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Back in 2012, the non-profit energy cooperative Repowering helped to set up Brixton Energy, installing several hundred square metres of solar panels on the roof of Elmore House in the Loughborough Estate. This project, its first, was funded by 103 investors, most of whom live in Lambeth itself. The energy generated is used to power the communal spaces of the estates and any surplus is sold to the grid. These returns, with a government subsidy, allow the cooperative to cover the project’s running costs. Any surplus is paid into the Community Energy Efficiency Fund, which finances education and apprenticeships, benefiting residents and the broader community. This puts some important decisions – from how to generate energy to how to invest their revenue – back in the hands of the people.
Agamemnon Otero (a larger than life character, as his name suggests) explains that Repowering’s Brixton Energy model operates a ‘one member one vote’ policy. “The discussions that take place in our meetings are pivotal in this process, which allows everyone to be heard. We do a lot of listening here. It is through these meetings that members are able to decide how the surplus profits are is invested, allowing them to tie their own values into the cooperative, giving them the power to steer the direction of their own energy cooperative development.” For example, it was the members who decided they wished to invest in their children’s future and to offer paid apprenticeship schemes, using the Community Energy Efficiency Fund in Brixton Energy Solar 1 cooperative. They also voted to use the fund to educate the local community about energy saving methods, from installing draft proofing to how to optimise boilers.
“That’s what gets you brand loyalty!” Otero proclaims. He explains that people will no longer stand for the disinterest of large energy corporations in customer satisfaction – the result of their long-standing market monopoly. “We are working directly with people who live in fuel poverty, and who in some cases are unable to access bank accounts or the internet. We are providing them with energy security, and helping them to re-enter society by enabling them to actively participate in the governance and financial operations of their own communities.”
Energy cooperatives have been around for a while now, but the current groundswell means the time is right for the likes of Brixton Energy. More and more people are actively choosing to get involved in local projects, joining the revolution of community owned energy. In the UK, the number of small-scale energy systems has jumped from a few thousand to over half a million, and is continuously gaining momentum. There is, it seems, an ongoing shift in how we, as communities rather than individuals, engage with energy.
Will Dawson, an energy specialist at Forum for the Future, says: “Brixton Energy shows the power of true democratic involvement of the community in the energy system. The Community Energy Coalition, comprising 36 UK social enterprises, is calling for communities to play a powerful role in a clean, efficient and affordable energy system, so that there are many more communities in charge of their energy.”
In its first year, Repowering London established a second solar project on the same estate, Brixton Energy Solar 2 with an average annual return on investment of 3% and up to 50% tax relief under the Government’s Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme. A third, Brixton Energy Solar 3, went live in September 2013 on the Roupell Park Estate.
Is it too soon to call this a revolution? No, says Otero: “A revolution is a movement from the people and therefore starts with a few individuals in their local communities; this is exactly what is happening. Proactive citizens have come together and now, after two years of seeing it in action not only understand it, but want to help others create them too. What the team at Repowering did with Brixton and other communities through out London is listen and help them to coproduce their own wellbeing.”
Now, the momentum’s picking up. Kids who have completed apprenticeships with Brixton Energy are knocking on doors to promote it in neighbouring communities and further afield. The people whose houses are powered by community-owned energy are telling their friends.
One might think that because local communities run such cooperatives, they are destined to remain small in scale. But Otero believes the scaling up potential for cooperatives is enormous: “Cooperatives will still be run by communities for communities and therefore remain a certain size, however the quantity of projects will increase substantially, and already is. So, instead of one mass cooperative, Repowering is supporting many communities develop their own Energy Cooperatives in their own areas. Bring hundreds of groups together, and we have the potential to create a true community energy revolution.”
Jessica Cresswell has an MSc in Environmental Technology from Imperial College London and works at Carbon Smart.
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Photo credit: Repowering London