What if… electricity were a right not a commodity?

Breaking away from an energy system in which we are only consumers can help tackle the cost of living and climate crises. Nick Dowson sketches out an alternative.
A large lighbulb floats above the planet earth - illustration
Credit: Andy Carter

I once stayed a few weeks with a family in one of the more remote peninsulas in the Scottish Highlands. Their home had no electricity – or road – connections to the ‘mainland’. Instead two counters in the kitchen indicated the power – flowing in from a wind turbine and solar panels – available in the house’s battery.

When winds were high, you could hear the micro-turbine spinning furiously, metres from the house. When the battery got low, you stopped using the kettle.

This was no green utopia: the oven still ran on coke (from coal). But it spoke of a radically different relationship with ‘the leccy’, one in which we are participants in the energy system, rather than a purely commercial relationship of ‘if you can pay, you can use’.

Electricity prices have rocketed the last year, a global phenomenon spurred by oil and gas prices also hitting new highs. Chunks have been taken out of people’s living standards as the most extractive industries reap the profits.

Meanwhile, progress in connecting populations across the world to electricity networks has slowed in the last few years: close to one billion people are still left without.

But what if we saw electricity as a right instead? As something that should be available to all, a vital enabler for living with dignity in the 21st century – for clean light, heat, cooking, and powering the communications technologies needed for participation in wider society?

How about if instead of it being a commodity for sale, and therefore also to be denied to those who cannot afford it, we recognized it as perhaps the central technology of our future decarbonized world?

Making power a right available to all could mean making it free – or very cheap. What better way to encourage a shift from dirty fuels? It would also mean building the networks and renewable generation needed to hook everyone up, without it, ahem, costing the earth.

But what it would not mean is excess and unequal consumption – the current situation where a few use far more than sustainable natural limits, while too many others use none at all.

Moving from a market model could help increase citizen participation – a bonus for making networks work with increasing amounts of variable renewable generation. For example, encouraging lower usage when the sun isn’t shining, or charging batteries overnight when demand is less.

For more remote areas, it could mean support for micro-grids. Instead of building long power lines, this involves setting up small, self-sufficient hubs, which could combine solar and wind power with batteries and other renewable technologies, depending on the location. The International Energy Agency estimates that half of households currently without power could be switched on using decentralized solutions in the next decade.

This could go hand in hand with support in delivering the technologies that assist responsible electricity use: from LED lightbulbs and electric hobs to super-efficient heat pumps for heating or cooling, and other measures, like insulation.

Some countries have already recognized the difference between universal access and excess usage in charging structures – like Costa Rica, where electricity is kept highly affordable and only a fraction of one per cent of citizens are not plugged in.

The Central American country charges heavy users a higher rate and powers its grid almost entirely from renewable energy. Its electricity networks are run mainly through collaborations between co-operatives and four national and regional state-owned companies.

But where states are unable or unwilling to step in, other models could work – like the Nicaraguan Association for Rural Development Workers, a member-led organization that has been electrifying remote rural communities.

Residents put in time and money to construct small-scale hydroelectric generators. Instead of users buying electricity per unit (kilowatt-hour), everyone has a right to the service – and pitches in to make sure it is provided. Annual financial contributions are kept low by exploiting the free-running water of rivers, and are varied by ability to pay.

A push for universal, free access to power – aided by transfer of renewable technologies to the Global South – could be a crucial part of the response to the spiralling cost of living across the globe. Why not let there be light?