What's the future for democratic energy in the UK?

Energy democracy projects have surged over the past five years in the UK as the number of community owned renewable energy projects have risen. This UK government’s feed-in-tariff policy has a lot to do with this, where a certain amount of money is paid per unit of energy to anyone who generates their own energy.

Although it’s been nowhere near as generous and supportive as that which spurred on the German renewables revolution, we have still seen big increases in UK clean energy generation. Pre-feed-in-tariff in 2010 the UK missed its target to generate 10 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources, but, just 5 years later in 2015 was up to nearly 25 percent.

This may sounds like a really exciting development but the reality, unlike the experience of Germany where a large proportion of this is community owned, in the UK it’s the business community that has most benefitted. For most people the opportunity to be part of one of these projects has not been accessible, with those from higher income backgrounds having more opportunity to invest in renewable technologies.

This seems like massive missed opportunity, as communities owning their own power would shift the control that the Big Six energy companies currently have over our lives. According to the UK governments own figures community-owned renewable energy projects deliver 12 to 13 more times the community value for local areas than 100% privately owned schemes.

We know that community and people owned power have masses to offer and yet last year the UK government cut their feed-in-tariff by 30%.  They did that just as a new rush of community owned energy projects were about to be launched and after years of research, developing models and gaining community buy-in. This has caused a massive issue for community renewables, with a number of previously viable projects now not being able to launch. What’s most frustrating about this is that this has all emerged at a time when the enthusiasm for renewables, community energy and had sparked a real interest in people across the UK and yet the government is now pulling in the exact opposite direction.

What’s clear from this experience is that state reliance for progress on renewable energy leaves us in a precarious position, where we’re reliant on the whims of a government that can pull the plug on something even when it’s moving in the exact direction that we need it to be. At the same time it feels as though public investment in the sector does have a role to play in getting these movements off the ground due to the expenses involved in high tech. Equally there’s a big role that could be played in redistributing the benefits of greener energy more equitably across society. If you rely on market-based mechanisms, those that benefit will be those with more income. Whereas with a public institution there is the opportunity to ensure that everyone across a community is able to access decent services.

We know that there are people in the UK wanting to control their own energy systems as shown by the rising interest in community and people owned renewables systems. And we know that the UK government are not going to be the ones that get us to where we need to go fast. At the same time, what is becoming clear in the UK is that people are looking for ways to take back control of their lives. They are tired of the UK governments disregard for their future as demonstrated by the Brexit vote with masses of British people using the referendum as a chance to show their frustrations at the system.

In response to this climate, Global Justice Now has been working alongside a series of UK campaigning orgsanisations to figure out where is the best place to focus our energy democracy campaigns. Out of this has come the Switched On campaign. This campaign aims to harness the uprising interest in renewable energy generation, ensure that decisions around the future of energy system are made by locals and take advantage of the benefits that working through a public body can bring. 

Our Switched On campaign is pushing for the establishment of public energy companies that cuts bills and cuts polluting carbon emissions. A company under public ownership, selling energy for the common good, not for profit. A company with social justice, clean energy and democracy at its core. The campaign combines a list of demands focused around those three principles.

We want this campaign to create a company that provides a genuine alternative to the Big Six energy companies who presently dominate the customer services aspects of energy provision in the UK. They don’t always produce the energy, or even look after the wires that transport the energy to you, but deal with you as a customer and take the cash off you for the whole lot! And guess what, it’s precisely these companies that are getting in the way of progress on renewables by lobbying governments to stick with the private solution to our energy requirements, so that they can continue to dominate and provide us with the same old fossil fuel heavy energy that they’ve always been providing.

The energy company that we are pushing for will be different as it will have clear democratic mechanisms integrated into how it runs. We would ensure that this company would not be able to set itself on the unsustainble path that current energy companies by having strong democratic processes: It will have an equal split between people living in the local area, employees and public officials in making decisions at the top level, as well as an online referendums. The company will have the need to provide clean energy as soon as possible integrated into its rules and mandate the company to use any returns from the company to invest in renewables and retrofit through the local government. And by locking in requirements around workers rights pay and pensions, gender balance in decision-making and ensure fair payment mechanisms for all that purchase from the company, it will ensure that social justice is thoroughly embedded in its running. You can read the full list of demands online.

It is a balance between people, worker and public power that we’re pushing for through this campaign. Something that’s radically different to the status quo with the power to challenge it. We view it is as the first step in a long term campaign to open up the conversation around remunicipalisation where we first take back the services provision and then look forwards to how we can push for a full scale take back of our energy system.

It feels as though the climate is right for this kind of campaign politically to kick off now, with Lisa Nandy, the previous shadow energy secretary, citing energy democracy as the route to the future and starting to talk about creating a series of public energy companies across the UK. Some Councils in UK in Nottingham, Bristol and Scotland have already begun  establishing their own versions and other Labour councils are starting to look into whether this could be something to explore in their area. This means its more important than ever for a movement to emerge that can influence these political developments and make sure that the democratic alternative that we want to see comes through.

Over the next year Global Justice Now are going to be taking three actions to push forward this campaign.

Firstly we’ll be kick off this discussion between interested politicians in the autumn to challenge their current ideas and push them to go further and fully embrace the principles of our movement. Secondly, we’re supporting the original Switched On London campaign group who successfully managed to get the newly elected mayor Sadiq Khan to commit to some kind of publically owned energy company.  Finally we’re encouraging our groups around the country to look into whether this campaign is something that they could run in their local area.

Energy democracy is a term that’s still evolving and we want to make sure that Global Justice Now is playing a leading role in getting it right. Through this movement we’re lobbying to make sure that any move around public energy is founded on the principles that we want to see. The kind that we’re pushing for has the potential to be popular with citizens, equitable in its provision of clean energy to all and governed in a way that takes account of citizen, worker and public views equally.

Let’s make sure that energy companies of the future won’t take us on the same crash course that the Big Six will. Switch On.

Photo: Birmingham News Room/flickr

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