Goodbye energy consumers, hello energy citizens

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Power is literally shifting to the people, and we have only just started to conceptualise what that might mean for consumers as energy citizens.

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Don’t you just hate the idea of being a consumer?

A passive receptacle for all the goods and services that a capitalist economy pushes in your direction. Or an octopus-like feeder on whatever material goodies your tentacles can grab hold of to temporarily fill the emptiness within.

In the energy world, the idea of the consumer is only slightly better than that of the customer or end-user, who might not even be a human being but a business. The whole system is supposed to operate “in the long term interests of consumers”.

But what if you don’t want to be (just) a consumer?

In the brave new world of local energy (or distributed energy resources, DER) all that is changing. With the shift from a one-way to a two-way system, the passive (but economically rational) consumer is giving way to the ideal of the active prosumer or producer-consumer.

Even the idea of the prosumer is inadequate, though, as it does not capture the emerging context of energy storage and trading.

More importantly, it is a techie term that does not capture the social and political roles that we can play in an emerging energy system which will be increasingly dominated by local energy: not just solar, batteries and EVs but also energy efficiency, demand response, virtual power plants and microgrids.

What we’re witnessing is akin to the political shift from feudal or totalitarian regimes to modern representative democracies.

Power is literally shifting to the people, and we have only just started to conceptualise what that might mean in metaphorical terms as well. It is not just about threats to the business model of the energy industry incumbents. It’s about new forms of social organisation and decision-making.

Perhaps we now need to think of ourselves instead as energy citizens: actors (rather than consumers) with political power and legal rights in, but also moral responsibilities for, the new energy system. (This is not a new idea. There is a small but growing body of academic literature around energy citizenship.)

The implications are potentially wide-ranging.

For instance, we have come to think of electricity as an essential service, but we don’t normally apply this concept beyond the right to access and consume it. Should the right to live in an efficient home and access energy generation, storage and trading also be considered an essential service?

Especially if these services are critical not only to the cost of living and wellbeing but also to the way we interact with our local communities?

Local storage, two-way flows and microgrids will become increasingly important contributors to system resilience in the face of accelerating climate change impacts and cyberattacks. Ergo, local energy may be considered an essential service.

Faced with a multitude of choices in a high DER world, the industry often complains that consumers don’t want choice. They want simplicity, because energy is just a means to an end. But maybe that is because consumers have only been offered choices between fifty shades of powerlessness.

Recognise the power of the energy citizen and you give them a real stake in their world. Then see how much they care about energy. (A case in point: the likely stampede to electric cars when they are not only cost competitive but also offer vehicle-to-home discharge capability.)

On rights, the most basic is the right to be responsible for our own energy supply as well as demand.

Second, we might negotiate rights to export and trade energy, with limitations in view of competing domains for calls and wires, the needs of our fellow energy citizens, public policy imperatives and economic realities. Third, we should have the right to be rewarded for the private and public value of the services we provide.

And finally, we should have the right to an active role in grid management—a concept which is slowly gaining momentum with market bodies and the industry, but which is much easier to achieve the more the system is localised.

On the other hand, we should have the right not to be engaged energy citizens if all we want is a basic level of services. Creating opportunities for engagement is different to requiring it.

With rights come responsibilities. As energy citizens, we can’t expect to profit where we provide services to the grid without also bearing the costs where we directly cause them. The regulatory regime was constructed around one-way flows; as it becomes bidirectional, we need to be open to new ways of cost- as well as benefit-sharing.

We also need to think about how to include those other energy citizens who may not own or control the resources themselves: renters, apartment dwellers, low income households.

Democracies are founded on the ideal of one person, one vote, irrespective of gender, income, etc. How do we ensure that our fellow energy citizens benefit equally from the transition?

Solar gardens and community scale batteries are two examples, but we also need better ways to ensure that everyone’s voices are heard. Otherwise, some of our fellow energy citizens are likely to be unhappy at being left behind.

We should also be encouraged to share our energy rather than hoard it by disconnecting from the grid—a resource which may be mostly in private hands now, but which was built using public money and which still has considerable opportunities for the sharing of resources and services between haves and have-nots.

Finally, as the climate emergency unfolds, in order to maintain resilience the local energy system is likely to complement, rather than replace, the old centralised system of big power plants and long transmission lines.

As long as we get the right policy signals for rapid carbonisation, that is. The longer we have to wait, the more energy citizens are likely to take power into their own hands.

The choice is no longer between central control and individual choice; it is between democracy and anarchy.

Mark Byrne is energy market advocate at the Total Environment Centre and the founder of the Local energy Facebook group.

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