By Mandi Astola, TU/e

Personal reflection on the question of justice in energy cooperatives at ECPR conference 2019.

Last week, I presented a SCALINGS paper at the ECPR 13th general conference. ECPR (European Consortium for Political Research) is an association of political scientists that organizes events, runs journals and publishes books. While the conference is aimed at political scientists, the panel topics seemed to attract researchers from many different fields. I met economists, planning scholars and was not the only philosopher there either.

Judging by the other talks I saw at ECPR, the justice issues around energy provision seem to be a hot topic. There was one panel dedicated entirely to the issue of energy poverty. The discussion there was about the global inequality in terms of energy access and the ability to pay energy bills. Energy cooperatives also seem to fit inside an important topic, as there were two panels dedicated to the politics of “local renewable energy transitions.” I was there to talk about our newest SCALINGS work, on renewable energy cooperatives and justice.

Together with other SCALINGS colleagues, I had written about renewable energy cooperatives, which are groups of people that share a solar panels or something of the sort and share the benefits. We had done observations and interviews at 6 different energy cooperatives. When we brought our findings together and saw that social justice was an important theme. Many of the cooperatives were motivated by, not just cost-saving or neighbourly love, but a justice motive, like attaining more democratic control of their energy, or including people in the energy transition who would otherwise be excluded. However, in forming the energy cooperative, they also faced new justice issues. When you buy your energy from a big company, you pay something, but you don’t generally have to worry about who maintains your grid or whether the power stations keep running or not. This is something that others take care of. and it’s not your responsibility as a consumer. But if you invest in your own sustainable heat or power source, it’s often your responsibility. If your sustainable energy supply malfunctions, you have to fix it. It is not merely that the technology you invest in might break. If you are buying together with your neighbours, what if you have a falling out with them? There is also a risk associated with the way in which you found and run our cooperative.

Our case studies dealt with this problem of risk in two ways. The first was to try and make the risk smaller. An energy cooperative can do this by trying to attain funding or by growing to large numbers, or using technology and a system of governance which is are known to prevent breakages and falling-outs. When risk cannot be minimized however, the only way to deal with the issue is to make sure everyone gets their say. If everyone has to take a big risk to join in, then everyone must be able to have influence. This is why two of our Dutch case studies where people took a very high risk, and with that an enormous responsibility, had extensive democratic procedures and lot’s of discussion. In this way, it almost seems like you can compensate for an unjust risk distribution with an excess of a just procedure. Compensating for risk with democracy.

After my talk, someone asks a profound question. I wrote it down, as I could not answer it and suspected that at some point someone will ask this again. “Can you just compensate for one type of justice with another? Is this in itself just?” This question was probably the main take-away from this conference. I had forgotten to ask myself the kind of question you would expect from a philosopher: What kind of justice is the most just? This, of course, is the next chapter, as soon as I get back to work!

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