Fossil ideas, the real transition


How the case of Eeklo fuels a more fundamental debate about energy transition

What if the world is be an organic system and what if it would be simply impossible to burn enough fossil fuels to make it inhabitable? Or maybe more likely what if through cloud seeding, algae furtilisation in the oceans or putting a blanket over Greenland or a giant Helium Balloon or solar screen in space almighty science could save us from climate change? Would there be another issue for Millenials to rally around? So why not tackle the energy issue from a different angle than the current (corporate) climate mainstream? The energy business is about much more than climate change. It is also about abundance, identity and control. Especially in times when we have our mouths full of democracy it’s odd to see that after thirty years of overwhelming evidence a sudden sense of urgency is drowning a more fundamental political discussion of who owns what and who owns who. “Maximizing results”, “with minimal effort”, “reaching goals”, “satisfiying the constituency”, “building public support”… Being structured around geographical and time restrictions democracy has a systemic ecological deficit. And vice versa also ecology and sustainability have been the unique selling position of global green parties, but as other parties rushed the eco-scene greenwashing covered the political cleavage. Making it in general an uneasy topic for socialists and nationalists. Through the case of Eeklo, a small Belgian city ahead of the mainstream green energy market, this essay aims to highlight the potential a transition embeds if only structured in the right way. A shortage of fossil fuels automatically katalyzes a transition towards sustainables. But the commodification of commons that come along with this transition have been outside of the debate for too long. Causing allienation among a substantial part of society and even hostility among more than just the ‘losers of globalisation’. Concluding, this energy transition needs to be democratic or it will always be incomplete. Therefore some proactive urgency is needed before the mainstream-market-mechanisms kick in. And you never know, this might lead to some unexpected side-effects…

“It’s the economy, stupid”

Let’s not kid ourselves. Oil is great! The ambrosia of the last fifty years that made ‘The American Century’ immortal. Its impact and scale are almost unimaginable: to squeeze over twenty tons of plants into one liter. (Hopkins, 2009) Some therefore call it ‘old sunlight’. The 38MJ of energy in each liter is the equivalent of two weeks of human labour, ten hours a day. I wouldn’t dare to make big statements about the question if it is a coincidence the United States abolished slavery after the first commercial oil well in Titusville (Florida, 1859) opened for production. But because of the immense potential of cheap labour, oil is often compared to an army of invisible energy slaves that might just have been cheaper than the cost of two weeks of food and shelter. (Verbanck, 2010)

The upscaling of transport, lighter and more flexible synthetics, agriculture, state structures or even international friendships. 150 years of oil potential have given us a unique development edge. But every medal is only as big as its backside. Upscaling and the benefits of intercultural learning go hand in hand with the interpersonal alienation of a footloose generation on the one hand and the race to the bottom of the global interstate context. Not to mention that cheap synthetics have also led to a huge plastic soup, and microplastic sediments have solidified human geological impact and started the Anthropocene. (Waters, 2016)

Already in 1951 Marion King Hubbert predicted oil would face a production peak in the US, following thirty years after the discovery peak. (Deffeyes, 2005) This model was later expanded to the rest of the world.

“There might be doubts over the moment of the peak (between 2006 and 2025) and if the Gauss-curve is symmetrical or not, but it will happen. And our dependency will create unforeseen challenges. A transition of this magnitude starts ideally twenty, and at least ten years before the peak.”. (Hirsch, Bezdek, & Wendling, 2005)

Claims that the subprime-banking crisis was caused by the inflation of oil- and hereby also food-prices (spring 2008) and directly related to peak oil might be as naive as thinking the energy transition is merely thrusted by a philantropical climate awareness. But let us not be naive and believe Bill Clinton’s spin doctors for once: “it’s the economy, stupid.”

Between 2008 and 2013 importing electricity cost Belgium 1,8 billion €*, apart from the 10 billion € we imported in gas, coal and oil… (Holslag, 2014). Making Belgium 77,5% energy dependent. Only Cyprus, Malta and Luxemburg exceed this (Eurostat, 2015). Not only does that make us vulnerable for price shocks (and peak oil). This import is a euphemism for cash drain. Straight from the average consumer through energy prices, and indirectly through taxes to all levels of government. Paying an annual energy cheque somewhere between 1500 € and 2000 €. With a monthly average income of 3414 € she makes about 40.000 € a year for 250 days of labour. In other words the average Belgian works about 9 to 12 days for foreign companies or regimes we know mainly by reputation. For the lowest 10 income percentile this grows to 14 to 18 days.

A solid question to answer is if we manage ourselves through oil rehab, do we want to wake up in a corporate Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ or in an autonomous and resilient society. If your answer is the latter option, energy dependency should be central in this whole transition. Wouldn’t it be an absolute waste if this momentum would only lead from working for petro-authoritarian regimes into working for multinationals? Two questions remain. Do we still have the luxury to make the transition without the clustered financial and intellectual capital of multinationals? And if this deadline day approach of procrastinating multinationals wasn’t a deliberate gambling strategy with the energy monopoly of the next century at stake. How to combine (neo-)liberal market mechanisms and property rights with a more collective resource nationalism that naturally results from territorial authority, should be the real debate.

Common sense

Who owns the land? For centuries this simply was the one planting a flag and claiming ‘terra nullius’. Everything that lived, laid on or in the ground, or flew became personal possession. King Leopold II of Belgium’s claim over the Congo might be one of the most extreme examples. Property law is older than environmental-, building-, climate laws. Questions like who owns a landscape, sun, rain or wind were never raised – before Mr. Burns blocked the sun from Springfield to increase profits of his nuclear power plant in S6E25 ‘Who shot Mr Burns. Ep 1’ of The Simpsons (1995). In the real world this issue popped up with the Bolivian government approved ‘Law 2029’ in 2000. This privatised the whole water supply,(including the captation of rain or natural wells) giving a monopoly to Aguas del Tunari in an attempt to modernize  the water infrastructure (and guarantee clear water for all Bolivians) in a state that lacked the means to do so. (Chan, Kahn, Cherish, & Vetere, 2007).

Up until the Industrial Revolution virtually all energy was local (wind, biomass, with some turf and coal on the side). Between 1895 and 1932 there were about 6000 energy cooperatives in Germany. Fossil fuels, the political context and electricity changed this. Production and distribution were centralized, creating a new mass product and the birth of the consumer. Small scale cooperatives only survived in remote rural areas where it was just unprofitable to connect to a greater grid (Vansintjan, 2015). If the individual demand is smaller that the collective cost coverage nobody will want to pay for the total internalized cost of use, investment (education, production, distribution infrastructure) and insurance (like it is the case with  nuclear power) – making any transition economically impossible. If the state decides about a transition, the government can alter the economic cost/benefit balance (through taxation or funding) or nationalize it as a public service. In this decision independence, involvement and even individual identity will always be put in the balance between solidarity and benefits of scale in a collective cost-benefit-analysis (including long term availability and sustainability). Of course this accounts only for theoretical, perfect lab conditions.

Fighting windmills

In 28 juni 1999 the council of Eeklo, a small ‘entre les tours de Bruges et Gand’, granted a concession for the first three cooperative windturbines of Belgium. Chances are little anybody used the argument that wind should remain a public good. In a not yet saturated market, sustainability was far from mainstream and big companies just weren’t interested in the neglectable wind section. Citizens, nor their political representatives were concerned about the impact. It was in this vacuum the city decided to write out a concession with eight criteria combining market and cooperative elements. Ecopower offered 100% of direct participation, an annual fix of 5000 € per turbine for the city, and another 5000 € to be invested in energy projects and a local energy consultant giving information, tours and assessments to citizens and the city. Not the most obvious choice, knowing the real market price actually varies from 20.000 € to 25.000€ as Bart Bode, director of the Flemish Wind energy Association (VEA) acknowledges. (Clerix, 2015)

he problem with these contracts is that they commodify the profit of the common good – wind – to two players (the developer and the landowner). While cost on the surrounding is not taken into account. In the following ten years the region of Flanders experienced a real ‘rush on the wind’ which, as a result to the lack of regulation, totally destroyed the public support for wind energy. According to the Minister of Spatial Planning Muyters, citizens took 70% of all projects to court and were able to block half of them. (Jansen, 2015)

Not in Eeklo. Between 2000 and 2002 the city only received one complaint against the construction of the first four turbines. In the following ten years, another four were permitted without any complaint or legal procedure. Already now Eeklo is the city with the highest turbine density (per capita) while having the biggest support for wind energy. The mental switch of not only consuming the energy but also owning the means of production had not missed its effect. Through the approach of direct participation people became more aware of their consumption patterns and this alone lead to a 50% drop of energy usage. It also leads to a more positive perception of the landscape if you look at a windmill that you own.

In 2014 the conclusions of this pioneering approach were formalized in a vision text approved by the full city council stating all new turbines should be 50% cooperative, that the city would  invest 5000 € per year per turbine in landscaping and investing the same amount in annually recurring energy reduction programs. Rather than one big bag of money the choice was very conveniently made for a sustainable involvement, dialogue and public recognition. This vision was put into practice in a special spatial planning initiative allowing 14 new turbines on top of the already existing 8. Some complaints were filed but none took the step of appealing this decision. Eeklo will hereby not only be the first Belgian self-sufficient elektricity city from 2018 on, but also have the highest cooperative market share.

21686211_10159429892330341_800014483823041926_nthe author with a Sengalese delegation in Eeklo

A wind of change: taking district heating to the next level

The non-financial benefit of the energy consultant can’t possibly be downplayed. Maybe the least visible part of the package deal with the city was to explore and guide new projects in order to meet our full energy potential. Definitely the biggest is setting up a district heating system. A study ‘Samsö in Eeklö’ showed the potential of heating more than all houses with the 70% low caloric left-over heat that a plant blows in the air after primal energy recuperation – n energy equivalent of 10.000.000 m³ natural gas. Saving up to 32.000 tons CO2 each year saves as much as not driving a diesel car 3400 times around the world covering 28% of the total carbon footprint of the whole city. Consider that the total cash drain caused by gas bills/import exceeds 40 million € (more than the total budget of the city).

Two big problems stood in the way. A political and institutional one and a practical financial and legal one. The first is rooted in the fact that the waste plant is owned by 19 different municipalities while the benefits of the now lost heat would only go to one. Through suddenly adding value to something that until recent was blown out of the chimney, everybody wants to chip in. This was bypassed by the idea that the city could also build a decentralized bidirectional district heating system (later more) without the waste plant. And every single citizen would be allowed to add heat to the network from solar, earth or other, smaller recuperation installations (of course this was not totally economically true:)).

Still it solved the deadlock. But not the latter practical, legal and financial problem. With costs between 750.000 € and 1.000.000 € per kilometer the city had no intention of paying for it themselves. And investments are so big, chances are little that even if we could find one provider this firm would have a monopoly which would make any concession very vulnerable both to European free market law and a regional law stating people should be free to chose their energy provider. Only what company would risk such an investment without any guarantee of customers? And like in wind any law or decree shaping this rapidly evolving industry is absent. This is a limiting factor for district heating systems in Belgium and makes them lose out compared  to historical ones and bigger urban developments (where the ground is still private and complicated free market laws donot apply). After creating our own legal framework one partner met all our criteria (cooperative price, fighting energy poverty, total energy shift from grey to green, …) and the negotiations over the extend of the given monopoly position started. Could, should, must the government force people to connect when the grid passes by? Once a concession is given by an open and public market demand one could argue collective climate goals ‘overrule’ personal wishes… But then the company could have easily abused its monopolist position by price setting,  covering only dense and thereby profitable areas. On the other hand it also shouldn’t be that even the most remote farms are given communal grid solutions. The difficulty here is to find a balance between what the community provides and individual responsibility. How to take fast evolving off-grid solutions into account? They are making households resilient on one hand but also raise network and distribution costs for people that can’t afford to go off grid.

Combining the evolution to a zero-waste, cradle to cradle society and off-grid solutions have let to the concept of rethinking district heating which is now constructed around one centralized big power source in a one-to-many system. Off-gridders would be connected in a decentralized and bi-directional cooperative grid. In this sense not only profits are distributed among the cooperant but (sustainable) power sources are optimized and consumers fully become producers too. Producers can remain  off-grid if they want, but can also add  heat to a larger grid when their need is fulfilled. This creates  a different economic framework for (sustainable) power sources as it  increases the return of investment of sustainables complementary to current recuperation possibilities and speeds up the pay-off period for fossils fuels and the transition without subsidies.

Change is chances and choices

New techniques are revolutionizing the energy landscape. Divestment from fossil fuels enables both a revival of old and almost forgotten methods as well as it opens a totally new range of possibilities. From the old system of watermills inside our water supply within households, over harvesting wave-energy, a thousand and one methods of photovoltaics to to ultra modern Tesla batteries. But more than openness towards these a flexible but bigger legal framework is needed. Simply because what is profitable and what is not is also in transition. So we need more than a law or decree. But a global energy pact defining what is common, covering basic needs on one hand. But also leaving enough opening (and perhaps even state withdrawal) for individual responsibility, creativity and entrepreneurial citizens or groups to organize themselves. Maybe one could even consider free state conditions leaving room for experimental start-ups. The debate about defining and limiting commons is the most fundamental democratic one can have. Only then followed by who and how they are controlled.

*Netto elektriciteitsimport 362 miljoen € + Nederlandse en Franse bedrijven die 760 miljoen € + 678 miljoen € gas – en steenkool die als brandstof dienen voor de kool-en gascentrales.


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