Lisa Nandy’s Vision of Energy Democracy Isn’t Idealism – It’s Already Starting to Happen

This article by Sakina Sheikh has been cross-posted from Global Justice Now.

A bold and refreshing vision for the UK’s energy future was spelled out this morning by Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary, at the Labour party conference. It wasn’t only about her commitment to clean energy – she spoke of Labour’s plans to “democratise [energy]” in Britain, by putting “people back in charge”. 

With 7 million people in the UK living in fuel poverty and 1 in 7 people globally living without access to energy - Labour’s vision for a fairer energy system is much needed. Global Justice Now has been a fierce advocate of energy democracy both here in the UK and globally. It would mean energy is fairly distributed, democratically controlled, and managed to recognise the planet’s limits.

As Nandy rightly explained, moving to “community-based energy companies and cooperatives” could provide a “new powerhouse” in the UK and ensure a more just energy system for us all. Energy municipalisation - giving the people back control of their energy system - is an effective way of challenging the monopoly held by the big six energy companies. This monopoly currently sees fuel poverty for millions in the UK, and increasingly unaffordable energy bills.

Critics of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet might attempt to accuse Nandy of ‘pie in the sky’ idealism, but the fact is that this transition to energy democracy is already taking root and thriving in many parts of the world. Here’s a taste of just three of them.

1. Nottingham and Robin Hood energy

Indeed, as mentioned in Nandy’s speech, this process of energy democracy has already begun here in the UK. In Nottingham the local council has set up a not-for-profit energy supplier, Robin Hood Energy, and estimates it can save customers up to £237 a year on bills. Already their first customer has had their annual energy bill cut from £2,000 to £1,400. Companies like Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham being run for people, rather than just for profit, demonstrates real alternatives to the Big Six’s domination of energy markets.

2. Hamburg, Germany

Much has been written about Energiewende, Germany’s transition not only from fossil fuel generated power but also from centralised to decentralised energy production.  But the changes aren’t just stopping there. In Hamburg, the second largest city, citizens voted in September 2013 for their local council to buy back the energy grid from multinational companies E.On and Vattenfall. The change came following the Our Hamburg - Our Grid campaign which argued that these companies were failing to act in the best interest of local people and were delaying the shift to renewable energy.  Similar plans are being brought to the table in Berlin too.

3. Uruguay

Uruguay is one country with public ownership of its energy system which is showing how a more just energy system could be achieved. The government has set ambitious targets for both ensuring everyone has access to energy and also shifting to more sustainable energy sources, both for electricity production and for other services such as transport. To date, 99 per cent of the population of Uruguay has access to electricity and almost two-thirds is produced from renewable sources .  Energy efficiency also plays a major role in Uruguay’s plans to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. The labour movement in Uruguay not only played a major role in fighting off attempts to privatise the energy sector in 1992, it is now engaging in proposals to democratise the state-owned energy company, UTE.

The UK pushing for the opposite in Nigeria

With energy privatisation having been such a disaster in the UK and in so many other parts of the world, it’s seems ludicrous that the Department for International Development (DfID) is determined to use UK aid money to implement this failed model of energy privatisation in countries such as Nigeria. DfID is presently spending nearly £100million of UK aid money, via free-market fundamentalists, Adam Smith International, to support the privatisation of Nigeria’s energy system through a program called the Nigeria Infrastructure Advisory Facility (NIAF). Ken Henshaw from Social Action in Nigeria said that when he met with DfID over the disastrous programme, “They admitted the privatization has failed, but when I talked about energy democracy, about communities owning and generating their own renewable electricity, it seemed they’d never thought of that.”

This persistent adoption of energy neo-liberalism isn’t restricted to DfID – it’s characterised numerous government departments, from the Treasury, through to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Nandy’s speech at the Labour conference is finally breaking with this dated consensus and pointing the way to what a modern and forward thinking energy system might look like – just, sustainable and democratised.

Photo: Black Rock Solar via Flickr