By Fraser Stewart, EnergyREV researcher, University of Strathclyde
As we begin to look towards rebuilding post-COVID-19, discussions around how we might achieve this have shifted to our energy system. Many argue that smart local energy systems, in particular, could hold the key to a prosperous, green recovery.
It is certainly a bold and ambitious vision. Knowing that SLES can provide a number of benefits for users, ranging from savings on fuel bills to emission reductions to community capacity building and finance innovation, a wider rolling out of SLES may very well prove a powerful jolt to kickstart communities back into life after the pandemic.
Yet it is important to recognise the risks of treating SLES as an unanimously positive or prosperous solution. While the benefits are diverse and substantial, in reality not everyone across society has the same access to them. From community energy to household solar panels to smart storage systems and beyond, inequalities exist in who gets to reap these local energy rewards.
Around the world, people in lower income groups, from disadvantaged backgrounds and from minority ethnic communities face exclusion from local energy innovations, even in some cases where policy incentives are designed to counteract this. Implications of this may also run deeper still. Social and economic inequalities are not only evident in the ability to access to SLES, but the uptake of SLES can, in some cases, unwittingly replicate and exacerbate these inequalities over time.
It is thus important to recognise that, where more advantaged communities are better placed to access SLES, so too are they better placed to reap the material social and economic rewards. Any discussion of COVID-19 recovery and energy systems thus needs to remember that the implications of SLES expansion may very well have an accidental injustice at its core. Yet the upshot of this is that, when targeted more effectively, SLES can also be a powerful tool for alleviating some of those injustices, too.
Recovery from COVID-19 is a formative moment, where actions now will have lasting socioeconomic effects for generations to come. We need to ask ourselves: are we looking for a quick fix, or are we looking for a recovery that is both prosperous and just?
If the answer is the latter, then we need to be mindful of these inequalities and impacts beyond local energy systems themselves, and address them with real care and consideration. Power to some of the people will not be enough.