Democratic energy beyond neoliberalism

Democratising energy would not only save thousands of lives a year but would be a big step forward in saving the planet.

15 November 2014

Wind turbines on Eigg/

The NHS was built by on the model of the Tredegar Medical Aid Society – a mutual health provision organisation in South Wales set up by miners and their families, that ran for over forty years. By scaling up a local community-controlled structure, the NHS founders fundamentally transformed the economy and politics of healthcare nationwide. We need a comparable transformation of energy provision. Could Eigg in Scotland—an island owned collectively by its inhabitants and supplied by renewable electricity—be the Tredegar Medical Aid Society of energy?

Recently the Fuel Poverty Action group launched their 'Energy Bill of Rights' at the House of Commons. They're demanding energy that is fair, affordable and sustainable, following a recent report from the Department for Energy and Climate Change suggesting that the inability to pay energy bills led to 10,000 deaths in Britain in 2013. The report also found that 10.4 per cent of the population are living in fuel poverty.  Fuel Poverty Action were not alone in taking notice of popular anger over these statistics. Earlier this year, Labour announced plans to freeze gas and electricity bills until 2017, making energy reform a key plank of their 2015 election manifesto.

But are Labour's proposals adequate to the scale of the challenge? The UK urgently needs to explore energy alternatives that do more than tinker at the edges of the problem. We need to break with the foundational assumptions of current neoliberal energy policy. Rather than begging for small palliative scraps, the left must make the argument for a new energy and economic settlement. This is necessary for survival, and for justice. In Nigeria, 72% of people use wood for cooking as they have no gas, while their country exports 950 billion cubic feet of gas every year. Much of it is shipped to Britain. When Platform brought Niger Delta activist Celestine Akpo Bari to London he was astounded to discover that Britain suffers the worst levels of fuel poverty in Western Europe, with one person dying of cold every six seconds last winter. So who benefits? The answer lies in record energy company profits.

Labour's policy proposals are based on an understanding of individual consumption that does not describe the manifold relationships we have to energy.  We take buses, we work in heated offices, we buy frozen ice cream. Our public wealth is used to subsidise oil companies, our cultural institutions to launder their image, and our government sends troops to support resource grabs. We have political and economic relationships to North Sea oil, wind turbines in the Thames estuary and carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere. But in all these cases, people, and especially the working class, are profoundly disempowered.

Our relationship to energy needs to change. We need to shift power so that these relationships can be intentional and active, so that we are producers, distributors, owners, sharers, and collective users of energy. We need to democratise energy. This means commoning resources, dispersing economic power and ending dependence on multinationals that exploit public resources for private profit. This means dismantling BP, Shell, and the Big Six energy companies.

The process of putting energy in common ownership is already a reality elsewhere in Europe, and underlies Denmark's remarkable success in ending dependence on imported fuel, replaced in large part with local renewables. Denmark's wind power revolution has been described by UN researcher Andrew Cumbers as 'a grassroots, community-based initiative, underpinned by decentralised, cooperative and municipal ownership alongside small-scale private ownership'.

This developed partly out of an intense political struggle in late 1970s over energy policy that saw a coalition of leftists, greens and conservative rural interests unite in distrust of centralised (oil and nuclear-based) proposals. Instead, they promoted an alternative vision of a more localised and decentred non-nuclear future based on renewables and more radical democratic practices. They saw remarkable success. Within 20 years, the country went from dependence on oil imports for 90% of its energy demand to self-sufficiency in energy.  And crucially, 80% of wind turbines were owned by co-operatives or families. This contrasts with Britain, where community ownership of renewables is miniscule.

According to the conservative International Energy Authority, “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal”. 2 °C remains the official international target, despite increasing recognition that it is too dangerous. This means coming to terms with leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

We need to significantly reduce Britain’s 1,700 TWh demand for energy, while also rapidly replacing fossil fuels with renewables. Britain can generate vast amounts of electricity from offshore wind, wave and tidal energy. In the deep waters off Cornwall and Scotland, floating turbines can be anchored to the ocean floor by cables. In 2010, the Offshore Valuation Group estimated that Britain could generate more than 1,500 TWh per year from floating wind turbines alone, close to the UK’s total energy demand (this includes transport).

Just two companies—BP and Shell—make up almost 20% of the value of the FTSE 100. These same two companies form an average 30% of most pensions; their shares are seen as a hyper-secure long term investment, similar to a government backed bond.

However, their actual share value is predicated on their proven reserves. As new oil fields are discovered, the value goes up. Yet two thirds of proven fossil fuels must be left in the ground. That means that our struggle to shut down most extraction is also a struggle to wipe out most of BP and Shell’s share value. Planetary survival is pitted against pensioners’ future income.

Unless we change the basis of those pensions. By wresting back control over our financial resources, we can also pay for the transition without falling hostage to exploitation by international finance. As it stands, neoliberal power builds dependency and limits collective action through institutionalised gatekeeping, restricting who can access investment, and in what form. This bottleneck kills many dreams. Community-owned renewable energy projects across the country are on hold, unable to access the funds to build.

In July 2009 manufacturer Vestas decided to close down its wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight. The workers occupied their workplace demanding a halt to the company’s plans, calling on government to intervene. The occupation, supported from afar by dozens of trade unions and green groups, and on the spot by climate activists from across Britain, lasted eighteen days.

Alliances like this between labour unions and environmental movements can play a key role in transforming the energy settlement. A fundamental change in energy infrastructures that is needed to address climate change could create 1.33 million full time equivalent jobs in the UK in wind, marine, solar power, geothermal, synthetic gas and support services, according to Zero Carbon Britain. Some downstream fossil fuel infrastructure including the Grangemouth refinery could be retooled to run off synthetic gas, providing those workers with a long term role in our energy future.

We need energy authorities and bodies with strong elected worker representation on their boards as in Norway and Denmark. Effectively combating the climate crisis relies on workplace democracy, with workers and trade unions centrally involved in planning and structuring the alternative.

But “alternative” must mean more than a small-scale off-grid utopia. Nor is it an alternative but separate system, in parallel with neoliberalism. Otherwise elite groups, including new elites, will seek to recuperate, to take over, to concentrate power and subject collective projects to their private interests. This happened in Norway, where deliberative processes were subverted and technocrats enforced their will against democracy.

To prevent this, movements need to dismantle existing power structures at the same time as building our energy future. We should aim to take space and make demands that force the hand of neoliberalism and authoritarianism. Strangling corporate power by denying it what it needs – possibilities for ever greater accumulation. Building the future while we confront the present.

This is a call for energy democracy. Not energy security or energy separation. These are too rooted in the neoliberal common sense, and empower militaries and heavy-handed governments over a passive population. A survivable and just energy future means breaking the grip of elite interests on our energy systems, ending dependency, increasing autonomy, building diverse power structures that can hold one another to account and leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Energy democracy would end fuel poverty and create conditions for economic democracy, ending the concentration of power in the hands of unaccountable elites. We aren’t limited to a single unitary model - a resilient energy future will be composed of diverse energy commons, solidarities and practices. We believe energy democracy can be realised by scaling up from decentralised, community controlled renewable energy projects, and using the state’s institutions to pool and redistribute resources.

Referring to the pioneering Tredegar Medical Aid Society, NHS founder Aneurin Bevan described the creation of the NHS as “We are going to Tredegarise you.” Seventy years later, could Britain’s energy be Eigg-ised?


Soundings Manifesto Seminar
Energy beyond neoliberalism

Tuesday 18 November, 6.30-8.30pm
Marx Memorial Library, 37a Clerkenwell Green, EC1R 0DU

Join us on Tuesday 18 November to discuss the latest installment in the After Neoliberalism? Kilburn Manifesto series: "Energy beyond neoliberalism". This chapter investigates the potential of looking beyond dominant neoliberal models of energy production and distribution, with a particular focus on the role of "the commons". It will be available to read online in advance of the seminar.

Speakers include Farzana Khan and Mika Minio-Paluello (Platform), with a response from Guy Shrubsole (Friends of the Earth). The seminar will be chaired by Jo Littler (City University).

The event is free to Soundings subscribers.
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After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto Conference

Saturday 21 February 2015, 9.30am-4pm
Human Rights Action Centre, 25 New Inn Yard, EC2A 3EA

A one day After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto conference from Soundings Journal.

Confirmed speakers include Doreen Massey, Michael Rustin, Beatrix Campbell, Jeremy Gilbert & Pragna Patel.

Tickets available online.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


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