News and events

TUED Bulletin 141 – Indonesia: TUED Supports Unions in Constitutional Court Battle to Stop “JETP” Energy Privatisation

Broad coalition organises to defend public energy clause in Indonesian Constitution, oppose  pro-privatisation electricity reforms.

Following yesterday’s elections in Indonesia, we turn to the country’s energy sector and the Indonesian labor movement’s fight to defend public energy against the threat posed by the “privatise to decarbonise” agenda reflected in the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) between the rich countries and the Indonesian government.  

TUED and the Indonesian Energy Unions 

In mid-January 2024, TUED supported a broad coalition of trade unions, academics and public figures that petitioned Indonesia’s Constitutional Court to declare unconstitutional the electricity sector reform provisions in Law Number 6 of 2023.  

Known as GEKANAS, the coalition’s petition reflected concerns that the new law would lead to the “unbundling” of PLN, the public power utility, and increase the role of the for-profit independent power producers (IPPs.) The coalition’s effort is supported by power sector unions, namely:  

  • PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara (Persero) or SP PLN
  • Indonesia Power or PP IP, 
  • The PT Pembangkitan Jawa Bali

Article 33 of Indonesia’s Constitution states that the country’s vital resources should be controlled by the Indonesian state. Appearing as an expert witness before the Court in Jakarta, TUED coordinator Sean Sweeney drew attention to the “privatise to decarbonise” agenda embedded in the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) between the rich countries and Indonesia. This, suggested Sweeney, lies behind the energy provisions of Law Number 6 which, he said, would “eviscerate Article 33.” A video of Sweeney’s intervention Constitutional Court is available here.

Strings Attached 

Sweeney told the court that JETP financing from rich countries comes with strings attached, as seen in the South African case. Announced in November 2021, the JETP with South Africa, the first of its kind, set the tone. It states that financing would be contingent upon unbundling of the public utility, Eskom. The JETP statement between the rich countries and the Government of Indonesia called for a “clear strategy for private sector engagement,” detailing “policy reforms necessary to address any regulatory barriers.”  

In November 2022, at the G20 Summit in Bali, a group of developed countries—led by the US and Japan—pledged to mobilize US$20 billion over the next 3-5 years to accelerate Indonesia’s energy transition through early retirement of coal power plants and deployment of renewable energy. Currently, the public utility PLN generates about 65% of the country’s electricity, down from 92% in 1990. The presence of IPPs has grown to 35% of generation. The JETP is designed to accelerate the growth of the for-profit IPPs. 

In Indonesia’s case, the utility PLN is encouraging the growth of IPPs as seen in the PLN’s Electricity Power Supply Business Plan (RUPTL), 2021–2030, from October 2021. The World Bank and its regional Asia Development Bank (ADB) “will simultaneously target pioneering large-scale RE and storage (RE+Storage) projects led by the private sector that will aim to serve demand both in grid-connected and captive power contexts.” 

Why would PLN wish to further undermine its position in the power sector? The RUPTL notes that the World Bank and ADB is “preparing a results-based lending (RBL) program to support PLN in accelerating Indonesia’s clean energy transition.”  Periodic loan disbursements will be contingent upon “satisfactory performance.” The ADB partnership with the Government of Indonesia notes that “ADB support will center on policy reforms toward stronger energy sector governance, clean energy and energy efficiency, and private sector participation, while the investment focus will be on sustainable power generation, power transmission systems, and electricity grids.”

The JETP, Article 33, and Private Sector Participation 

The designers of the JETP with Indonesia do not want to explicitly confront Article 33, said Sweeney, but the innocuous language of Law No 6, allows for private sector “participation” in the electricity system will allow this objective to be achieved via the “back door.” Read the official court press release on Sweeney’s intervention. 

In his written submission to the Court, Sweeney stated that by 2030, PLN’s role will be reduced to being mainly a buyer of electricity (as the “off-taker”) from privately owned generators. This would mean the state would no longer have control over its electricity system. 

Released in late November 2023, the Indonesia JETP Comprehensive Investment and Policy Plan, explicitly states: “A PPA [power purchase agreement] should not be treated by its contracting parties as a procurement of a ‘project’ or an ‘asset’ that PLN would eventually own but rather as a procurement of electrons.” In other words, electricity will no longer be seen as a public good generated for human development and nation-building; rather, electricity will become a commodity that PLN is legally obligated to purchase from private companies.

Sweeney’s submission also provided data that pointed to the failure of the “blended finance” model that informs the JETP. The $20 billion dollar JETP package would add to the country’s debt obligations while leaving Indonesia to find an additional $97 billion to finance the transition away from coal. 

Public Pathway as an Alternative to JETPs

Sweeney then explained that Indonesia and other coal-dependent countries in the Global South could pursue an alternative “public pathway” approach where state control and public financing can be the drivers of economy wide decarbonisation based on prudent energy planning within a framework of global public goods.
The need for this policy shift is made evident in the data on global energy trends, he said. These trends indicate that we are witnessing an energy transition, but an energy expansion. Fossil fuel use is rising, not falling. Greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) also continue to rise, making the Paris Agreement targets almost meaningless in the short term.

Indonesian Trade Unions Fight Back

The Indonesian labor movement and its allies continue to organize in defense of Article 33 and PLN’s role as the principal energy provider. 

On January 17th, roughly 60 union leaders gathered for a discussion on “ Lessons Learned from the Privatisation of Electricity around the World” – and the Public Pathway alternative. 

Said Andy Wijaya, the General Secretary of Persatuan Pegawai Indonesia Power: “Once I was told by a Parliament member that if a State-Owned Company is privatized, the wage would increase sevenfold. I said that currently I am working in PT PLN, and I am paid. But there is no guarantee that my children, my family will be able to get a job at PT PLN that is also well-paid, just like me. Especially if PLN is privatized. I will feel very guilty if in the future, our children will have to pay expensive electricity price because PLN is privatized and I don’t do anything to stop it.” 

“Public sector unions play a pivotal role for social justice and public energy that improves people’s lives. Therefore, we need to stay strong in defending public services with pure vigour and use all our powers as unions to keep public energy and services in the hands of the public. Our work with affiliates in Indonesia is to fight againts privatisations and towards a Public Pathway alternative that democratises public services,” said Indah Budiarti, Project Coordinator of the PSI Southeast Asia Office and based in Indonesia. Read Budiarti’s insightful article, “Analyzing the Dynamics of Indonesian Energy: Between Government’s Subsidy, Privatization, and Ecological Sustainability”.

In solidarity,
The TUED Team

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network.

News and events

TUED Bulletin 137 – Updates on TUED South & Discussion on Position Paper “Reclaim & Restore” Public Utilities to Fight Energy Poverty

RSVP and join TUED on Wednesday, August 16th, 0800 – 0930 Eastern US to discuss: Reclaim and Restore: Preparing a Public Pathway to Address Energy Poverty and Energy Transition in sub-Saharan Africa.

Reclaim and Restore

In mid-May 2023, unions from 12 countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) came together in Johannesburg to lay the groundwork for a public pathway approach to addressing the challenge of energy poverty in the region.  

Convened by TUED South, the 3-day meeting discussed a draft position paper that brings to light the abject failure of neoliberal approaches to addressing energy poverty in the region. 

Focusing on the World Bank, the paper describes how the Bank’s structural adjustment agenda of the 1990s targeted public utilities and redirected financial support to for-profit independent power producers (IPPs). The results have been devastating. Today half of the region’s population (roughly 600 million people) have no electricity, 70% in rural regions. 

The document has been updated and is available here. It advocates for a “reclaim and restore” approach to energy utilities so they can begin to repair the damage of the past 30 years. 

We will first hear from TUED unions based in Namibia, Uganda, South Africa, and Kenya. View the draft program here. 

Please RSVP for the Global Forum here. Interpretation will be provided in English, French, and Spanish. 

New TUED Union: Independent Education Union of Australia (IEU).  Welcome IEU! 

The Independent Education Union of Australia (IEU) represents over 75,000 workers in non-government schools and institutions across Australia. Learn about IEU’s work on their website and Twitter (X)

In solidarity,
The TUED Team

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network. 

News and events

TUED Bulletin 128 – Brazilian Unions Call for Renationalization of Energy, Reversing Bolsonaro Privatizations

As the Lula administration closes its second month in office, review key trade union demands, summarise key energy takeaways from the 2023-2026 Lula governing plan, and interview a leader of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Platform on Water and Energy (POCAE), a coalition of leading trade unions and social movements in Brazil. Next week, we’ll keep our eye on Brazil and share our abridged interview with CUT Brasil on their analysis of Lula’s energy policies and their priority campaigns for 2023.

To celebrate our longstanding partnership with the CUNY School for Labor and Urban Studies, we’ve highlighted a selection of resources from past collaborations. On March 7, join us at the CUNY SLU public programming event “Learning from Global South Unions: Student Voices on Climate Action and a Just Energy Transition”.  Register here.

The 2023-2026 Governing Plan of Lula 

While policies are still taking shape in Lula’s new administration, we can ground our analysis on the 2023-2026 governing plan, published in mid-2022 during the electoral campaign by Lula and his centre-right running mate, Alckmin. Of the document’s 120 points, four points (75-78)  specifically reflect energy policy commitments: support for energy sovereignty, opposition to ongoing privatization measures for Petrobras and Electrobras, and increasing the energy mix with renewables. 

Trade Unions Demands

Electrobras underwent privatisation in 2022 under Bolsonaro, with the federal government’s shares falling from 72 per cent to 43 per cent, and a measure limiting its voting power to 10%. Eletrobras is responsible for 30 per cent of all generation and 45 per cent of transmission in Brazil. Íkaro Chaves, Director of the National Collective of Electricians (CNE), urges, “It is not a popsicle factory; it is a company that provides essential public services to society, and its public control is regulated in the constitution,” adding that Lula “made it clear that the goal is to undo this banditry against the [public ownership] and eventually if conditions are favourable (…)  to re-nationalise”. Reclaiming majority public ownership would require recovering 7% of the shares. CNE has argued for the re-nationalization of Electrobras and recently laid out their demands in an open letter to the Minister of Mines and Energy (MME), Alexandre Silveira. 

This week, members of the CNE also met with the President of the Workers Party, Gleisi Hoffman, to discuss the renationalisation of Eletrobras. In their meeting in Brasilia, the electrical workers emphasized that “defending renationalisation of Electrobras is defending Brazil”.

Petrobras has become a “dividend-paying machine,” according to Oil Workers Federation (FUP). Private shareholders currently hold nearly 65% of Petrobras’ capital, and the company is considered the world’s second-largestdividend payer. Last year, Petrobras produced a record net profit of R$ 188.3 billion in 2022 at the high cost of privatizations and a dramatic reduction of investments in the country. Nearly all profits (R$ 180 billion) went directly to investors. The amount invested in Brazil, about R$ 52 billion or US$10 billion, is 80% below the level of annual investments observed between 2010 and 2013 under PT administrations.

Deyvid Bacelar, Coordinator of FUP, has spoken about the investment crisis and the public pathway alternative, stating, “Petrobrás in recent years has become a dividend-paying machine, transferring to shareholders all the profit obtained from privatizations and abusive fuel prices. We urgently need changes in the pricing policy and to reclaim the state-owned company so that it once again invests in Brazil with long-term policies.”

In a recent interview, he added, “we will have a process of rebuilding what was destroyed by previous governments. It is time for the oil trade union movement to put pressure on our government and the management of President Jean Paul Prates so that what was presented in President Lula’s government program will be put into practice.” 

To organize and prioritize their demands, the Social Observatory of Petroleum, linked to the National Federation of Petroleum Workers (FNP), published a 10-point manifesto, “Petrobras for Brazilians”, including Point 10: “Retake a 100% state-owned Petrobrás, repurchasing its shares – especially those traded on the New York Stock Exchange – and closing its capital. Additionally, reinstate the state monopoly of Oil and Gas.”

Trade Union and Social Movement Platform presents demands to the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME)

The Workers’ and Peasants’ Platform on Water and Energy (POCAE), a coalition of leading trade unions and social movements in Brazil, has published its collective energy transition demands and proposals to the leadership of the MME. 

In the past, MME Minister Silveria opposed privatisation in the energy sector, but unions recognize the need for ongoing pressure from the trade union movement to move him and the new administration toward policy reforms that support a public pathway in energy. The demands made by POCAE to the MME were published in December 2022 in the document “For Energy Sovereignty and Open Prices.” The demands include recovering energy sovereignty, reclaiming Electrobras and privatized parts of Petrobras to the public sector, and instituting policies for the state-led reindustrialization of the energy supply chain. 

According to Fernando Fernandes, coordinator of POCAE, “The leading trade unions and organisations that make up the Workers’ and Peasants’ Platform for Water and Energy have been presenting proposals in the energy and water sectors. Lula was elected with the support of a broad front of diverse social sectors, some of who disagreed with the proposals of the unions and popular movements. In view of this, we have collectively built this document to present our concerns and list some points that we hope will be commitments assumed by a minister of Mines and Energy in Lula’s government,” explained Fernandes. Speaking to POCAE’s priorities in upcoming months, Fernandes asserts, “first, it is necessary to pressure the MME to commit to pro-public energy policies and to reversing the privatisations of public companies, which have worsened the living conditions of the Brazilian people. It is critical to continue to push trade union and organisational demands as well as alternative programs.”

TUED’s Partnership with the City University of New York’s School for Labor and Urban Studies 

Since 2015, the City University of New York’s School for Labor and Urban Studies has contributed critical support for the TUED project. Collaborations with CUNY SLU include the New Labor Forum national journal, the Reinventing Solidarity podcast, support for the 2020 Global Trade Union Assembly, as well as ongoing opportunities to engage with SLU students and its community through public programming and student scholarships. 

“Reinventing Solidarity” Podcast episodes featuring TUED’s work (in English):

On the evening of March 7th, between 7-8 pm ET, CUNY SLU and TUED will co-host a public event titled “Learning from Global South Unions: Student Voices on Climate Action and a Just Energy Transition.” 

Join to learn from SLU students and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy about the launch of TUED South in Africa and upcoming opportunities for students and other activists to learn about climate action and organising with unions globally for a public pathway to a just energy transition. The event will be in English. For the zoom link, please register here

In solidarity,

The TUED Team

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network. 

News and events

TUED Bulletin 126 – Building the Public Pathway in Chile

Report by Lala Peñaranda, TUED Latin America organizer 

This bulletin includes three sections: (1) a report back from our discussions with Chilean trade unions, (2) a brief summary of Our Future is Public conference, and (3) an invitation to the upcoming December 21st TUED Global Forum. 

In early December, TUED participated in the Our Future is Public conference in Santiago Chile, organized by Public Services International (PSI), the Transnational Institute (TNI), and the Tax Justice Network, among others.  Following the conference, TUED co-organized a strategy session with affiliates of the country’s main trade union body, CUT Chile

Meanwhile, momentum is building for the next TUED Global Forum on Wednesday, December 21st, which will focus on Global South experiences and strategies for building a public pathway. The Global Forum will feature union voices from the launch of TUED South which took place last October in Nairobi (See below). Register for the Global Forum here and share the invitation with your union members and allies.   

CUT Chile and TUED Unions Discuss Challenges and Possibilities 

On December 3rd, CUT Chile and TUEDco-organized a strategy session at the historic headquarters of the national center. TUED also engaged in discussions with several CUT affiliates and allies, including energy unions Fentrapech (oil), Constramet (mining), FENATRAMA(public sector), and Santiago Metro workers, among others. We also heard from the Movimiento Litio para Chile, a national coalition of trade unions, academics, and social movements building towards a National Lithium Company and regional coordination of public lithium planning with the governments of Bolivia, Mexico, and Argentina. 

The CUT Chile strategy session (agenda here) was opened by CUT Chile president David Acuña and followed by two thematic sessions. The first focused on regional perspectives from Uruguay, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Chile, and Brazil on the struggle to reclaim public energy. The Chilean perspective was presented by trade union leader Williams Montes of the National Federation of Oil and Related Unions of Chile (FENATRAPECH). The second session focused on building regional support for a public pathway approach to the energy transition, The Chilean perspective was presented by the CUT Chile Environmental Secretariat, Alejandro Ochoa Gaboardi. 

In addition to CUT Chile affiliates, trade union participation included CUT-Brazil, CGT-France, Oilfield Workers Trade Union of Trinidad and Tobago, the Unión Nacional de Técnicos y Profesionistas Petroleros (Untypp), Mexico, as well as the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and Public Services International (PSI). PSI General Secretary Rosa Pavanelli offered PSI’s support for the effort to develop a public pathway approach in Chile, and would seek to engage PSI affiliates in the effort. 

The Privatization Laboratory

The country’s economic and social fabric has been seriously damaged as a result of the full-on privatization of public services in Chile that began following the Pinochet coup and was forced through by dictatorship. 

In terms of energy, from 1970-1973 the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity/ UP) government of Salvador Allende nationalized more than 500 companies in Chile, most significantly copper, the main source of wealth. The military regime returned most of the companies to the private sector and then privatized an additional 50 of the 67 state-owned companies that existed before the UP. The power sector was fully privatized, one of the few countries in the Global South to cede complete control of its power sector to private interests. 

While this makes the challenge of reclaiming the power sector to public ownership formidable, unions in Chile expressed an interest in working alongside unions across the region to present an alternative approach to the energy transition. Furthermore, CUT Chile announced they are prioritizing the rebooting of their energy committee in order to facilitate coordination across all energy sector affiliates in the work towards a just transition. TUED looks forward to working with our Chilean comrades and supporting this effort. 

During the past decade, various governments have sought to develop solar power in Chile, with for-profit multinationals from Spain, China and elsewhere carving out considerable space. The largest solar companies include Acciona (Spain), JinkoSolar (China), Trina Solar (China), Enel Green Power (Italy), and First Solar (US). 

Speaking on its operations within the country, Enel recently described Chile as its longstanding “testing ground for the Enel Group’s innovations,” adding that Enel has been “unrivaled in its ability to seize the opportunity offered by the Chilean government when it sought companies to invest in renewable energies.” Enel, which is involved in Chile’s  solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric sector, boasts that in “the last three years we have signed more than 300 Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) for the sale of more than 150 TWh of electricity, 75% of which is certified renewable energy.” 

Plans are also being developed for several hydrogen projects, but the sector is facing opposition as well as rising prices and technical challenges due to the neglect of the transmission and distribution infrastructure. 

While presented as an example of how to drive an energy transition,modern renewables (wind and solar) contribute around 10% of the country’s power. It’s questionable whether or not the country’s “net zero by 2050” target will be achieved absent a major change in policy.  

The Difficult Road Back 

A recurring theme throughout our discussions with Chilean trade union leaders was the significance of regional coordination, namely how unions in Chile and across Latin America can work together as a block to develop a public pathway alternative to the neoliberal approach to energy transition. 

Comrades from Chile presented a number of key challenges facing the trade union movement. The current political situation is less favorable than it was just a year ago. On September 4, 2022,  Chileans  cast their ballots in a plebiscite that decided the fate of a new draft constitution, with 62% of the votes favoring “rechazo” or rejection. Although a new constitution will be drafted, the “rechazo” was a serious setback for the government and the trade unions. Just three years ago (October 2019) the country witnessed a historic mass uprising, and a year later Chileans overwhelmingly voted in favor of replacing the 1980 Constitution from the Pinochet era. In December 2021, Gabriel Boric was elected as president with 55.8 % of the vote. 

Taking a medium term view, the discussions focused on how unions in Chile and across the Latin American subcontinent can work together to develop a public pathway alternative to the neoliberal approach to energy transition. 

“We want to strengthen our international connections in the fight to reclaim energy. Our task is difficult, but together we can win,” said William Montes of the National Federation of Oil and Related Unions of Chile (FENATRAPECH). 

Social Movements Declare: Our Future is Public!

Our Future is Public (#OFiP22) Conference, held between November 29- December 2 in Santiago, Chile, gathered social movements and organizations to develop strategies and narratives aimed at strengthening public services while tackling climate change and the materialization of economic, social and cultural rights. 

The first two days were dedicated to sectoral meetings on energy, health, education, agriculture, economic justice and social protection, food systems, housing, transportation, waste and water. The final two days consisted of collective discussion on cross-cutting themes including the climate emergency, gender equality, economic and tax justice, and democratic ownership. The Santiago Declaration 

The energy sector two-day meetings, which TUED co-organized, included presentations by TUED union leaders and had the following goals: 

  1. Build bigger and stronger alliances to develop effective demands around public ownership underpinned by energy democracy and community participation. 
  2. Bring public energy, energy democracy, ecofeminism, decolonisation, environmental and Indigenous justice groups together to develop a shared analysis and way forward. 
  3. Develop a common narrative and energy programme, meaning a number of programmatic demands that unpacks public ownership as the pre-condition and democratic mechanisms as tools to turn vision around Indigenous Peoples justice, ecofeminism, and decolonisation into policy proposals. 
  4. Identify strategic opportunities for collective action.

The conference’s public document, the Santiago Declaration, is being finalized and will be published in the coming weeks, viewable on the PSI website.

Upcoming Global Forum: Join the Discussion! 

TUED will host a Global Forum on Wednesday, December 21 @ 8am ET/New York (find your local times here)  during which we will hear about the launch of “TUED South” in Nairobi in mid-October. Interpretation will be available in Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English. 

The Global Forum will dive into the TUEDSouth framing document, which offers a preliminary framework to address issues of the energy transition, energy poverty, and expansion of fossil fuels in the Global South.  

We also hope to hear reports from comrades who attended COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, and the 5th ITUC World Congress in Melbourne.  Register for the Global Forum here and please share the invitation with your union members and allies.   

In Solidarity,
The TUED Team

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network. 

News and events

TUED Bulletin 123 – South Africa: Unions and Allies form United Front, Call for “Public Pathway” Approach to Energy Transition

The fight to defend public energy in South Africa has grown more intense in recent weeks. The country  has been hit by years of power cuts (“load shedding”) that is, TUED and its allies have argued, the direct result of years of political attacks on the public utility known as Eskom. 

In a major statement on July 26th, President Ramaphosa announced that the private sector was ready to address the country’s growing energy crisis, and the government intended to remove “red tape” in order to invite more investment from so-called independent power producers (or IPPs). South African Broadcasting Corporation footage of Ramaphosa’s statement is here. It includes a response from TUED’s Sean Sweeney towards the end of the broadcast that warned against expecting private companies to come to the rescue. 

The day after Ramaphosa’s statement, unions and allies in the social movements came together in Johannesburg to form a United Front to Address Loadshedding and resolved to fight for an alternative “public pathway” approach to energy transition. The meeting was organised by the Alternative Information and Development Center and TUED.  

Endorsing the United Front are key unions, including the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM); the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), the South African Trade and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU), and the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU).

 See: Full statement and signatories to the United Front initiative.

A similar statement was released by NUMSA .

Click here to read more.

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network. 

News and events

TUED Working Paper – Hydrogen in the Transition to a Low-Carbon Future: The Case for Public Ownership

Recent years have seen a surge of interest in hydrogen, and especially in its potential role in decarbonizing energy systems and wider economies. References to “green,” “blue” and “clean” hydrogen may at times be confusing, but can also leave the impression that the important issues around hydrogen are simple and well understood, or at least should be relatively easy to sort out. TUED’s latest Working Paper, True Colors: What Role Can Hydrogen Play in the Transition to a Low-Carbon Future? argues that such an impression could hardly be further from the truth.

The paper argues that mainstream policy voices and private-sector interests have largely shaped and driven the debates around hydrogen, without seriously questioning, let alone challenging, current policy and ownership patterns. As a result, these debates often take place as if the priority is to choose among technology options, without worrying about what else might need to change in order for any of those options to be able to really help solve the climate and energy crisis.

Hydrogen and the Decarbonization Challenge

Hydrogen already plays an important role in many industrial and other processes. Large quantities of hydrogen are used in refining petroleum, in the production of steel, ammonia and other chemicals, as a coolant in power stations, and much more. Hydrogen can be used to produce electricity through fuel cells, which can power vehicles or be fed into electrical grids. It can be used as a fuel for heat or to drive gas turbines, or can be converted into ammonia or other fuels. In principle, it can be produced from “carbon-free” sources and used as a fuel in ways that produce only water as waste.

But ensuring that hydrogen can play a significant role in decarbonization would require both a major expansion of its use — into more of industry, as well as into sectors where it is currently hardly used at all, like transport and power generation — as well as the decarbonization of its own production — either by “capturing” emissions generated during its production from fossil fuels (often called “blue hydrogen”) or, preferably, by producing it through processes that generate few or no emissions to begin with (often called “green hydrogen”).

The paper provides an overview of the technical facts about hydrogen’s current role in the economy, as well as the much-expanded role it is expected to play in major decarbonization scenarios, and the levels of investment required to achieve that expanded role. It also explains the various “colors” of hydrogen that readers might encounter in these debates, and outlines the technical issues and challenges involved in the main options for decarbonizing hydrogen production that figure in popular reporting and debates. 

Regarding “green hydrogen for grid storage” in particular — which many consider to hold significant potential as part of decarbonized electrical systems based on wind and solar power generation — the paper offers a deep dive into the production processes involved, the options for storage, and the reconversion of stored hydrogen into usable electrical power. It argues that, given the energy losses and technical hurdles involved at each stage, relying on private sector investment to drive the scaling up of hydrogen in ways that support the kinds of decarbonization we need seems highly unrealistic. The paper argues that, given the technical challenges involved in scaling up hydrogen in line with meeting the decarbonization challenge, there can be little doubt that doing so requires a dramatic shift in approach — a shift away from trying to “incentivize” private investors, and toward a planned, coordinated mobilization under public ownership and control.

Hydrogen and the Case for Public Ownership

The paper concludes by offering reflections aimed at developing an alternative approach that offers a better chance at achieving decarbonization, and at allowing hydrogen to play whatever role it can in helping to reach that goal — a “pro-public vision for hydrogen in decarbonization.” It argues that only an approach grounded in public ownership, decommodification, and freeing the development and deployment of hydrogen (and other technologies) from the imperatives of profit stands any real chance of delivering the energy transition that workers, as well as their unions, communities and allies, urgently need.

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network. 

News and events

TUED Working Paper 14 – Beyond Disruption: How Reclaimed Utilities Can Help Cities Meet Their Climate Goals

In recent years hundreds of cities have adopted 100% renewable energy targets. This has left many with the impression that cities are “taking the lead” in addressing climate change, showing more ambition than most national governments, and taking measures to disrupt energy markets in ways that challenge the dominance of large energy utilities. Cities are believed to be both riding and driving a technological revolution that is reflected in the growth of local-level energy generation and the proliferation of “distributed energy resources” such as rooftop solar panels, battery storage, and digital control systems. Electricity users, on this view, are becoming increasingly active players in electricity markets, turning from “consumers” to “prosumers.” The days of centralized power generation, from this perspective, are thus numbered.

TUED’s Working Paper 14, Beyond Disruption: How Reclaimed Utilities Can Help Cities Meet Their Climate Goals, shows that this image of cities as “climate leaders” is misleading, as is the idea that large energy utilities are becoming obsolete. The paper documents  the technical limitations of city-level energy generation (principally solar photovoltaics), and shows that public subsidies, not “active consumers” or competitive markets, are driving many of the changes taking place. 

The paper also shows that cities will not be able to reach their renewable energy targets without sourcing energy from large energy companies. This is already happening through power purchase contracts with for-profit entities, producing outcomes that contribute to energy poverty, compromise energy security, and cause technical problems that threaten to put climate targets beyond reach. The real “disruption” in electrical power systems is being felt by working people, while large energy interests continue to reign supreme. 

As an alternative, Beyond Disruption proposes a “public-public partnership” approach in which  progressive municipalities can partner with utilities to drive energy efficiency, conservation, digitalisation, and a managed growth in distributed generation. For this approach to succeed, however, energy systems must be brought back into public ownership, and utilities still under public ownership (full or partial) must be fully “demarketized,” and issued a “new mandate” that reflects social and ecological goals and operating principles. Rather than being compelled to meet the needs of private investors for “acceptable returns on investment,” reclaimed utilities will be key partners in what will be a decades-long effort to decarbonize the economy. 

Just a few years ago, proposals to reclaim energy to public ownership would have been dismissed as “mission impossible,” but today many in the policy mainstream are questioning the current “energy for profit” policy framework. Concerns about climate change, energy security, and unreliable power increasingly demonstrate the need for a public pathway approach to the energy transition.

As many unions today recognise, a public pathway approach will require repealing the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s and reversing the drive to further liberalise and privatise the electricity sector (a drive that is currently being pursued in many countries of the Global South).  A full-on energy transition must involve a phase-out of so-called competitive electricity markets and the decommodification of electricity, as articulated in the Trade Union Program for a Public, Low-Carbon Energy Future, which is already supported by 50 trade union bodies from two dozen countries and regions around the world.  

The reforms articulated by the Trade Union Program  would set the stage for strong partnerships between cities around the pursuit of climate targets and economy-wide decarbonisation. Reclaimed companies and municipalities should have full control over prices in order to address energy poverty and discourage the wasteful use of electricity.  Progressive cities that aspire to control their energy systems (including distribution grids) can build on what they have already achieved by using their political strength to insist on a full reclaiming of energy to public control. 

As the paper argues, “the incumbent energy companies will not be dis­rupted out of existence; rather, they will remain dominant as market players and, under the current neoliberal framework, they will help perpetuate an energy for profit regime. If this is not changed, then cities will not be able to reach their energy and decarbonization targets.

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network. 

News and events

TUED: ‘Green Structural Adjustment’ in South Africa – A War on Workers and Climate

TUED Global Forum: February 25, 2022, 8:00-9:30am ET

On Friday, February 25th, 800 am – 930 am ET (find your local time here) Trade Unions for Energy Demoracy (TUED) is holding a Global Forum: “Green Structural Adjustment” in South Africa: A War on Workers and Climate.  Spanish and French interpretation will be available.

Register here.

At COP26 in Glasgow, the EU, the US and the UK announced it was going to “mobilize” $8.5 billion to accelerate South Africa’s transition away from coal in order to protect the climate.

A month later the IMF “advised” the South African government to downsize and break up (“unbundling”) its public utility (Eskom) in order to build a “A Green and Climate-Resilient Economy.” The “unbundling” of Eskom, “must be accompanied by a substantial downsizing and structural transformation of its operations, notably through a meaningful reduction of procurement and personnel costs. Eskom spends more than it earns, reflecting both its operational inefficiencies and unsustainable debt level. Competition from private firms is necessary. The resulting higher level of private investment should help finance the energy transition away from coal, contributing to climate change objectives.”

The IMF is pursuing the same policy in many countries in the Global South. But experience has shown that the privatization of power systems impedes the effort to move away from fossil fuels.

Unions and their allies in South Africa have put forward an alternative to this approach, one that keeps energy under public ownership, allowing a transformed and fully-resourced Eskom to drive the transition while preserving the country’s energy sovereignty.

Meanwhile, unions are leading an international effort to fight the energy privatization agenda and to reclaim energy companies to public ownership under a pro-public mandate that can address climate concerns.

A list of speakers will be circulated in the coming days.  Please register here

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network. 

News and events

International Trade Union Forum on Ecological and Social Transition

Over the past several months, TUED has been working with the main French trade union confederation CGT, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Alter Summit, and the Global Labor Institute Paris to convene this global event, which will bring together unions and allies from around the world. More information, and registration details, at this link.

In preparation for the Forum, TUED has partnered with both the energy and mining division of the CGT (FNME) and Public Services International to organize a session titled Towards a Public Energy Future. The session will take place on Wednesday, June 16, from 1300 – 1600 CET.

This session will share findings of the Interim Report developed by the Trade Union Task Force for a Public Energy Future. The final report of the Task Force will be completed before COP26 in Glasgow.


International Trade Union Forum on Ecological and Social Transition
June 14-18: 1300-1800 CET (Find your local time here.)
June 19: 1400-1700 CET (Find your local time here.)

The social and environmental emergency, as well as the dramatic deterioration of the working and living conditions of a majority of the population since the beginning of the pandemic, has led a growing number of organizations – from company unions to professional federations to local, regional and international organizations – and other social movements to develop various strategies to respond.

This Forum was co-organized for several months with organizations from all continents. It will be an opportunity to share experiences, proposals and struggles of unions and their allies. The themes discussed will mainly revolve around: the transformation of the energy system, sectoral transitions and strategies for building power relations. Each thematic workshop is the result of preparatory work that we wish to bring up for debate. Texts summarizing our collective reflections will be made available to participants before the Forum.

The International Trade Union Forum for an Ecological and Social transition will be organized around daily sessions from 1pm to 6 pm from June 14 to 18. The sessions will combine presentation and discussion time.

It will conclude on Saturday, June 19 from 2:00 to 5:00 pm with a plenary assembly where a united appeal will be presented in view of the Cop26 in Glasgow and addressed to all social forces engaged in the construction of an ecological and social transformation. Register here.


Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network.
For more information on how your union can be part of TUED, see here.
News and events

Resist and Reclaim: Mexico’s Fight for Energy Sovereignty

TUED Global Forum: Mexico’s Energy Sovereignty

Mexican energy politics have made headlines in recent weeks following a political confrontation between the AMLO administration and actors in both Mexico and the U.S. that oppose his efforts to reverse the previous administration’s steps towards privatization, and reassert the country’s energy sovereignty.

This is a pivotal moment for energy politics in Mexico — the second largest economy in Latin America — with potentially global implications for the dominant neoliberal “privatize to decarbonize” agenda. Unions in Mexico support AMLO’s proposals. A successful campaign to defend AMLO’s proposed energy policies opens the door to a “pro-public” approach to energy transition.

Unions internationally have an opportunity to build solidarity with this struggle and raise awareness about its wider significance.

TUED is holding a Global Forum on Thursday March 25 2021 at 11am-12:30pm US Eastern Time

Find your local time here. Register here