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Energy Democracy: Bringing Power to the People

Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 2014 explores the restructuring of the energy sector to achieve social equity

WASHINGTON - With the threat of climate change and the likely breach of planetary resource limits, human civilization faces an energy emergency of global proportions. In the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability, Sean Sweeney, co-director of the Global Labor Institute at Cornell University, exposes the abuses of the "extreme energy" agenda and suggests that emerging renewable energy technologies could lead to a more sustainable society (

The promised gains of job growth and security from "extreme energy" extraction methods, such as hydraulic fracturing and mountaintop-removal mining, have not emerged. Workers' rights have also lagged, especially as extraction shifts into developing countries and the former Eastern bloc. Further, more than 1.3 billion people worldwide are still without electricity access.

"A timely and equitable energy transition can occur only with greater energy democracy, which requires that workers, communities, and the public at large have a real voice in decision making, and that the anarchy of liberalized energy markets is replaced with a comprehensive and planned approach," writes Sweeney. In order to reach true energy democracy, he says, three broad strategic objectives are needed:

Resisting the dominant energy agenda. As of 2012, fossil fuel-producing companies and utilities represented 19 of the world's 50 leading corporations. Their revenue and their critical role in the world economy lend them substantial political influence and staying power. Resisting the agenda of these companies and their political allies—through informed policy changes and opposition to projects that present serious risks to workers, communities, and the environment—is an indispensable part of a democratic approach. But this does not mean uncritically embracing the agenda of large renewable energy companies. 

"Already, the indiscriminate pursuit of biofuels has led to devastating 'land grab' practices to secure land for large-scale renewable energy developments," writes Sweeney.

Reclaiming the energy system for the public benefit. Privatization has led almost invariably to worsening working conditions, falling quality of service, and corporate oligarchies. But energy systems can be reclaimed to serve public interests, rather than focus on maximizing sales and profits. This method would return public control to parts of the energy sector that have been privatized and to public energy entities that are run like private companies, while reasserting the right to develop socially owned energy systems.

Restructuring the energy sector. Compared to the current centralized system, decentralized generation is likely to be more conducive to local control, opening up off-grid and mini-grid potential even for remote areas struggling with poverty. Renewable energy is poised to grow spectacularly in many countries, but the energy transition that the world desperately needs will happen only if changes in the energy system are carefully planned and coordinated nationally or regionally.

"So far the kind of global political framework that is needed to drive a truly green transition has failed to emerge," writes Sweeney. Restructuring our energy systems is technically possible, he says, but it now needs to be made politically irresistible.
Worldwatch's State of the World 2014 investigates the broad concept of governance for sustainability, including action by national governments, international organizations, and local communities. The book highlights the need for economic and political institutions to serve people and preserve and protect our common resources.

State of the World 2014's findings are being disseminated to a wide range of stakeholders, including government ministries, community networks, business leaders, and the nongovernmental environmental and development communities. For more information on the project, visit


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The Worldwatch Institute is an independent research organization recognized by opinion leaders around the world for its accessible, fact-based analysis of critical global issues. Its mission is to generate and promote insights and ideas that empower decision makers to build an ecologically sustainable society that meets human needs.

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