Dariusz Szwed (born 1967) – Polish politician, social activist, one of the founders and, in the years 2004–2011, one of the two leaders of the Greens 2004 party. Former delegate of the party to the European Green Party, cooperating with the Greens in the European Parliament, president of the Program Council of the Green Institute. He specialises in consulting in the field of sustainable development and the non-governmental sector. He cooperates with the World Bank, Environmental Law Centre, Greenpeace International, Institute for Eco-Development, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Regional Environmental Centre, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), WWF and others. Moreover, he is a member of the European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.

Energy democracy: Power to the People

Dariusz Szwed

Energy policy – political energy

For the last 250 years, the global population has been becoming increasingly dependent on energy. The first industrial revolution was possible thanks to a shift from renewable energy sources, RES (wood, wind and sun) – used so far on mass scale – to a more intensive use of coal that started to propel steam machines and gave momentum to capitalism. Neither revolutions nor world wars would have been possible if we had not harnessed horsepower to them, drinking energy from black gold: coal and oil. The growing dependency of developed societies and economies on natural oil caused one of the most serious crises of the 20th century in the 1970s. The oil shock led to the technological race for alternative sources of energy, in which nuclear energy started to take the lead in the second half of the 20th century. The 32 solar collectors that President Jimmy Carter of the Democratic Party installed on the White House roof did not help. By 1981, the Republican Ronald Reagan had them taken off. The sun lost against the atom, obviously not only for civilian-energy reasons. Parallel to the construction of subsequent reactors for nuclear-power plants, an atomic-arms race was taking place. Combining civilian and military nuclear technologies five years later lead to the greatest disaster in the history of the world at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, which became one of the symbols of and an important reason behind the fall of the USSR. At the same time, in the United Kingdom, where both the global era of coal and the first industrial revolution had started, the neoliberal Margaret Thatcher used deposits of oil and gas discovered beneath the North Sea and “nukes” to finally defeat trade unions of miners and the mining industry. Poland, separated by the “iron curtain”, had been basing its development for many decades in the 20th century on coal, already described in the voice-over of the film Sycylia [Sicily], directed by Barbara Sass in 1957, when describing the destruction of the Silesia region, with the following words: “It is not a volcanic, but a political problem. Bytom [a city in the region] stands on coal, and coal rules Poland”. Contrary to the United Kingdom, the absolute reign of coal – and probably of the strongest group of trade unions – continues in the Polish energy sector until today. In the distant background is, among others, the victorious fight with the never-ended nuclear-power plant in Żarnowiec.

The constantly growing dependency of an increasing number of people on Earth on exhaustible energy sources results in escalation of conflicts, degradation of other equally important – and sometimes even more important for survival – natural resources (for example, air and water) and climate changes. This has contributed also to the rising power of supranational corporations and political and economic oligarchs. Control over deposits of coal, oil, gas and also uranium, built up for billions of years on Earth, is more and more intensively expanding into control over democratic institutions and procedures, and civic society. Is there a chance to leave behind this swelling, multi-layered crisis? It seems that a feasible solution appears in the sphere of green technological revolution – in the dynamic development of renewable energy sources.

The global era of green energy has begun

Since the times when Jimmy Carter place those solar collectors (for heating water) on the White House roof, prices of their “relatives”, photovoltaic panels (using solar energy to generate electricity), has decreased a hundred times! Moreover, modern construction of wind turbines, heat pumps, power plants using marine tidal currents have appeared – renewable energy has entered research and development centres on all continents for good. But that is not all: green energy entered many international markets on a mass scale, more and more strongly pushing out its problematic, non-renewable “older brothers”. To what extent has the world entered the path of green modernization? For instance, during the last 14 years the share of RES in electricity generation in Germany grew from approximately 6% to almost 30%. In 2014, Poland's Western neighbours produced more green energy than the amount of black energy produced in Poland. In 2013, in Spain, rotating wind turbines were for the first time the largest producer of electricity, surpassing nuclear, coal- and gas-fired power plants, covering over 21% of the total national electricity demand. Last year, China, the entire European Union, Japan and the United States installed more or less as many photovoltaic panels as the total power of the complete electricity generation system in coal-powered Poland – around 35 megawatts.

And even though each year brings more global green-energy records, from the perspective of solving the geopolitical challenges described above, the social and cultural aspect seems to be of greater importance. Dynamic changes occurring in the technological sphere make it possible to build an energy democracy.

Renewable power to the people

Dispersion of energy generation thanks to much smaller RES installations (down to household level) brings with it the chance of a deep transformation – regaining ownership, control and power over the circulatory system of 21st-century civilization: that is, energy. Millions of prosumers (both PROducers and conSUMERS) of renewable energy become citizens with solar panels and collectors on their roofs or wind turbines in their gardens, which stimulate the local economy and create new patriotism of glocal (GLObal and loCAL at the same time), inexhaustible resources. Generating renewable energy, they produce other public goods at the same time, in clean water and air, they prevent environment degradation and global warming; by increasing local energy self-sufficiency, they reduce international tensions and conflicts. Ownership of energy production adds a new dimension to participation in public life, partaking in creation of individual and collective safety or prosperity, etc. Building energy democracy means simply building or reconstructing democracy, albeit in a very practical manner, bringing tangible individual and collective benefits.

Since opinion polls in Poland show that people wish to start producing their own energy on their roofs or in their gardens from renewable energy sources, what hinders us in pursuance of this goal?

Coal-nuclear state vs. renewable citizen-prosumers

It seems that we have exactly the same problem that Germans had to face over a decade ago: the energy sector ruled by several giants, and the law protecting the interests of this oligopoly. Also in Poland, the government and big players defend the status quo: monopolies and oligopolies in the energy sector. Companies have a clear interest in it: blocking democratisation of energy means that of the 20 largest companies in Poland, half represent the energy and fuel sector. Energy giants spend tens of millions of złotys (from our consumers’ pockets) every year on media advertisements ensuring us of their social and environmental responsibility. However, when a conflict of interest with citizens occurs, they show their cards and openly attack.

The battle of large companies against freeing civic energy is perfectly depicted in the letter of Marek Woszczyk, president of the PGE Polish Energy Group, sent to the Senate during work on the RES act there. The author of the letter warns the reader about citizens-prosumers: “Dynamic growth of the prosumer sector started by the RES act in the form adopted by the Sejm [the lower house in the Polish parliament] would mean a drastic decrease in the use of hard coal and result in dramatic situation of coal mines that will lack funds for necessary investments”. It needs to be noted that the PGE Polish Energy Group and other energy companies obtained over the last several years more than 12 billion złotys from taxpayers’ pockets for co-combustion of coal with biomass and operations of hydropower plants constructed in the communist era of Party chief Edward Gierek. Obviously, with such a procedure of producing so-called “green energy”, the same companies had no problem with “millions of tons of unburned coal”. Additionally, for years PGE has been spending tens of millions of złotys for the nuclear-power plant construction program – also in this context, PGE President Woszczyk fails to mention the problem of “unburned coal”. The level of hypocrisy may also be proven by the fact that the very same PGE Group sponsors the screening of a propaganda film in Poland about nuclear energy as a remedy for... climate change (caused by emissions resulting from burning coal that President Woszczyk so vehemently defended in his letter to the senators). And finally, the very same president of PGE, in 2011, being back then the president of the government’s Energy Regulatory Office, claimed that “in competitive conditions, dispersed and prosumer energy is a chance for market development. If the competition is not present, then it is perceived as a threat. And that is precisely our situation. Consolidated energy sector fears changes.” The place where you stand depends on where you sit…

On 20 February 2015, despite massed lobbying by energy giants, the Polish Sejm adopted the RES act with the so-called prosumer amendment, constituting a chance for the development of renewable energy in Poland.

Democratisation of the energy sector, in particular in the European Union, seems to be unavoidable, despite many challenges. We are witnessing the end of the era of non-renewable resources and centralised energy systems. Modern society in the information era needs dispersed, clean, flexible energy. The key, however, is whether regaining control and power over our common resources (the sun shines for all of us!) will take place peacefully, in a manner ensuring that each person will have an egalitarian part in it, or whether blocking the transformation will generate unnecessary tensions and social costs. It seems that the challenges described at the beginning of this text, faced by inhabitants of the global village in the 21st century, require responsible common efforts.

Green Power to the People!


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