Lesedauer: 11 Minuten

Dr. Andrea Feldpausch-Parker is an associate professor of environmental and science communication at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She is currently doing research regarding climate change and Energy Democracy. Lars Freer interviews her for TechTalkers about her research and the challenges coming with energy transition.

Lars Freer: Your field of expertise is environmental communication with special interest in the concept of Energy Democracy. Can you explain to our readers the idea of Energy Democracy?

Dr. Andrea Feldpausch-Parker: Energy Democracy is a social movement which brings together two areas: “Energy” in the form of energy resources and system transition as well as “Democracy” in the form of public engagement, policies, and social impact to communities worldwide.

Can you give us an example?

One of my current research projects regarding Energy Democracy is in Puerto Rico. That island territory of the United States is a particular point of interest because it is highly susceptible to an increased number and intensity of hurricanes due to the climate change. Hurricane “Maria” in 2017 decimated the energy infrastructure of the island. As a consequence, some places in Puerto Rico did not have power almost a whole year later. Such conditions are not acceptable in our day and age.

How was this possible?

People in Puerto Rico deal with an old infrastructure that is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. They use it for heating and electricity as well as for transportation. At the same time, the territory is in an economically bad situation. And, of course, Puerto Rico is constantly getting hit by intense hurricanes. It is a real microcosm of a bad situation.

What can be done to change this situation?

There are current efforts to make a transition on the island to renewable energy generation. Residents would then no longer be as dependent on fossil fuels that they have to import. Moreover, they are considering decentralizing the system, making infrastructure less susceptible to blackouts. Furthermore, it must be ensured that even remote communities far away from the capital have the lights back on in a reasonable amount of time. That is a social justice issue in Energy Democracy: How do we make sure that the amount of money you have in your pocket does not determine how fast you get your electricity turned back on.

What is the purpose of Energy Democracy regarding the worldwide energy transition to renewables and climate change?

Looking at our current energy systems, there is an imbalance of power and what those systems look like. We are currently in a space and time where we need to address our energy systems to curb our carbon emissions to address climate change. This brings a big incentive to transition away from energy resources that have contributed to climate change and other environmental and human harms. Simultaneously, we need to answer how to address some social ills that are also present.

Which social ills do you mean?

Some people are disproportionately affected by negative health aspects of fossil fuel-based industries. For example, people that are involved in the extraction of coal suffer from health issues like black lung. Those who live near coal-fired power plants are dealing with poor air quality that leads to a whole lot of health conditions including lung cancer. In addition, there are people who have less access to energy that is being produced than others.

What do you suggest?

We must think about these technologies from the perspective of extraction all the way to consumption. Health is a big factor, and we can think of it as environmental health and we must remember that humans are part of the environment. It is our own health that we are dealing with. Thus, environmental justice and this idea of human well-being attached to the environments in which we live is also a component within the Energy Democracy movement.

Do these problems occur worldwide?

There is an equity issue and then there is a justice-based issue. Energy transition affects people in different ways. Countries that are already well off economically have more opportunities to make energy transitions quicker. Nations that are still in the process of building their infrastructure have different opportunities. Instead of adopting technologies that have more problems associated with them, they can adopt technologies that cause less environmental harms. We need to ensure that there is a fairness aspect and that an energy system benefits the entire community.

If you could give one advice to establish Energy Democracy, what would it be?

We must understand that there are different publics that we try to address and think about. Energy transitions need to be implemented differently, based on different populations and problems. The individual situation is crucial. We must look at it in a more zoomed in level and think about how we make sure that we get to that fairness factor.

Do renewable energies solve all the issues you mentioned before, especially the human health issues?

All energy technologies have some drawbacks. There is nothing we would call a “silver bullet”, a perfect energy technology that has not one single fault.

These are a lot of challenges – right now and in the future. Especially when looking at the time frame given by the climate change.

It is not easy, there are a lot of barriers. Nonetheless we are a species that has the drive and a lot of ingenuity when we need it. Unfortunately, we as a society need at first some incentive like a fire burning under us to make the transitions that we really need. I believe that we do have the ability to make these changes. Because if we thought it was impossible, we wouldn’t even attempt it – and that is not acceptable. Instead of thinking it is unattainable, we see it as something we can achieve with determination.

I would like to thank you for taking the time to have this very interesting conversation with me.

More information about Dr. Andrea Feldpausch-Parker

Dr. Andrea Feldpausch-Parker is an associate professor in environmental and science communication from the State of New York in the USA. She started studying energy systems as part of her Ph.D. research. For her dissertation work, she studied carbon capture and storage technologies. Nowadays, a lot of her research is focused on natural resources and energy systems. For instance, how we use natural resources, doing it in a sustainable manner and doing it in a way that we are having less impact on the environment. Energy is one of her areas of focus and Energy Democracy is specifically a topic that she has been working on since 2016.

“Climate change is an area of scholarship that affects us all, and as a citizen of the world I feel like it is my duty to research something that is going to benefit society as well as the planet overall.”

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