This week has started the online course “Democratising energy” launched by Platform London and the Transnational Institute. The first webinar was on “De-colonizing energy”. I found this first theme extremely interesting, also because I never took time to think about the energy system in that perspective. Here I am going to go through what I learned from the course and the reflections it inspired.

Energy colonialism – What’s that?

From what I gathered from the course, there are two (not-disconnected but distinct) meaning to the term “energy colonialism”

  • The first would be the exploitation of a source of energy (generally cheap) from one place to satisfy the needs of another place. Generally, the supplier does not benefit fairly from the provisioning of the energy.

Typically, it applies to oil and gas, but has been more recently been observed in large-scale renewable projects, such as the Desertec project (see picture above). The idea is to use solar energy from the Sahara desert to supply clean energy to Europe. The consortium is constituted of several foreign investors and there are questions raised on the benefits for local populations (see this excellent article).

  • The second was given by Aisha Soogree during the webinar and is more literal: in Mauritius, energy production is in the hands of former colonials.

I said that these two definitions are not disconnected as I think that this is a very strong socio-cultural bias that we have in the North/West: we are raised being colonials without knowing it (in France, it is quite pregnant) and the energy production is in our hands for the most part. We also tend to minimize the effects of our lifestyle on the poorer parts of the world (since we are far away and don’t see it). Therefore I found this course excellent to clear things up.

Reflections: how does it relate to what I know?

I really enjoyed the presentation of Diego Di Risio (from the Argentinian Observatorio Petrolero Sur).

  • Diego explained what they understand as “Extractivism” and “energy colonialism” (here a powerful video that illustrates the problem perfectly). He applies these to the moment in the 90’s when energy sector went through a liberalisation and a privatisation process. This lead to the penetration of the market by multinationals, the loss of self-sufficiency and the dominance of hydrocarbons in the energy mix. The loss of livelihood for several local populations triggered several actions and programmes to regain control and ownership of the energy system.

This situation is off course not unknown in Europe, where the liberalisation of the energy system occurred more or less at the same time. We are therefore facing a common enemy: neoliberal politics. What Diego describes as extrativism comes close to what I would call “enclosures of the commons“. In Europe, the segregation is one of social classes as well as a geographical one. In that sense, we can find strong similarities: energy being extracted by powerful (and rich) utilities to make more money and the country-side providing electricity to the cities. Just the scale seems to be different.

  • Another important aspect that Diego mentioned while talking about climate justice is the inter-generational liability. We in Europe, who are responsible for a large part of the CO2 emissions, hold an enormous liability towards our kids. And it is even more true for nuclear waste.
  • Also, Diego explained that in one of their programme, they try to convey the need to “treat energy as a right rather than a commodity that should be regulated by the market”. These could have been my words (except that I would say a commons and not just a right – as the term commons involves the fact that it is also a need)! And I am very happy to hear that people come to the same conclusion on the other side of the Earth!
  • Finally, Diego explained that energy co-ops should be part of the solution but that the state has a dominant role to play to steer the energy distribution. This is also part of my reflections and I would like to hear more about their framework. I also understand that they are working on energy pricing, which is indeed a crucial point (in opposition to the price set by the market) to fight energy poverty and include conservation in the design.

One last term, which I think is useful in this discussion is “appropriate technology“. This is the right for people to get the technology which is the most adapted to their needs and their environment. That all made me think of the story of the giant wind farms being implanted on the Gulf of Tehuantepec. The local population is just experiencing the negative sides of the renewables without getting much benefit (as most profits are flying in hands of transnational companies and the electricity is exported to urban centers).