We need to talk about energy literacy and degrowth

The following article is one of seven finalists in the 2019 Gill Owen Essay Prize, which honours the memory of Dr Gill Owen, who was a tireless campaigner in the fields of energy efficiency and social equity. The competition is sponsored by AGL Energy, the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS, the Association for Environmental and Energy Equity, Uniting Communities and RenewEconomy. The finalists’ essays will be published in Renew Economy between Monday 17th February and Tuesday 25th February.

A passionate and pioneering campaigner for social justice, Gill Owen was one of the first women to bring the voices of the consumer and the disadvantaged to the boards of the UK’s and Australia’s competition and economic regulators. Gill advocated passionately for these causes until her untimely death from an aggressive brain tumour in August 2016.

To celebrate Gill’s contribution to empowering disadvantaged consumers, and improving energy efficiency, the Gill Owen Essay Prize invites emerging voices under the age of 35 to offer their own perspective on energy efficiency and social equity. The overall winner of the 2019 Gill Owen Essay Prize will be announced at the Dr Gill Owen Forum: Fairness for consumers in the energy transition, hosted by the Australian Energy Regulator in Melbourne on Tuesday 25th February 2020. The overall winner receives a prize of $3000 and the runners up receive a prize of $1000 each.


Energy literacy and degrowth: New terminology for a new era in energy, by Alana West

Is there a difference between energy efficiency and energy conservation or is this change purely semantic? Does the change of terminology affect the choice of policy instrument and the way in which energy conservation is ‘sold’ to the public?
– Dr Gill Owen, 1999

Does the language we use for energy impact our relations to energy? This is a question Dr Gill Owen pondered in her book, drawn from her PhD studies, ​Public purpose or private benefit? The politics of energy conservation​ (1999).

Throughout the book, Owen considered the terminology used in policy debates and argued that the shift in use from energy conservation to energy efficiency, despite a clear distinction between the two terms, did impact policy and public perception.

Owen demonstrated that the shift in terminology from conservation to efficiency had signalled a shift in policy focus from minimising energy use for environmental and social outcomes to changing technologies for consumer outcomes.

Twenty years later and we can see a continuation of this (false) dichotomy between consumer outcomes and environmental and social outcomes in current Australian energy policy debates.

After a decade of policy confusion and stagnation, discussions on energy at the federal level are stuck on disingenuously pitting the potential for lower power bills against transitions to renewable energy and subsequent action on the climate crisis. This is despite numerous economists, energy analysts and researchers demonstrating that renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels.

For better or worse, energy efficiency as a term is associated with a period in which energy poverty has grown and in which access to energy efficiency is perceived to be only available to those who can afford new, greener appliances and technologies.

Energy efficiency is also associated with a period in which successive governments and international negotiations have abjectly failed to take adequate, meaningful action on the climate crisis, a crisis fuelled by the fossil fuel economy.

It could be argued that after decades of focus on energy efficiency with discernible growth in energy poverty and intensification of the climate crisis that another shift in terminology is required.

What is needed now is language which more explicitly signals the policy and behavioural changes that are required to both address the climate crisis and provide energy for all.

I suggest two useful terms we should bring into the energy debate and policy lexicon: energy literacy and energy degrowth.

Energy literacy is a concept that describes the holding of skills and knowledge related to energy systems and usage. It does not require that everyone enrol in an electrical engineering degree, it simply requires greater understanding and accessible education into how we use energy in our day-to-day lives, and subsequently how we can be smarter about this use.

A noticeable growth in energy literacy has accompanied the growth in the prosumer: individuals, families, communities and businesses who both produce and consume energy through renewable energy systems.

However, despite this noticeable growth, energy literacy remains considerably low across Australia more broadly. We need to be building energy literacy into policy frameworks across planning, education and industry.

For the vast majority of people without energy literacy skills, energy efficiency means changing your light bulbs and looking at the star rating on your fridge and washing machine. The biophysical logic of renewable energy (i.e sun and wind are pretty much everywhere) means that we can have decentralised and localised energy systems.

Transitions to renewable energy will likely result in greater interaction with energy systems for the everyday person than has been necessary under a centralised fossil fuel system.

Through rooftop solar, batteries and smaller scale community energy projects, the energy literacy of Australians is already expanding – and will only grow as the transition continues.

Energy degrowth draws inspiration from broader degrowth advocacy and scholarship which argues that infinite economic growth is incompatible with life on a finite planet.

Energy literacy has incredible potential to fundamentally shift people’s relationship to energy, and in the process engender energy degrowth.

Renewable energy technologies will still require raw materials, so the less energy we use the less raw materials we will need to extract from our damaged earth.

Energy literacy and the corresponding energy degrowth have the potential to significantly contribute to the eradication of energy poverty, as the combination of cheaper energy derived from the sun and wind with lower energy use dramatically decreases energy costs.

Growth in energy literacy will lead to degrowth in energy usage, which in turn could feasibly lead to the eradication of energy poverty.

However, transitions to renewable energy, action on energy poverty and action on the climate crisis are being stymied by both the fossil fuel industry and federal and state governments.

Frustrated with the lack of action on both increasingly unaffordable power bills and the climate crisis, some local communities are taking it upon themselves to resolve Australia’s energy woes.

Linking in with broader movements for energy democracy and eco-sufficiency, there are examples all across Australia of communities and organisations already enacting and promoting energy literacy and energy degrowth.

Here in New South Wales, two such organisations are Enova Community and Z-Net Uralla. Enova Community is the not-for-profit arm of Enova Energy, Australia’s first community-owned power company which is based in the Northern Rivers.

Z-Net Uralla is an organisation based in the New England region of NSW which is working towards making the Uralla shire zero net emissions.

Both Enova Community and Z-Net Uralla are building energy literacy in their communities and actively working towards the eradication of energy poverty. They are doing this through the provision of information on their websites, through community outreach and educational events including public talks, running workshops and my personal favourite, home energy reviews.

Enova Community and Z-Net Uralla are incredible resources for their communities. Both organisations conduct free home energy reviews to assist people in their community to grow their energy literacy, understand where they’re wasting energy in their homes and how to avoid this.

Importantly, both organisations have explicit aims to assist low-income households. Through these home energy reviews, people are becoming skilled and actively engaged in energy degrowth.

One member of Z-Net Uralla told me that they like to ‘engineer out the problem’ of energy wastage first, and only after that has been achieved will they look at options for rooftop solar, bulk-buys, solar gardens, etc.

This has direct impacts on low-income households which are not only able to significantly minimise their power bills through energy use degrowth, but who will now also require smaller, and therefore cheaper, renewable energy systems when the time comes to install them.

Enova Community and Z-Net Uralla are doing this incredible work, more or less off the smell of an oily rag compared to the level of investment and resources needed to conduct this work at scale.

While both organisations have received some funding assistance, this work to improve energy literacy, to degrow energy usage and to build transitions to renewable energy needs greater government resources. And this means policy.

Energy policy which recognises the almost infinite potential for renewable energy to increase energy literacy, degrow energy usage and eradicate energy poverty is sorely needed at both the state and federal level.

However, to obtain these incredible benefits from renewable energy transitions, we will need major policy changes, not just tinkering around the edges of policies designed under the fossil fuel economy.

The fossil fuel industry has had an increasingly adversarial relationship with people and communities. As we transition to renewable energy we need to reshape policies towards giving local communities active involvement in planning decisions, and which provide for decentralised, localised energy.

We need to learn from the mistakes of the fossil fuel industry and instead of top-down, divide and conquer policy directives we need to bring people along with the energy transition.

This means we need communication, education & relationship building alongside strong technocratic policy. Through doing this, the social equity of energy won’t just relate to the financial burdens of energy, it will see a more engaged, more participatory democracy.

Dr Gill Owen argued that the language and terminology we use reflects and impacts on policy and behavioural change when it comes to energy.

Energy efficiency is a term which has now been with us through some of the most frustrating, stifling years of energy policy. The transition from the fossil fuel economy to a renewable energy future deserves new language to inspire and guide new policy directions, new ways of relating to energy and new ways of engaging with one another.

As we begin to enter this new era, energy literacy and energy degrowth are two terms which could help us to shift the national debate on energy and usher in the renewables revolution for the wellbeing of people and planet.

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