Re-thinking the global energy system

Hereford Green Party member Richard Priestley outlines his ideas for how humanity’s use of energy could be more ecologically sustainable and socially just.

Offshore wind turbines
Richard Priestley

Currently, we have a global energy system that is creating climate catastrophe. It is also profoundly socially unjust. We as a species could organize it very differently. Changes to energy use will inevitably co-evolve with changes to politics, economics, farming systems, technologies, infrastructure and much else. My book ‘System Change, Now!’ covers these wider aspects, but today I want to focus on energy.

Various renewable energy technologies are getting rapidly cheaper and more efficient. Solar power is now the cheapest way to generate energy in most parts of the world. Wind power is also getting cheaper, and floating wind turbines will open up many new areas of the world for developing offshore wind. Grid interconnections and many systems of energy storage are making using just renewable forms of energy a cheap and reliable option. 

Academics such as Mark Z Jacobson have long argued the case for switching to 100 per cent renewable forms of energy for all purposes (electricity, heating, cooling, transport and industrial processes), for all countries. He and his team calculate the costs of such a global transition at $73 trillion, but envisage this figure being saved in terms of fossil fuels not purchased and of reduced damage to human health and the global climate.

In the UK, we have a tiny organisation called 100% Renewable UK. It is led by Dr David Toke, who is now a Reader in Energy Politics at the University of Aberdeen. He was once the Energy spokesperson for the Green Party of England and Wales. 100% Renewable UK wanted to commission a study on how the UK could best meet all its energy needs from renewables, and are commissioning Dr Christian Breyer and his team from LUT University in Finland. Had our government been serious about reducing our carbon emissions, they would have wanted to fund exactly this kind of research, but they did not. Instead, funds have been raised by crowdfunding, and by a grant from Greenpeace.

My book takes this global transition to 100 per cent renewable forms of energy as a starting point, and envisages how this could be achieved in the most socially and ecologically beneficial ways possible. Currently, the lifestyles of the mega-rich are extremely profligate in their energy use, while the poorest billion or so people lack even basic things like clean water, sanitation and access to electricity. The book envisages globally redistributive taxation systems and the creation of a network of community energy co-operatives with all 7.8 billion of us as members, with equal voting rights and equal access to energy, as well as the profits from energy sales.

The book argues that we are living through the dying days of ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’ and that we are on the verge of an epochal shift to ‘The Solar Age’. As with previous epochal shifts, such as from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, changes to settlement patterns, diets, ideas and beliefs will all happen in tandem with technological changes.

We are all familiar with the technologies of ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’, but much less so with some of the emerging technologies of ‘The Solar Age’. Agrivoltaics is the term used for the systems of land use that seek to combine solar power, productive agriculture and gains to biodiversity all on the same land. The potential of this is extraordinary in many climatic zones, but especially in hot arid climates. 

The Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Centre is conducting research in the American Southwest. The book argues for thousands more similar projects in all manner of places with various climatic and soil conditions. Clear photovoltaic panels are now being developed to be specifically used with various crops and have huge potential in UK agriculture, especially in combination with soft fruit and horticulture.

Solar-powered desalination will open up desert areas to new forms of agriculture and human settlement. Through the ‘Fossil Fuel Age’ people moved to the newly important coalfields, then to cities based around oilfields. These fuels changed global demographic patterns. It is likely that during ‘The Solar Age’ places with hot and arid climates will emerge as places of opportunity based on cheap solar power. This could result in similarly impressive changes to global population distribution.

The dying days of ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’ are a time of extreme danger. The climate and ecological crises could be reversed if we as a species grab the opportunities that the emerging technologies make possible. The book argues for a more peaceful future, based on ecological sustainability, social justice and a great political, economic and technological transition.

My book ‘System Change, Now!’ is due to be published in late July. To order copies, e-mail Any profits from book sales will go to the Green Party or others pressing for system change.

I am planning a Zoom session for readers to give me feedback and guidance. You can find my blog here.