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The next Industrial Revolution will be people-powered

Miguel Mendonça

5th November, 2009

Switching to decentralised renewable energy doesn't just mean a new source of power - it means a revolution that will be both social and economic

The way the world appears to work is as follows. Those with influence, generally at the centre of concentrations of wealth and power, are able to influence public policy. This goes deep into the core mindset of the policymaking machinery, and shapes whole nations on many levels. Contemporary governments in industrialised nations have become little more than facilitators for big business - businesses so big that they have little-to-no national allegiance, sometimes become ‘too big to fail’ and can hold governments to ransom over the creation of conditions wherein they will deign to operate and provide jobs.
 
Dealing with such disempowering and destructive power relations is critical, and some have suggested that decentralised energy may play a key role. But the transition may be more difficult than ‘simply’ swapping the energy sources we use to power the whole show from conventional to renewable.

The good news is that in doing so we can not only begin to get at the roots of some key problems of the modern world, but also create a whole swathe of positives that conventional energy generation can never achieve. 

First, it can allow true citizen and community participation in climate- and environment-protecting activities.

Secondly, renewable energy involvement creates an automatic awareness of, and hence improvement in, energy efficiency.

Thirdly, the awareness-raising and job and industry creation that it drives creates a much wider stakeholder group in the proliferation of green policies and practices – no longer will decisions be made solely by a clique of policy wonks and industry reps.

Fourth, it creates a democratisation of energy production, which can break up the monopoly stranglehold on markets and allow more innovation and progress.

Fifth, it controls long-term energy costs, protecting against supply interruption, especially through geopolitical influence.

And sixth, the creation of a new industrial economy, based on renewables and their attendant technological, supply chain and service requirements, can generate enormous earnings, exports, tax receipts and other economic activity. 
 
When steam engines, computers and mobile phones were first developed, the potential was regarded by many as fairly niche, being outside of their direct experience. As technology, knowledge and experience developed, people far and wide began to understand how this could benefit them, and how they could profit from it.

A whole new energy system, from domestic to large-scale applications, will yield a fantastic array of possibilities, not just in products and services, but in the embedding of direct knowledge and experience throughout society. The feed-in tariff policy which I wrote on, then campaigned for, will come into force in April 2010 in the UK. This will allow anyone to invest in small-scale renewable energy generation and get a guaranteed return for the energy they feed in to the grid. This is a perfect example of an empowering policy which promotes engagement with these issues and possibilities. The interaction and benefits of all of the above can be illustrated in the diagram below.

 
What is needed next is this integrated move to a renewables-based economy and society. It will require several key features.

Somewhere near the top would be that old cliché, joined-up thinking. Departments need to collaborate with all relevant stakeholders to produce a concrete plan – accounting for technology, infrastructure, institutional operation, administration, public participation, funding, public and private sector collaboration, and other key considerations.

Mixed messaging from government must end. One cannot vigorously promote energy saving light bulbs as well as airport expansion without expecting to confuse and disillusion people. 

NGOs and other civil society actors are more trusted sources of information than government, to my understanding, so they can work together on bringing the critical awareness and information to society at large.

We need to make clear decisions on which technologies to support (given their infrastructural needs), as well as leave the door open for innovation. We need to connect top-down policy with the emergent bottom-up movement, typified by the Transition movement, and remove the political ceiling on which they keep hitting their heads.

Our world is merely a construct, however complex. It is shaped by many things, but we can reshape it if we choose to do so. We can move from centralisation to democratisation, disempowerment to empowerment, confusion to engagement, and get where we need to go in time.

Miguel Mendonça is a researcher, author and campaigner. His new books are A Renewable World – Energy, Ecology, Equality (Green Books, £14.95) and Powering the Green Economy: The Feed-in Tariff Handbook (Earthscan, £24.95). You can order A Renewable World at the special price of £12.95 (post-free in the UK) from Green Books' website using the offer code ECORW, or phone 0845 4589910 quoting the Ecologist reader offer. All major credit cards accepted.

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