Switching on to energy democracy

Popular participation, social ideals and ecological sustainability are key attributes of sustainable systems, Claire Fauset writes.

2010 assembly. Som Energia Cooperativa under a Creative Commons Licence

As the Paris climate talks prioritized grand words over grand plans, there is an urgent need for people power to make the necessary changes to the energy system. But how can ordinary people challenge the monopoly of the energy companies whose unjustifiable prices leave many with their basic needs unmet, and unsustainable emissions disrupt the ecological systems that we rely on for our survival? How can we create a system that is renewable, affordable, democratic and reinvests in the public good?

Maybe we change the system one city at a time?

Inspired by energy democracy initiatives worldwide, a new campaign, Switched On London, aspires to push London's public authorities to set up a new energy company that will provide Londoners with progressively priced renewable energy. The proposed company would be a production and supply company – investing in new renewable energy within and outside the city which would feed into the national grid. On the supply side the company would supply customers in direct competition with the 'Big Six' companies which control the UK energy market. It would have a radical democratic system with its board of directors made up of the local authority, customers and workers, as well as community energy forums feeding in their ideas.

Democratic ownership creates space for goals beyond profit maximization

This may all sound rather pie-in-the-sky but recent initiatives in Bristol, Nottingham, Germany and elsewhere suggest that Switched On London's proposal may be more achievable than one might think, and that democratic ownership creates space for goals beyond profit maximization.

Nottingham City Council recently launched Robin Hood Energy, a city owned company offering low prices in an attempt to combat fuel poverty, explicitly challenging the Big Six, shareholder profits and director bonuses. Bristol has gone one better: the city is 100 per cent shareholder in the new company, Bristol Energy, which is aiming to source – where possible – from local renewable energy projects and will be subsidizing council services with the profits of the venture. All at a time when local authorities are seeing their budgets slashed by central government.

RELATED: Time to take the leap, interview with Naomi Klein and others about the significance of The Leap Manifesto.

The current Mayor of London Boris Johnson has also put a proposal on the table for a municipal energy company for London but his aspirations are well below that of either Nottingham or Bristol. The proposal is for a partnership with German transnational RWE nPower and it is limited to big public energy buyers such as Transport for London and the Metropolitan Police. None of these projects though go as far as the aspirations of Switched On London, who see energy democracy and popular participation rather than simple state ownership as central to ensuring that the projects are truly able to deliver a more socially and environmentally just energy system. For this we need to look further afield.

Germany has a strong and popular movement for energy transition – the Energiewende – which aims to eliminate fossil fuels and nuclear power from the energy mix and replace them with renewables. A recent wave of attempts to re-municipalize the energy system has had highs and lows. Since 2007 more than 60 municipal energy utilities have been formed while over 170 communities have attempted to buy pieces of the energy grid back from private providers. The most notable success was in Hamburg, Germany's second most populous city, where in 2013 a referendum supported the buyback of the grid from Swedish energy giant Vattenfall for between $560 and $620 million. Talks continue on the purchase of the city's gas and district heating systems when contracts expire in 2018-2019. The referendum was spearheaded by the campaign platform Unser Hamburg Unser Netz (Our Hamburg Our Grid) which aimed for ‘a socially just, democratically controlled and climate-friendly energy supply from renewable sources’. And in Munich, the municipally-owned electricity company has already begun to deliver on the city’s commitment to 100 per cent clean energy supply by 2025.

Berliner Energietisch

In Berlin, however, things have not gone entirely to plan. The proposal of Berliner Energietish (Berlin Energy Roundtable) to buy out the city's grid from Vattenfall was one of the most comprehensive energy democracy proposals yet seen and has formed a very high degree of popular participation. The project envisaged a 100 per cent green energy system with Berlin voters directly electing six of the 15 members of the power company’s Board of Directors, and citizen initiatives and other mechanisms allowing Berliners to directly participate in and influence company policies. They also worked on a progressive pricing structure which would rewarded low users – poorer households and those using energy efficiently, with lower unit prices while large users would pay more per unit – the opposite to most energy systems and certainly to that in the UK.

Over 200,000 people signed the petition which forced the city authorities to hold a referendum on the buyout. The referendum was due to be held alongside the presidential elections but in an attempt to defeat the proposal the senate moved it to a day when no other elections were taking place. Eighty three per cent of voters supported the buyout but, frustratingly, the referendum fell short of the required 25 per cent quorum by an agonizing 0.9 per cent.

It is clear that only the energy companies have anything to gain from the status quo

In Spain a new energy cooperative, Som Energia, has grown from a group of 150 members in Girona, Catalonia in 2010, to a nationwide movement with around 24,000 members. Like the Switched On London proposal the company invests in green energy and supplies electricity to its members. Unlike the London proposal, the company is not owned by the city but by its members who join through a $113 investment. Som Energia is organized through local groups and campaigning platforms and its general assembly is live-streamed to encourage wide participation. The cooperative combines the desire to transform the energy system from fossil fuels to renewable energy with a desire for an economy based on solidarity and social good as well as putting power into the hands of the citizens and encouraging participation in a transformative organizing processes.

RELATED: Climate justice means energy democracy by Adriana Swain

Back in London, the Switched On London team are keen to open out and not be led by funded organizations but to be truly representative of the diversity in London. With their roots in fuel poverty campaigning they have already got disabled activists and pensioners groups on board. They are also keen to involve the many community energy projects, such as Brixton Energy, that have started to get off the ground but which are struggling due to the government's slashing of feed in tariffs. A municipal energy company could potentially provide a lifeline to these schemes by buying up the energy they produce at mutually beneficial rates.

Jeremy Corbyn's recent surprise win in the labour leadership race demonstrates the energy bubbling under for a new kind of politics based on a critique of corporate capitalism and advocacy of positive features such as popular participation, social ideals and ecological sustainability. Can London mobilize the people power needed to make this happen? With hundreds of thousands of people being cut off because they can't afford to top up their overpriced pre-payment meters, a million people living in fuel poverty, 4,000 excess winter deaths in London alone in 2014-2015, food banks oversubscribed, rising rents and slashed local authority budgets – as well as growing fears about climate change – it is clear that only the energy companies have anything to gain from the status quo.