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How Community Energy Initiatives Can Be an Effective Tool for Degrowth

October 18, 2023

The consensus among scientists is resounding: climate change poses a grave threat to both human wellbeing and the overall health of our planet. We need to dramatically cut down on emissions across all sectors and industries, with bold actions in this decade. This process must be fair and prioritize equity, inclusion, climate and environmental justice, and social justice.

At its heart, this process calls for a reevaluation of our approach to “development”. It is evident that ceaseless economic growth driven by capitalism is neither sustainable nor desirable in the long run. Instead, we should strive to downsize our patterns of production and consumption in a way that prioritizes human wellbeing, ensuring that everyone can thrive.

Degrowth and post growth perspectives resonate with this necessity as, according to Alexander Dunlap, they advocate for “the planned reduction of energy and material throughput to restore balance with the planet, meanwhile reducing inequality and improving human well-being”.

Energy, of course, plays a vital role in this context, as it drives modern economies. As some scholars have explained, it is a logical place to start if we want to shrink our production and consumption patterns and rethink our approach. While the “green growth” discourse relies on technological changes, the degrowth perspective calls for a deeper transformation of our energy systems, connecting economic, environmental, political, and social concerns while taking a cautious stance on technology.

This is where a (not so recent) idea becomes relevant: that of bottom-up community energy initiatives (CEIs), which have emerged as a response to centralized energy systems — most notably in the Global South. These CEIs have been proposed under many names, such as ‘local energy’, ‘energy communities’, ‘energy cooperatives’, ‘local energy initiatives’, ‘community renewable energy’ and ‘community energies’. Some authors who have explored CEIs’ connection with degrowth have also used the term “Collective and politically motivated renewable energy projects”, suggesting that these schemes “can potentially become blueprints for a turn towards a degrowth practice that will foster the democratization of renewable energy production”.

CEIs are a potential tool for reducing (degrowing) energy production and consumption, while prioritizing community and the environment over profit. This approach, grounded in past research and aligned with degrowth principles, emphasizes community ownership and control over energy production and its purpose. In Colombia, a number of Civil Society Organizations have been learning from frontline communities implementing CEIs in their territories — and their findings help to highlight the elements required for CEIs to align with degrowth principles.

A needs-based approach

Some authors have explored the connection between “decent living” and energy consumption, and claim that needs-based approaches have been used to develop a framework for the decoupling of energy-use from human well-being. They argue that universal needs differ from culturally specific “need satisfiers”. In their opinion, need satisfiers can take the form of demand-side solutions that reduce consumption while still satisfying actual needs, helping humanity stay within planetary boundaries.

CEIs can serve as demand-side solutions to curtail energy consumption, provided they steer clear of the profit maximization trap. This aligns with the “energy self-sufficiency” notion described by certain degrowth scholars, aiming to reduce energy use “towards the minimum level necessary for meeting basic human needs”.

In line with this theory, a some Colombian CSOs have affirmed that ‘community energies’ prioritize local self-sufficiency and create new energy practices to prevent waste. In their opinion, these initiatives aim to meet the energy needs of families and community organizations, including cooking, lighting, water treatment, and greenhouse gas reduction, while also contributing to social cohesion and peacebuilding. Local communities see ‘community energies’ as a set of practices in energy and food production, striving for a dignified life, environmental respect, climate mitigation, peace, and social rebuilding.

Striving for specific political goals

Conrad Kunze and Sören Becker introduced “collective and politically motivated renewable energy projects” as a form of CEIs. They emphasize that CEIs should be driven by communal political goals, going beyond simply generating renewable energy.

These political goals or aspirations can encompass various aspects, such as creating local jobs, addressing environmental and climate issues, improving living conditions, tackling economic challenges related to input imports, re-localizing productionrevitalizing the local economy, and promoting community and solidarity.

According to some Colombian CSOs, local communities view CEIs as a means to support a just energy transition. In this context, they argue that CEIs generating surpluses should reinvest their profits in improving collective living conditions and preserving the environment. Their approach is grounded in principles of respect for life and nature, social justice, family and community autonomy, sovereignty, reliability, and efficiency. These CSOs also highlight how certain communities have been reshaping the energy model for years, emphasizing that energy goes beyond electricity production and is at the core of life and society. This illustrates how political aspirations can drive CEIs.

Direct and democratic participation & control

CEIs must ensure direct local community participation and control to adhere to degrowth principles. Tsagkari, Roca, and Kallis point out that in many CEIs, local voices have limited influence, often confined to consultation, which they argue undermines energy democracy and justice.

Direct participation and control do not always demand community ownership of a CEI. Models like Democratic Public Ownership, as discussed by Thomas M. Hanna, can serve this purpose by combining principles of democratic governance, equity, subsidiarity, and sustainability with collective ownership “in its widest, most holistic sense.”

What matters in this context is that CEIs are built on democratic decision-making, transparency, and accountability principles both internally and externally. Tsagkari, Roca, and Kallis suggest that a degrowth-oriented democratic system would include participatory decision-making through cooperatives, direct participation, and voting. Equally, benefits should be distributed fairly, transparently, and tailored to local needs, avoiding intermediaries like private corporations.

Reflecting these same ideas, Colombian CSOs have suggested that some CEIs by local communities correspond to proposals by grassroots organizations with demonstrated local roots, where development and implementation cannot be endorsed by corporations at any point.

Protecting the environment

To adhere to degrowth principles, CEIs must prioritize environmental protection and climate change mitigation. This starts by exclusively using decentralized renewable energy systems, excluding polluting sources or technologies. Additionally, CEIs should implement other environmentally friendly measures like recycling and proper waste management.

Tailored solutions for diverse contexts

Promoting CEIs within degrowth must recognize diverse community needs, particularly in the Global South. This means there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Dr. Cle-Anne Gabriel notes that discussions on post growth and degrowth often originate from the Global North and overlook the practices and challenges in the Global South. She suggests considering the unique business models already existing in the Global South that diverge from pursuing economic growth, and her suggestion can be extended to the promotion of CEIs in line with degrowth principles.

As some authors have put it: CEIs offer an opportunity to view energy systems as a means to create fresh ways of life, and forge new identities.

In Colombia, CSOs highlight that CEIs are closely linked to local contexts. Community energy plans often integrate agroecological crops like coffee or cocoa, leading to the creation of value-added products such as chocolate and herbal infusions. This approach ensures projects have unique identities and cater to the specific needs and preferences of each family and community.

The above-outlined elements are key to CEIs becoming effective tools for degrowth, promoting a just reduction in energy production and consumption. Balancing how energy is produced and its purpose is crucial, to ensure CEIs meet human needs without excessive production or consumption, fostering human wellbeing, upholding principles of justice and democracy, and safeguarding the environment, including the avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions.

Efforts are needed in awareness, education, and creating favorable legal frameworks for CEIs. Financial resources, both local and international, should support decentralized, citizen/community-led initiatives rather than large-scale private renewable energy projects that do not align with degrowth principles. It is time to prioritize community and the environment over profit in the energy sector.

Mariana Villegas-Mendoza

Energy and Climate Change Attorney. Fellow with the Post Growth Institute.