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A just, sustainable and democratized energy is on its way

Climate
Energy
Democracy
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Members of Westmill solar co-op celebrate at their first AGM.

Lisa Nandy’s vision of energy democracy isn’t idealism, argues Sakina Sheikh.

A bold and refreshing vision for Britain’s energy future was spelled out this week by Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary, at the Labour Party conference. It wasn’t only about her commitment to clean energy – she spoke of Labour’s plans to ‘democratize [energy]’ in Britain, by putting ‘people back in charge’.

With 7 million people in Britain living in fuel poverty and so not being able to keep their home heated, and 1 in 7 people globally living without access to energy, Labour’s vision for a fairer energy system is in demand. Global Justice Now has been a fierce advocate of energy democracy both here in Britain and globally. It would mean energy is fairly distributed, democratically controlled, and managed to recognize the planet’s limits.

Nandy rightly explained that moving to ‘community-based energy companies and co-operatives’ could provide a ‘new powerhouse’ in Britain and ensure a more just energy system for us all. Energy municipalization – giving the people back control of their energy system – is an effective way of challenging the monopoly held by the Big 6 energy companies. This monopoly currently sees fuel poverty for millions in the UK, and increasingly unaffordable energy bills.

Critics of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet might attempt to accuse Nandy of ‘pie in the sky’ idealism, but the fact is that this transition to energy democracy is already taking root and thriving in many parts of the world. Here’s a taste of just 4 of them.

1. Nottingham and Robin Hood Energy

As Nandy explained in her speech, the process of energy democratization has already begun here in Britain. In Nottingham the local council has set up a not-for-profit energy supplier, Robin Hood Energy, and estimates that it can save customers up to £237 ($360) per year on bills. Already their first customer has had their annual energy bill cut from £2,000 to £1,400 ($3,030 to $2,120). Companies like Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham being run for people, rather than just for profit, demonstrates real alternatives to the Big 6’s domination of energy markets.

2. Hamburg, Germany

Much has been written about Energiewende, Germany’s transition not only from fossil fuel-generated power but also from centralized to decentralized energy production. But the changes aren’t just stopping there. In Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city, citizens voted in September 2013 for their local council to buy back the energy grid from transnational companies E.On and Vattenfall. The change came following the ‘Our Hamburg – Our Grid’ campaign which argued that these companies were failing to act in the best interest of local people and were delaying the shift to renewable energy. Similar plans are being brought to the table in Berlin, too.

3. Uruguay

Uruguay is one country with public ownership of its energy system which is showing how a fairer energy system could be achieved. The government has set ambitious targets for both ensuring everyone has access to energy and also shifting to more sustainable energy sources, both for electricity production and for other services such as transport. To date, 99% of the population of Uruguay has access to electricity and almost two-thirds is produced from renewable sources. Energy efficiency also plays a major role in Uruguay’s plans to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. The labour movement in Uruguay not only played a major role in fighting off attempts to privatize the energy sector in 1992, it is now engaging in proposals to democratize the state-owned energy company, UTE.

4. Britain pushing for the opposite in Nigeria

The great green energy grab
With energy privatization having been such a disaster in Britain and in so many other parts of the world, it seems ludicrous that the Department for International Development (DFID) is determined to use British aid money to implement this failed model of energy privatization in countries such as Nigeria. DFID is presently spending nearly $150 million of British aid money, via free-market fundamentalists Adam Smith International, to support the privatization of Nigeria’s energy system through a programme called the Nigeria Infrastructure Advisory Facility (NIAF). Ken Henshaw from Social Action in Nigeria said that when he met with DFID over the disastrous programme, ‘They admitted the privatization has failed, but when I talked about energy democracy, about communities owning and generating their own renewable electricity, it seemed they’d never thought of that.’

This persistent adoption of energy neoliberalism isn’t restricted to DFID – it has characterized numerous government departments, from the Treasury through to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Nandy’s speech at the Labour conference this week is finally breaking with this dated consensus and pointing the way to what a modern and forward-thinking energy system might look like – just, sustainable and democratized.

A version of this article originally appeared on Global Justice Now’s website. Read their briefing ‘Rays of Hope – Clean and Democratically Controlled Energy for Everyone’ for additional information.

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