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Moving towards ethical energy

A question that seems to garner a lot of debate whenever the topics of climate change and peak oil are raised is what our future sources of energy might look like. This is a common feature of groups involved in the Transition movement, since the vast majority of us in the north depend so much on finite sources of fossil fuels to power our modern, civilised lifestyles. Ever since the advances of the industrial revolution allowed us to harness the power of coal and oil, we have built our society around the potential of fossil fuels to provide us with the concentrated energy necessary for the processes involved in heavy industry. These days, access to affordable, reliable electricity is seen by many as a basic human need.

It’s now undeniable that the fossil fuels that provide so much of our energy carry a heavy environmental and social burden that isn’t reflected in the bottom line of the corporations involved in the exploitation of these resources. The huge profits being made by energy corporations are at the expense of those communities harmed by the dangerous processes involved in the extraction of fossil fuels, even before greenhouse gas emissions are taken into account.

The problems with non-renewable energy are many and varied. Mining and burning coal poisons the air, the water and the land. Eighty percent of conventional oil reserves are owned by state-owned entities controlled by oppressive regimes. Extracting unconventional oil from harder-to-reach places results in spills that destroy valuable ecosystems which traditional communities depend on. Fracking for natural gas contaminates groundwater with a secret cocktail of hydraulic fracturing fluids. Mining uranium ore for nuclear energy creates pollution and disease around mining sites, and accidents at nuclear plants can have catastrophic impacts on neighbouring communities. Even sources of energy presented as possible solutions for reducing carbon emissions can have negative associations. Increasing the use of biofuels and biomass has resulted in the displacement of rural communities in the south to grow energy crops.

The best way to avoid using unethical sources of energy is to generate your own. At Grow Heathrow, Transition Heathrow’s off-grid community food growing site in Sipson, we generate our electricity from solar panels and a home-made wind turbine. When we charge up our mobiles, we know exactly where that power is coming from. It is not in our interest to use harmful sources of energy, since we would be the first to feel any harmful effects. The closer to the point of use that energy is generated, the more incentive there is on the consumer to use clean sources of energy.

It’s at the community level where this approach has the potential to have the biggest impact. Across the UK, community-owned renewable energy projects are starting to pop up, providing villages and neighbourhoods with their own ethical sources of energy. But progress on this is painfully slow, especially when compared to the rest of northern Europe — in Denmark, an incredible 80 percent of wind turbines are owned by community cooperatives. Electricity generation in the UK is still dominated by the “Big 6” energy companies — Centrica, EDF, E.ON, Npower, Scottish Power, and Scottish & Southern. While there is still profit to be made from unethical and unsustainable energy, the Big 6 will continue to base their business model around them, at the expense of future generations.

The good news is that for many climate justice activists, climate is no longer the front line of resistance in the UK — there is a recognition that in order to tackle climate change, radical social change is needed. Like movements in the global South where resistance to IMF austerity and ecological devastation have long gone hand in hand, activists have to learn to combine and integrate our priorities and our forces. Demanding ethical sources of energy is a response to the challenges of climate change and peak oil, but it is also a response to the austerity measures introduced by the coalition government. The cuts that have been made to schemes to encourage renewable energy and sustainability, at a national but especially at a local level, reinforce the dominance of the Big 6 and reduce the likelihood of a widespread move towards community-owned energy. Having a decentralised network of community- and neighbourhood-level energy generation will result in a more resilient energy network that can withstand shocks to the system and avoid the increasing centralisation of control over our energy generation into the hands of a small group of corporations that are “too big to fail”.

On May 3rd, CEOs from the Big 6 energy companies will be meeting with government ministers at the UK Energy Summit. At the Summit, behind closed doors, decisions will be made on the basis of what will secure the energy companies’ profits, whatever the costs in terms of poverty and climate change. In response, activists operating under the banner of the Climate Justice Collective are organising the Big 6 Energy Bash — a mass event to challenge the corporate control of energy and to speak out for a democratic energy system. The event will have a focus on direct action, as this is one of many diverse tactics that are valuable in achieving the aim of moving towards ethical sources of energy.

Demand ethical energy. Demand community-owned electricity generation. Demand renewable and clean energy. Demand sustainable transport. Demand energy democracy. Demand climate justice. End the stranglehold that the Big 6 energy corporations have on our energy.

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