The Africa Energy Forum – this is not what energy democracy looks like

The Africa Energy Forum – this is not what energy democracy looks like


By: Aisha Dodwell
Date: 16 June 2016

aef_2016_london_new_websiteEnergy ministers from across Africa will be hosted at a swanky London hotel next week for a conference where hundreds of businesses will pay up to £3,000 for the chance to pitch their business to these state officials. The Africa Energy Forum conference sells itself as a global meeting place [providing] a huge pool of potential business contacts all in the same place.”

Without doubt, securing energy access to the 620 million people across Africa who don’t currently have it is a serious and urgent issue – access to energy should be considered a basic human right. But, despite its title, next week’s conference has little to do with achieving these goals. It is about securing lucrative business deals, not upholding people’s right to energy. The conference literature makes it clear that energy is simply another commodity to be traded by wealthy people in luxury hotels. The website doesn’t even mention the lack of access faced by the majority of Africa’s population, but it does mention the bars and spa facilities available at the venue.

What this conference represents is the increasing privatisation of our energy systems across the world. As with many of the world’s current challenges, meeting people’s energy needs is yet another issue being handed to the corporate sector to address through market mechanisms.

But we know from the failed privatisation projects across the world that this model does not work. Right here in the UK, for example, where the Big Six energy companies dominate the energy market, over seven million people live in fuel poverty, one in five households is in debt to their energy provider and thousands of elderly die every year as a result of cold conditions.

What is particularly concerning is that the model of privatised energy is gathering pace as we switch to renewables. According to the Public Services International Research Unit, as of 2014, the large majority of generation, transmission and distribution of electricity in Africa was still in government hands but the development of renewables is largely being done by independent power producers. While moves to reduce our fossil fuel dependency are of course crucial, doing so through a model of commercialised renewables is not going to solve the whole problem. Without addressing the questions of how energy is delivered, who owns and controls it and who can access it, we have little hope of actually addressing the unacceptable inequality in global energy access.  The failings of the privatised fossil fuel-dependent energy system will simply be transferred to the renewable energy systems.

Meanwhile the UK government is only too eager to facilitate the commercialisation of renewables in Africa through a new £30million aid scheme. Energy Africa, launched last year by Nick Hurd of the UK’s Department for International Development, also just so happens to be a guest speaker at next week’s conference.

Like the conference he is addressing, the aid scheme he has launched looks suspiciously like an opportunity to help businesses expand into African markets. Energy Africa aims to use aid money to create a business-friendly environment for private investors in Africa’s renewables market. It plans to ‘fix’ market barriers and address policy and regulatory ‘blockages’, which effectively means influencing government policies to become more conducive to corporate needs.

Neither this aid project nor the conference is about helping small African businesses or creative entrepreneurs. With its extortionate entrance fees, European location and elite networking opportunities it is clear that the intention is to allow established multinationals unbridled access to African decision makers.  Similarly, Hurd was explicit about the benefits for business of the Energy Africa aid scheme when he told Parliament that it would create opportunities for many British companies”. The likes of Virgin have signalled their interest, and the launch was hosted by the Shell Foundation, meaning that yet another chunk of UK aid money will not be going to poverty alleviation but to lining the pockets of big business.

But it’s not all bad news, there are people fighting back and ensuring that future energy systems put more control in the hands of people who are using it, not the market.

Across the world, people are finding alternative democratic ways of meeting their energy needs while respecting the limits of the environment. This demand for ‘energy democracy’ is taking a number of forms. In Germany, for example, half of the renewable energy capacity is owned by individuals or farms, much of it through co-operatives. Likewise, Costa Rica, which has 98% energy access, has four large rural energy co-operatives that are run by the communities that they serve. In Catalunya, the Som Energia co-operative has 16,000 members who get their energy from the scheme, and they are able to offer lower prices to poorer customers despite not receiving the state subsidies like the larger for-profit companies.

There are also public ownership models like Peru’s 12,500 government owned solar panels which provide two million poor citizens with electricity. Remunicipalisation, which means local councils taking back control of electricity from failing private companies, is also a recent trend across Europe from Hamburg in Germany, to Nottingham in the UK. And in London, the Switched On London campaign for clean democratically controlled energy for Londoners is gaining support.

There are numerous existing models for creating access to energy that don’t rely on corporate elites making lucrative business deals, in fact it’s best if they stayed well clear.