Energy and Empowerment: A Word with Arash Aazami

Sharlene Gandhi speaks to Dutch entrepreneur Arash Aazami about energy, the economy, and where our decreasing supply of resources will take us. Follow Arash on Twitter at @arashaaz

The vast majority of us most likely do not even think about the amount of energy we require on a daily basis; as I sit writing this piece at my laptop, listening to the Your Coffee Morning playlist on Spotify, simultaneously checking my emails on my iPhone, under the somewhat atmospheric lighting provided by my desk lamp, an unimaginable flow of electrons is working tirelessly to ensure I have little trouble with these tasks. You, as well, most likely would not be reading this article without the help of energy. Energy equates to progress, to prosperity, to profit. To imagine life without energy is to imagine a post-apocalyptic world of sorts, in which all activity ceases.

And yet, 2.8 billion people in the world today live without energy, a seemingly basic need in our contemporary global society. Energy poverty is an ongoing issue in rural communities of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and the emphasis here is on the lack of access to ‘clean’ sources of energy. Rural communities often harbour an overreliance on fuel sources such as biomass, which, whilst readily available and accessible, bring with them terrible ramifications for people’s health, as well as for air pollution. Bryan Walsh thus paints a picture of living life under the metaphorical energy poverty line, what he calls ‘the worst kind of poverty’: “you’re desperately poor – and the lack of electricity helps to ensure that you’ll stay that way.”

Dutch entrepreneur Arash Aazami, however, believes that we are all in energy poverty, whether in the developed or developing worlds. ‘We are all in energy debt’, he says, ‘We are depleting the savings account of the earth at a far greater speed than it can be replenished.’ Aazami, of course, is referring to our insatiable demand for fossil fuels, namely coal, oil and natural gas, a demand that grows alongside the phenomenon of globalisation and fast-paced technological change. It has been predicted that by 2088, the fossil fuel supplies that we are currently rely on will have been exhausted.

It was in light of this blind faith that we, as a global society, have on fossil fuels, that Arash Aazami decided to start up BAS in 2010, an energy company based on a more sustainable business model, which has the overarching aim of benefiting all stakeholders. In 2006, Aazami began to lead another energy company, which, at the time, was selling electricity and natural gas to consumers and businesses. However, even though they earned more revenue as they sold more energy, Aazami eventually came to the realisation that not only was their principal product in shortage, but in the long run, selling non-renewable energy was not benefitting anybody but the company itself.  He therefore questioned whether it could be done the other way around; could they earn more by selling less energy? “Nobody believed it could be done!” Aazami says, “With every no, I urged to prove them wrong.”

The solution to Aazami’s problem came in something very simple: to centre the business on the fulfilment of the consumer’s need rather than for profit. “The user never asks for energy; he does not ask for kilowatts, but for light, for heat and for productivity,” he says. And with this in mind, Aazami left his previous energy company to set up BAS, his entrepreneurial venture that set out to provide solutions to consumers to fulfil their own energy needs, thus increasing the consumer’s ‘energy independence’ from fossil fuels. The company started to invest in solar panels, wind farms and other forms of renewable, sustainable and clean energy, thereby ensuring that energy consumption benefited all stakeholders rather than just the company itself. Eventually, all the money a consumer spends on energy will be for his own consumption, making him ‘the owner of his own energy economy’. Evoking a housing metaphor, Aazami says that this new model ‘turned the energy contract into an energy mortgage.’ That is to say, when one is renting, one is somewhat dependent on a landlord or agency, whilst with a mortgage, there is considerably more autonomy.  The simple solution, therefore, was putting consumers and the environment at the heart of the business, and aiming to educate consumers about their own energy consumption through practice.

Through education, Aazami and BAS aim to empower energy consumers to make sustainable decisions, and rekindle the notion of giving power to the people by turning the energy economy into something that favours them. Our current energy economy is founded on the principle of scarcity, built on the crumbling foundations of coal, oil and natural gas. If we contrast this to an economy of abundance, rebuilt using the myriad of renewable energy sources we have available, power would be held by everyone, rather than the few who would have the scarce resources in their figurative grasp. Therefore, education is needed to increase awareness, not by increasing fear, as Aazami points out, but by empowering consumers to make the correct decisions. And he is as optimistic as ever about our ability to implement this global change: ‘Humans are hardwired to survive. We get creative when survival is becoming a threat.’

BAS belongs, to my great dismay, to a minority of energy companies who are committed, not only to addressing the pressing issue of climate change and depleting resources, but also to opening up a dialogue on the issues surrounding energy. BAS is based on a self-sufficient economic model, striving to succeed in what looks like a bleak future of resource wars. But, according to Aazami, a resource war of the future looks no different to any war of the past. ‘Almost every war that has been fought has been over resources,’ he highlights, ‘The West would never have intervened in the Middle East if we were not so reliant on their oil. And look at the situation between Russia and the rest of the world.’ Energy is, and always has been, a political battleground, and yet one that political parties have no qualms glossing over.  Politicising energy, and in particular, energy resources that are running out, allows for control and power on a global scale, which no government will willingly hand over. But perhaps, what this really goes to show is the narrow-minded outlook of powerful governments, putting a short-term political agenda ahead of a long-term environmental one. Does Aazami think there is a solution to this? In few, but still wise words, he says that in this day and age, ‘we can literally choose to be part of the solution or to remain part of the problem.’

Although Aazami has since left BAS to start another venture, he continues to strive to empower consumers in the modern age. I had the pleasure of watching Arash Aazami speak at TEDxLancasterU earlier this month, and one of the things that struck me about him was his wish to have energy included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A utopian ideal, some might say, but a noble thought nevertheless. To have energy included in this fundamental document would allow the 2.8 billion people who live in energy poverty today to have access to this hugely enabling tool. This tool would, in turn open doors to education, to business, to communication, and ultimately give rural areas in developing countries the opportunity to flourish in much the same way that metropolises do. Wanting to dig deeper into this wish of his, I asked Aazami when he hopes this will be implemented, to which his response speaks volumes: ‘I wish it had happened yesterday.’