Gone are the days when people thought little about energy policy — when little more was demanded than reliable access to electricity at affordable prices. Rather, more and more Americans are becoming aware how our energy choices are inextricably intertwined with other shared values. A new report from the Center for Progressive Reform looks at this growing awareness and more through the lens of energy democracy.
What were once questions left for rarefied technocratic elites — how we generate electricity and transport it to end users, who owns and controls vital energy infrastructure, how the costs of production and transmission are shared, and even the processes by which these decisions are made — have gradually acquired “kitchen table” status in many households and become the focus for a growing number of activist movements.
In short, we are seeing a growing interest in and expectation for “energy democracy,” or the notion that energy policy should serve collectively determined goals and that members of the public should exert more control over the energy that powers our society.
Despite its growing prominence as a discrete policy concern, “energy democracy” is an extraordinarily complex concept. We all seem to agree we want more of it. Yet, when applied to actual energy policy debates, agreement over what energy democracy ought to mean in practice, what it offers, and what it demands is elusive. Without a shared understanding of this important concept, we may be at risk of not achieving a satisfactory resolution over such key energy policy questions as permitting reform for energy infrastructure and how best to ensure a just transition for fossil fuel workers and communities.
Today, the Center is releasing Defining Energy Democracy: Claiming Our Equitable Energy Future Through Collective Power, a timely report aimed at helping to make sense of the various dimensions and implications of energy democracy. Its goal is not to resolve competing views over what energy democracy entails, but to clarify tensions, provide a framework for productive discussion of these matters, and ultimately foster collective decision-making in the context of live policy debates, now and in the future.
What makes this report particularly valuable is its unique origin. In September 2022, the Center hosted a first-of-its-kind roundtable discussion that brought together a diverse array of energy policy experts to discuss and consider the full dimensions of energy democracy and its role in advancing U.S. energy policy. What emerged from that discussion — and what this report attempts to capture — was a coherent framework for making sense of energy democracy.
The roundtable was conducted under the Chatham House Rule to permit full and frank discussion; given that, we can’t disclose participants — but we are grateful for their contributions to this report.
In the years ahead, Center staff and Member Scholars will apply this framework to pressing energy policy questions. And I hope that it will provide an invaluable resource for policymakers, the press, advocates, and interested members of the public who are looking to do the same.
I also hope that a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, the complexities of energy democracy will enable our country to pursue more effective, people-centered energy policy.
The growing public attention to energy democracy comes at an alarming time in our nation’s history. The last several decades have seen a coordinated campaign by conservative lawmakers at the state and federal level and conservative judges throughout the federal judiciary targeted at undermining the foundations of our democratic institutions. Personally, I am heartened by this embrace of energy democracy since it provides a noteworthy counter to the broader trend of democratic backsliding we are now witnessing. Energy democracy holds some promise to help, if only in a small way, arrest and reverse this alarming trend.
After all, energy democracy envisions ongoing collaboration between people and their government to address the existential crisis of climate change and other energy-related policy challenges; as such, it offers an invaluable model for rebuilding our faith in — and a sense of connectedness to — our governing institutions, both of which are essential if they are to function effectively.