Energy democracy in UK and Spain: from ideas to practice

Report and reflections on The transformation of the energy sector in UK and Spain, a workshop in London on September 15th 2016, organised by Global Justice Now, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels Office and Transnational Institute

Four years ago, at the 2012 Climate Camp in Lusatia (Lausitz), the German climate justice movement agreed upon a definition of energy democracy, marking a pivotal moment in the development of this new political imaginary:

"Energy democracy means that everybody is ensured access to sufficient energy. Energy production must thereby neither pollute the environment nor harm people. More concretely, this means that fossil fuel resources must be left in the ground, the means of production need to be socialised and democratised, and that we must rethink our overall attitude towards energy consumption." (Kunze/Becker, Energy democracy in Europe)

In the short time that has followed, energy democracy has shifted from an abstract idea to a set of real world processes and practices in motion across the world, inspiring hope in a different way of organising our energy systems, communities, cities and societies.

Whether it’s communities building co-operatively owned renewables or municipal governments undermining utility giants through local public power companies, workers organising to fight privatisation or social movements demanding government subsidy shifts from dirty to clean energy, people everywhere are acting together in pursuit of an energy sector owned collectively, with social justice, sustainability and popular control at its core.

And now, as the European left begins to recompose itself as a serious electoral force, building on experiments of previous years across Latin America, a new generation of progressive policy-makers and politicians find themselves in need of viable energy policies, fast. This presents energy democracy advocates with an unexpected opportunity to consolidate, strengthen and expand exciting energy experiments and, ultimately, to shape emancipatory energy transitions.

In this context, Global Justice Now, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels Office and Transnational Institute decided to bring together representatives of left parties in the UK and Spain with expert energy democracy activists and researchers for a workshop in London to share ideas, problems and solutions. This article summarises and analyses the discussions, with a view to advancing debates and informing future struggle.

Energy democracy is happening now

"Energy democracy is happening now" stressed Molly Walsh of Friends of the Earth Europe – a sentiment confirmed by the myriad case studies shared throughout the workshop. Energy researcher Emilia Melville explained how Bristol, the city she lives in, might be seen as something of a microcosm of the UK’s incipient energy democracy initiatives. Bristol, in the South West of England, boasts a co-operatively owned solar generation project, a new publicly owned municipal supply company and a network of practitioners, researchers and activists collaborating to bring together diverse initiatives ranging from energy poverty advice schemes to renewables installation.

For the New Economic Foundation’s David Powell, we should embrace an ongoing and contradictory process of energy democratisation, rather than seeking energy democracy as a refined end goal. The case of Bristol evidences this perspective: real progress is being made, but communities have often felt excluded from the city’s energy policy-making and, equally, local politicians have expressed frustration at unaccountable national processes.

Indeed, this dynamic process of democratisation – replete with both inspiration and frustration – is unfolding across the UK. A once thriving community energy sector has, for instance, been severely inhibited by feed-in-tariff cuts, demonstrating the ways in which "local" projects are always enmeshed within larger scale relations. And many cities are following Bristol’s lead in exploring new municipal energy companies. Yet these initiatives are showing little interest in giving ordinary people and workers genuine power and control. In this context a new campaign called Switched On London has launched in the capital, successfully pushing the Greater London Authority into a new public energy company. The campaign is now seeking to democratise this new company, creating a showcase example to push the UK’s new municipal agenda in a more transformative direction.

At the national level, the Labour Party’s new leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn recently unveiled an impressive manifesto for energy democracy: community-owned renewables supported by state-backed regional banks; 200 new local public power companies across the country’s towns and cities; and a commitment to 65% renewable generation by 2030. Yet whether this ambitious vision can be realised depends upon whether the left of the Party – broadly supported by the grassroots base – are able to consolidate power in the context of an ongoing attack from rightwing Labour MPs.

The tos-and-fros of the ongoing energy democratisation process can also be observed across Spain, particularly within the citizens’ platforms that have taken office in cities across the country. These initiatives, linked to left populist party Podemos and local activist networks, haven seen experienced campaigners take direct control of policy processes, opening up new and exciting political possibilities. The principle way in which these new "rebel cities" are beginning to democratise energy is through experiments in public municipal utilities that endeavour to offer maximal participatory control to energy workers and users.

Alba del Campo, energy advisor to the city council of Cádiz, a small city in the southwest of the country in which Podemos recently formed a minority government, recounted a fascinating attempt to democratise the local power sector. Cádiz is one of the few cities in Spain to have already had its own municipal energy company established, prior to Podemos’s victory. Despite supplying 60 per cent of the city’s electricity, the company was unpopular locally, with people feeling that this supposedly public company was, in practice, no better than a privatised multinational.

Alba and other activists working within the local party are now attempting to transform the company into an institution run by and for the city’s inhabitants. Local energy forums and surveys are being used to ensure that the needs, knowledge and experiences of ordinary people are prioritised. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fundamental desire expressed throughout this dialogical process has been for affordable, renewable energy. A social voucher scheme is being explored, which would ensure that vulnerable households have their basic energy requirement met for free, with a sliding scale tariff system introduced depending on income and need.

The new left government in Barcelona are exploring a similar municipal energy initiative. Pablo Catorelo, energy policy advisor to the city council, explained that the idea is to explore how the local state could fund and support a large-scale co-operative model similar to Som Energia, Catalunya’s first renewable energy co-op, with an impressive membership of over 8,000 members.

Barcelona’s vibrant grassroots activist networks have played a pivotal role in this nascent initiative. Campaigner Maria Campuzano explained how the city’s Alliance Against Energy Poverty and the Energy Sovereignty Network have, over recent years, directed environmental resistance campaigns and widespread immiseration at the hands of spiralling fuel bills into a movement with a concrete vision for an alternative energy future, led by those on the frontline of energy injustice. It is this vision of energy sovereignty, expressed through campaigns that have operated both inside and outside the architectures of formal politics, that has gone on to inspire the new left administration’s endeavours.

For Armando Cuenca, a councillor in Pamplona’s new left government, the task is now to develop a compelling story about how energy democracy can improve people’s everyday lives. Pamplona’s new municipal energy company is making impressive progress, with 40 GW of new renewable capacity installed in the city and an aspiration to craft novel partnerships with community energy schemes.

Confronting the challenges

Yet just as the case of Bristol demonstrates some of the tensions and obstacles facing endeavours towards energy democratisation, Armando was frank about the challenges ahead in Spain. In Pamplona, just two out of 1400 council employees work on energy issues. More generally, Podemos lacks an overarching vision for energy: this is not seen as a priority for many in the party; progress is typically being made by committed energy activists taking the initiative within local parties.

While such challenges must not be downplayed, the power and progress of the energy democracy agenda should not be understated. The consensus emerging from the workshop was that the multinational utilities that have come to dominate the energy sector in recent decades are on the back foot. With their business models premised upon a highly centralised system and continued fossil fuel extraction, they have failed to respond to the rapid growth of renewable technologies, often more dispersed and more difficult to enclose and control. The transition to low-carbon energy is underway – as demonstrated by the graph in the graph below (Eurostat 2014) – and everywhere it is communities and public institutions leading the way, not the private sector.

This is emphatically not to say that the shift to energy democracy is in any sense inevitable. For one thing, neither community nor public ownership guarantees significantly more accountability or popular control than the previous model. What’s more, as stressed by both David Powell and Molly Walsh, while the big utilities find themselves backed into a corner, they are doing all they can to fight back. The major players of energy capital still possess tremendous lobbying muscle and are launching an all-out PR offensive, premised upon a series of myths about renewables as expensive and unreliable, and a corresponding narrative of necessity around the expansion of gas as a means of perpetuating the fossil fuel economy.

Thus, the extent to which the low-carbon energy system of the future is one characterised by energy democracy, or more of the same energy oligopoly, will be the outcome of heated political struggle. What will it take to push this struggle in the direction we desire? What alliances must be made? How, in sum, can we build power?

Grappling with these strategic questions, the workshop identified a number of thorny tensions that should be taken seriously in carving out a productive way forward. To conclude this report, five of these questions are outlined below.

Moving forward: five questions

1. Workers and just transition
The role of workers and trade unions in low-carbon transition is a question that continues to haunt this debate. From the incipient Trade Unions for Energy Democracy coalition – backed by major unions across the world – to the level of trade union support for the Switched On London initiative, there are doubtless reasons to be optimistic that the ever-difficult relation between the environmental and labour movements can be bridged.

Yet there are undeniable conflicts of interests here that must not be ignored. The most vocal opponents of Germany’s Energiewende, for instance, are the incumbent utilities on the one hand, and the trade unions on the other. Researcher David Hall, who has worked with labour movements for decades, stressed that across the world, energy jobs are among the most secure and the best paid. Workers at the point of energy production occupy densely concentrated workplaces at vital choke points in the economic value chain; strikes and sabotage have been able to exploit a real vulnerability in the circulation of capital and, hence have afforded tremendous leverage.

Understandably, trade unions – whose primary interest is to defend existing jobs – do not want to give this up. The decentralisation of the sector that seems likely to emerge through decarbonisation would offer no such strategic opportunities. Indeed, renewable jobs are currently precarious, non-unionised and poorly paid.

Compounding this, the scale and speed of transition required to avoid the worst of climate change requires a level of ambition in industrial conversation and reskilling that has yet to be seen. Put simply, the decent and secure jobs required for a just transition have, mostly, yet to materialise.

It is, then, foolish to suggest that easy win-win solutions can be found. The question of how to make headway on just transition remains particularly challenging. In moving forward, we would do well to remember that energy workers – like everyone else – lose out from rising bills, pollution and climate change. And, further, there is much to learn from Platform’s work on just transition in the North Sea and Campaign Against the Arms Trade’s work on industrial conversion in the arms sector, which demonstrates the possibility of a far more concrete approach that transcends mere sloganeering.

2. Corporate power
One interesting disagreement emerging from the workshop was the extent to which the energy democracy agenda should be anti-corporate. For FOE Europe’s Molly Walsh, we must be clear that multinational corporations are the enemy of energy democracy, given their history of anti-renewables lobbying and their clear vested interests in maintaining the status quo. Yet Scottish National Party energy spokesperson and MP for Aberdeen South Callum McCaig saw things differently, arguing that it is big companies like Siemens who have the knowledge and capacity to manufacture clean technologies on the scale required.

While most workshop participants sided with the anti-corporate perspective, the discussion highlighted a need for energy democracy proponents to be clear on concrete alternatives for all aspects of the sector, from distribution and generation through to manufacturing and R&D. In the terms of researcher David Hall, the anti-corporate message could be balanced with or framed as pro-public.

3. Participation
The energy democracy agenda demands a far greater degree of participation in energy decision-making for energy workers and users. But do people actually want to devote time and labour to this kind of participatory democracy? If so, in what ways? Who, currently, is able to participate, given inequalities of time and resources on account of uneven relations of race, class and gender? How might the participation of marginalised and excluded groups be cultivated?

If we want a more participatory energy sector, we need a compelling account of why this is advantageous and for whom, and of the ways in which online and offline forums can be fused to facilitate a form of participation that is manageable and enjoyable. We need concrete strategies for ensuring that the voices and knowledge of oppressed and exploited groups are foregrounded. And we need to base our demands and approaches on the ways in which people actually want to participate, rather than our presumptions about this.

4. Persuading politicians
For Nick Dearden, Director of Global Justice Now, there is a worry that politicians will likely be cautious about overly complicated and time-intensive democratic processes that make policy-processes more cumbersome.

How, then, can we sell energy democracy to politicians and policy-makers? Ultimately, we need to have achievable proposals for democratic mechanisms that balance deliberation and participation with time-efficiency and avoiding unnecessary bureaucracy. And we have to be able to demonstrate that democratising energy will lead to better, more popular energy policies.

5. Building a movement
"There is currently no movement for energy democracy", argued Molly Walsh. Rather, there are a series of exciting yet largely isolated and disconnected initiatives and projects. For Platform’s Mika Minio-Palluelo, we haven’t yet developed a narrative that helps people envisage energy democracy as part of an optimistic future. How can we change this?

Building a movement, for Molly, means bringing people from these divergent projects together to share connections and experiences, while integrating energy democracy into the agenda of pre-existing movements, such as those fighting dirty energy and trade unions. And it means developing a compelling and hopeful narrative about energy democracy that resonates with people’s everyday lives and widely shared "common sense" beliefs, sentiments and experiences: experiences of energy poverty; anger at profiteering utilities; optimism for a cleaner, healthier future; and a desire for more control over our lives.

For Maria Campuzano of Catalunya’s Alliance Against Energy Poverty, any movement for energy democracy must be grounded in and led by the experiences of those on the frontline of energy injustice, from energy poverty to fossil fuel extraction. Kahra Wayland-Larty of Global Justice Now agreed, taking inspiration from the ways in which the Switched On London campaign for municipal energy has built alliances with an array of groups: from pensioners to students, anti-gentrification campaigns to faith groups.

Initiatives like these point the way towards a politics of energy democracy in which building power and solidarity from the grassroots takes centre-stage. As Europe’s new parties of the left begin to experiment with novel energy democracy initiatives, a vital question will be how this spirit of popular democracy -- and a connection to the messy politics of everyday life -- can remain at the forefront of our work.

You can find more examples of how to reorganise our energy systems, communities, cities and societies on the Energy-Democracy-Website and the presentations of the workshop here.

Contact: Marlis Gensler, marlis.gensler(at)rosalux(dot)org

energy democracy, energy transition