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Lighting the way

Archie Davies writes about new campaign Switched On London and the growing movement for energy democracy

April 12, 2016
5 min read

switchedonIn the run up to the London elections in May, a new campaign, Switched On London, is calling for the next mayor to launch a publicly owned municipal energy company as part of a radical new commitment to ‘energy democracy’.

Switched On London is pressing for citizen ownership and participation in London’s energy system, with a public utility able to invest in new clean power sources, accountable to neighbourhood assemblies and directly elected board members. Online referendums could set its agenda and all London residents would have the right to stand as candidates to sit on the board.

The campaign is a coalition bringing together activists, unions and movements ranging from the New Economics Foundation and Fuel Poverty Action to PCS and Unison. Its ambitious vision includes getting the Greater London Authority to divest from fossil fuels and create the new energy company to provide 100 per cent renewable energy to London residents.

The need for a new, more democratic approach to energy provision in the UK is urgent in a country whose energy system is out of control: under-regulated, under-competitive, dirty and expensive. Regulation fails to control the ‘big six’ energy conglomerates that dominate production and supply networks. Weak emissions targets fail to control their carbon production. And an unfettered marketplace fails to control spiralling prices. In this context, the idea of energy democracy is beginning to find its feet, proposing a solution by handing control to citizens. Despite the government’s cuts in subsidies and support, community energy schemes and small-scale renewables continue to light the way for alternatives.

The public sector has begun to look for answers to rising bills and exploitative practices by the big energy suppliers. Nottingham city council, for instance, has set up a not-for-profit energy supplier called (of course) Robin Hood Energy and has cut bills for its customers. Glasgow and Bristol are looking into ways of following suit.

In doing so, they are following the lead of similar initiatives elsewhere in Europe. Forms of democratic control of energy are being practised at small scales across the continent as towns and communities from Hamburg to Córdoba develop co-operative and community-owned energy and utility companies. The movement for energy democracy seeks to expand on these openings and to incorporate direct democracy into energy systems.

The politics of energy democracy depend on context. In Berlin, for example, the Berliner Energietisch (‘Berlin Energy Roundtable’) campaign, which was started by a handful of activists in 2011, made use of two political openings. First, that the city’s energy grid is run – like rail operators in the UK – according to a franchise system, and the contract was due for renewal; second, that the public can force a referendum on a draft law if they can collect enough signatures.

The Berlin campaigners secured 600,000 votes (80 per cent of the total) in a November 2013 referendum seeking to retake public control of the city’s energy supply from the giant energy conglomerate Vattenfall. It fell short by just 21,000 votes of the required threshold of 25 per cent of the whole population voting in favour.

Elsewhere the legal and political context may be different, but the strategic and theoretical work done in Berlin has been generative for the wider, international movement for energy democracy.

Stefan Taschner was one of the core campaigners in Berlin. He says they spent many months of meetings hashing out the ideas for a draft law that would enshrine energy democracy. While in some respects the debates over the precise make-up of the proposed public utility were complex, they were also fruitful for other energy democracy fights across Europe.

In particular, Taschner argues that energy democracy must account for the fact that municipal utilities are not automatically better than their private counterparts. The German experience, for example, includes municipal utilities that continue to invest in coal power plants. There was a need to develop firm ideas and reach challenging compromises about the roles of trade unions, employees, publicly-elected board members and more.

This nitty gritty of establishing energy democracy became increasingly crucial once the idea got into the mainstream. Taschner says the coalition wanted to make the draft law ‘as concrete as possible’. It was easy for politicians to get behind the broad concept – it sounds good – but the details are critical because the campaign wanted to establish something ‘completely new’ that was ‘not only in the hands of the municipality, but in the hands of the citizens’. Without many models to go on, they ‘had to find a new form of democractic control’.

In the UK, the new Labour leadership has a clear interest in the concept. Lisa Nandy made it a centrepiece of her first speech as shadow energy secretary, and in his leadership campaign Jeremy Corbyn called for a socialised energy system.

Switched On London’s vision is ambitious, but achievable. Energy democracy’s strength lies in its direct appeal: there is a basic good sense in the idea that people should have a say over the distribution and production of energy, a necessity for modern life. But energy democracy is not a catchphrase, it’s a concept: the litmus test will be a true devolution of power to the grassroots. In London, as in Berlin, the real work will be in the nitty gritty.

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