We can democratise energy supply by giving control to communities

Energy democracy offers a chance to break the stranglehold of the Big Six


Energy democracy projects have surged over the past five years in the UK as the number of community owned renewable energy projects have risen.

The 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 five years later in 2015 was up to nearly 25 percent.

This may sounds like a really exciting development but the reality, unlike in Germany, where a large proportion of the energy is community owned, in the UK it’s the business community that has most benefited.

Most people can’t access these projects, 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 government’s own figures, community-owned renewable energy projects deliver 12 to 13 times more community value for local areas than 100 per cent 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 per cent.  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 renewables and community energy and had sparked real interest among people across the UK, and yet the government is now pulling in the exact opposite direction.

What’s clear from this experience is that relying on the state for progress on renewable energy leaves us in a precarious position, where we’re subject to 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, public investment in the sector does have a role to play in getting these movements off the ground. 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 people in the UK want 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 government’s 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 organisations to figure out the best place to focus our energy democracy campaigns. Out of this has come the Switched On campaign, which aims to harness the rising interest in renewable energy generation, and ensure that decisions around the future of energy systems are made by locals and take advantage of the benefits of working through a public body.

Our Switched On campaign is pushing for the establishment of public energy company that cut bills and cut 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. You can read the full list of demands online.

We want to provide 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 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.

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. Lisa Nandy, the previous shadow energy secretary, cited energy democracy as the route to the future and spoke 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.

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

Laura Williams is an activism officer at Global Justice Now, where this blog originally appeared

7 Responses to “We can democratise energy supply by giving control to communities”

  1. Imran Khan

    More tree hugging. Renewable energy will always be a tiny part of what is needed. What we need are more and better nuclear power stations.

  2. wg

    We can not “democratise” by creating the impression that a number of small NGOs have some sort of mandate. I voted Brexit to free myself from the quagmire of unelected and unaccountable NGOs.

    And, like the Iraq war – which went through a series of re-branding exercises, AGW has gone to ‘Climate Change’, and from there to ‘Global Justice’.
    The climate has been changing for millennia, and there is no justice in depriving poverty-stricken countries of a chance to earn their place in the modernised world.

    The world will continue on its Milankovitch-like cycles, and nothing we do will stop it; will we, in the future, be required to put as much carbon dioxide in the air as possible, in a futile effort to once more stop another glaciation period?

  3. Michael WALKER

    We know that people in the UK want to control their own energy systems, as shown by the rising interest in community and people-owned renewables system

    Err.. Typical lies. We know that approximately one third of all housheolds have not switched energy suppliers in 5 years…http://tinyurl.com/jozq4b5

    So the above claim is demonstrably untrue.

    People who make false claims to bolster their cause are not worth supporting. Period.

  4. CR

    The priority must be continuity of supply. If that means building more gas-fired or coal-fired powerstations, so be it.

  5. Imran Khan

    And finally! What is an activism officer as the writer of this piece is titled?

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