooperative ways to achieve quality energy services.
Our privatised energy sector is failing to put money into either vital new infrastructure or research and development for new energy technologies. The theory predicted that private companies would be efficient and innovative, but didn’t foresee that those companies might prefer to inflate executive pay packages and investors’ asset values. We should reimagine the role of strategic public investment in energy that has been so successful in the past.
We care about our environment, and we know that our energy system is gradually contributing to its decay. But the main way we engage with these issues is by passively paying the green levies that form a part of our monthly energy bills. This system creates a disjoint between the citizens who pay for an energy transition and the benefits that it brings. We should take inspiration from examples of direct involvement of citizens in empowering energy democracies.
Power in the UK is generated in a small number of very large plants. This unfairly advantages fossil fuel energy sources and discriminates against renewables. It also makes us far more vulnerable to shocks. With all of our eggs in a small number of baskets climate impacts are more likely to be disruptive and there are unavoidable risks to imported fossil fuel supplies. Decentralising our system would make it cleaner and more stable.
At the moment we allow our energy system to produce tragic consequences – fuel poverty and winter deaths – and merely attempt to mitigate the impacts after the event. We rely on energy company obligations and piecemeal government payments to limit the damage to society. The statistics show we’re not doing a great job. By focusing on prevention rather than treatment we could design out social injustices in our energy system and secure the right of each citizen to sufficient energy.
We can achieve wellbeing, social justice, and environmental sustainability for all, and the energy system is a big part of that. But when a system is failing at its foundations we need to start considering the systemic alternatives, not just the palliatives that will sustain the status quo a little bit longer.
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