The power of power

20 June 2016
Empowering Electricity

In her newly-released book Empowering Electricity, Dr Julie MacArthur of Politics and International Relations tackles community-driven energy projects in Canada.

Canada is known for being an energy-producing nation — with much attention being paid to the Alberta tar sands and their large carbon footprint. This book looks at a very different part of the Canadian energy sector: the hundreds of renewable energy co-ops that have sprung up across the nation.

These co-ops are democratically structured, community-based organizations that use sun, wind, rivers, tides, and plant and animal waste as sources of local power generation.

The book is the product of ten years of comparative research across Canada, as Julie investigated the idea and practice of energy democracy. She focused on cooperative enterprises as a particular manifestation of local engagement in the sector — where communities come together to produce, transmit, buy and sell renewable power.

For one phase of the research she spent a month travelling by train across Canada to conduct interviews, and fondly remembers transcribing interviews in the café car as the train travelled from city to city over the Rocky Mountains and across the prairies.

“I met lots of retirees, and a few buskers paying for their train trip with music in the lounge car. It was quite the fieldwork experience.”

She explains that ‘power’ has a double meaning in the book: both the actual electric power that we generate, and also the social and economic power to control who benefits and who pays.

The rapidly-evolving nature of community-controlled energy kept Julie on her toes as she edited the book, with new policies being introduced and others scaled back in the face of political opposition meaning significant changes in the multiple provinces covered by the study — and a whole pile of updating and revising.

Since arriving in Auckland in 2013, Julie has also turned her attention to community-controlled energy projects in New Zealand. She spent last summer on the road around New Zealand talking to local trusts, non-profit associations and energy policymakers to understand what the renewable energy space looks like in New Zealand.

“In countries like Canada and New Zealand, a revolution is taking place in the energy sector. New technologies and pressures to decarbonise and decentralise have put pressure on established actors involved in the generation and transmission of power. It is for this reason that the book focuses on the political economy of the electricity sector, rather than technological change alone. In some countries governments have been slow to lead significant transitions, and so I was interested to find up what kind of bottom-up activity was taking place.”

The book has been a great stepping stone for Julie’s work in New Zealand, and she was recently invited to speak at an Off the Grid event on Great Barrier Island, where every house has to provide its own power — and increasingly this is solar and wind generated.

Find out more about Empowering Electricity: Co-operatives, Sustainability, and Power Sector Reform in Canada