An interview with Craig Morris on the Energy Democracy project

by Solar Server International Correspondent Christian Roselund
April 24th, 2013

Craig Morris
Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition, a website that explains Germany's energy transition to the world in English. Born and educated in the US, he founded Petite Planète  in 2002 and has been working in the renewables sector ever since. In 2006, he published Energy Switch, the English edition of his German book from 2005 entitled Zukunftsenergien. Since 2010, he has written every workday for Renewables International. Based in Freiburg since 1992, he publishes in both English and German.


Solar Server: What is the Energy Democracy project, and what does it seek to accomplish?

Craig Morris: Kirsten Hasberg, a Danish lady who is actually the head of the project, contacted me about her idea of using videos and infographics to reach a lay audience. I publish things in writing every day, but I rarely reach people who are not policy wonks. She was originally interested in the 100 % Renewables idea – convincing people that we can get all of our energy from renewables.

I convinced her that lots of people are talking about that, and the world is indeed shifting to renewables anyway merely because of the price. Increasingly, renewables are competitive. But too few people are talking about the one-time opportunity that this transition offers. We are setting up a new energy infrastructure, and distributed renewables do not have to be in the hands of large corporations.

What's more, once this new infrastructure for renewables has been set up, it will be hard to transition from corporate to citizen ownership of existing large wind farms and utility-scale solar plants. Since the 1970s, when the German movement got started, it has been about normal citizens making their own energy.

We will therefore be a central platform – an app – for such stories worldwide. We will present stories about Energy Democracy from around the world, and we hope that our material will go viral in social media. I'd like to see my friends and relatives on Facebook sharing this stuff because they think it's cool and eye-opening.


Solar Server: While there has been a lot of focus on the carbon reduction aspect of distributed solar and feed-in tariffs, we hear less in the United States about the democratization of energy production. Can you explain more about the changes in power relations due to changes in power production?

Craig Morris: Americans focus on the cost of renewables and wonder why Germans are willing to pay so much for their electricity. The answer is simple: they pay so much of this money back to themselves.

With solar, the best example is SolarCity, whose business model is completely unnecessary in Germany. The firm acts as a middleman. Homeowners get to have a solar roof and purchase the power, with ownership eventually reverting to them. So the US focuses on allowing people to buy solar from their solar roof (owned by a listed corporation), whereas Germany allows Germans to sell power from the array they own to power corporations at a reasonable profit. The lack of a middleman in Germany also helps explain why solar costs only half as much in Germany as it does in sunny California.

Citizen ownership also helps reduce NIMBYism. In the US and the UK, there is sometimes – and understandably – great resistance among local communities to large wind farms. People feel that they will have to live with the visual impact while some corporation profits. In the US, the American Wind Energy Association lists projects by owner, which you can't even do in Germany because ownership is splintered across so many investors. So Germans want a say in what goes where, and they want to be able to invest and profit.


Solar Server: I understand you are funding this project through Indiegogo. Why did the team choose to use a crowdfunding platform?

Craig Morris: Partly, we want to demonstrate that there is interest if we want to move on later to get sponsorship from companies and organizations in the sector. That's why it is interesting for us to get a large number of people donating relatively small amounts. We not only want to have a budget to get started with, but also show that we have hundreds, if not thousands, of people supporting us.

And, of course, it all fits in with the concept of people taking things into their own hands. In fact, while we do want to focus on how mid-size companies, not large corporations, have driven the switch to renewables in Europe, we are not interested in telling the story of how large corporations (like BP, Shell, Germany's Siemens or GE of the US) have been involved. We will thus not be able to bank on funding from the very corporations that have deep pockets. So we have to go for a large number of small contributions – just as Germany, Australia, and other countries get a lot of their solar power from hundreds of thousands of small rooftop arrays.


Solar Server: I note that this project is supported by the World Future Council. Can you tell us more about their work?

Craig Morris: Well, I'm just the content guy so you'd have to ask Kirsten about the business side (laughs). But as the person who will help shape the stories we tell, I know that the World Future Council is a global organization with an incredible network. When they hold an event, people like Bill Clinton and Bianca Jagger show up to speak for them.

I've been following their work for at least the past seven years or so. They are the main worldwide organization pushing feed-in tariffs, the policy that ensures that German citizens can invest in renewables profitably. For instance, they published Miguel Mendonca’s Feed-in tariff Handbook a few years ago.

In the Anglo world, feed-in tariffs are often held to be generous payments for solar, but in fact they provide a modest return on investments not only in solar, but also in wind, biomass, and whatever else you want to design them for (geothermal, small hydro, etc.).

Feed-in tariffs not only guarantee payment prices, but – and this is often overlooked – ensure priority for renewable power on the grid. It is safe to say that, without feed-in tariffs, power supply would have remained in the hands of corporations during Germany's energy transition – exactly what is happening in the US now, which also does not have feed-in tariffs. So the World Future Council is a natural partner for us.

Solar Server: Is there anything that we haven't talked about regarding this project that you think is important for Solar Server's readers to know?

Craig Morris: Once we get going, the platform will be open to submissions from around the world, provided that the content shows how people can democratize energy production and make their own power. So if you would like to tell such a story, we would very much appreciate your support during the crowdfunding campaign.

Likewise, if you would like for communities and citizens to no longer be referred to just as consumers, and if you want people to have a say in how their communities are shaped, you can help us get the message out in the energy sector by chipping in a few bucks on the campaign's crowdfunding website.