So Switched On – The dream of London’s energy democracy

4 Nov 2016 james


The train hurries south on the main line towards Brighton, carrying me away from the event I have just attended, ‘Power to Us’ organised by Switched on London at Myatt’s Fields in Brixton. Looking out from the carriage, over the roofs of the houses of Purley stacked up this steep sided North Downs valley at the headwaters of the River Wandle, I find that the afternoon has inspired me to dream again. To dream that one day, some day soon, each of these roofs will no longer be covered in matt red tiles, but photovoltaic panels shining silver in the late afternoon light.

The ‘Power to Us’ event was so full of energy. Close on 100 people met to discuss and debate with officers of the Mayor of London’s office visions of a publicly owned democratically run pan-London renewable energy supply company. With pressure, and luck, ‘Energy for Londoners’ will be a vehicle to tackle climate change and inequality in the same neat manoeuvre, and will be a model of the principles of Energy Democracy.

Six months ago, in the same Centre, ‘Switched on London’ held its first community event with a similar sense of excitement in the air. In the intervening six months, the campaign has achieved a great deal. The candidates of the Mayoral election last May were all lobbied with the demand that they include a commitment to set up a publicly run energy company for London. Sadiq Khan made that pledge. Now five months after his victory three senior GLA officers, including Shirley Rodrigues, the Deputy Mayor for Environment & Energy, were participating in the ‘Power to Us’ event to explain the ideas behind their ‘Energy for Londoners’ initiative. The debate was lively. Representatives of Switched on London, Fuel Poverty Action, Repowering London, Power Up North London, Myatts Field North Residents Association, Oval Quarters Residents Association, Bristol Energy and many more, engaged with Brooke Flanagan and Patrick Feehily, from the GLA Senior Management team, about the exact shape ‘Energy for Londoners’ will take. Of course there is a long road between a public discussion and the realisation of the ideals of ‘Switched on London’, but it is amazing to see how far we have come in such a short time.

Patrick Feehily, Assistant Director of Environment, GLA, responding to questions at 'Power to Us'
Patrick Feehily, Assistant Director of Environment, GLA, responding to questions at ‘Power to Us’


The view over the South London suburb of Purley reminds me of work by Platform and then RENUE, who struggled so hard to bring about a leap in the installation of renewable energy systems in the Wandle valley between 1991 and 2001. RENUE – Renewable Energy in the Urban Environment – was built around ideas encompassing the valley from the North Downs to the Thames and ambitious, detailed plans for northern Merton and central Wandsworth. RENUE’s schemes included a micro-hydro on the river Wandle (installed by Platform in 1993 to provide electricity for St Joseph’s Junior School), a solar electric pub in Earlsfield, solar hot water systems on schools and a small wind turbine on the roundabout at heart of Merton Abbey. The consistent approach was the idea of Wandle valley as a bioregion – 78 square miles of river, fields, parks, housing, roads, shopping centres, businesses – which could develop in such a way as to no longer draw all its fuel from outside the valley and at the same time care for the river that ran through its heart. That it would no longer depend entirely upon electricity supplied by the National Grid, generated at power stations such as Kingsnorth in Kent, which burnt coal shipped from the mines of Northumbria, Australia or West Virginia. It was a powerful dream that sustained us through a decade of struggle to raise funds, particularly from the Millennium Commission, in order to create what would have been the largest array of renewable energy systems in an urban area in Britain. Sadly, despite the extraordinary efforts of so many people, we were unable to move the vision from the place of imagination to the place of established reality.

The launch event of Switched on London and ‘Power to Us’ makes me reflect on the continuities and discontinuities between the struggles in the 1990s and the possibilities of today.

In the camp of the continuities, the vision behind both schemes includes:

* a recognition of the common sense of renewable energy systems

* a desire to reduce dependency on the fossil fuel industry, controlled by corporations, and its huge ecological and social impacts

* a belief in the necessity of community control over energy systems that should be operated on a not-for-profit basis

* an understanding of what citizens can gain from developing a deep knowledge of how energy is created and utilised, and that in this knowledge lies the possibility for us to control and reduce our energy consumption and thus our ecological and social impact

But the camp of discontinuities is more revealing:

* there is a strong belief in Switched on London about the possibility of exerting some influence over the political structures of the state. In the 1990s there was no GLA (Greater London Authority), there was no Mayor of London, and Borough Councils were often seen as an obstruction. RENUE worked closely with Wandsworth and Merton councils, but it was often a struggle

* the scale of ambition behind Switched on London is amazing – to create a pan-London energy supply company that could be an electricity supplier to thousands, indeed millions of citizens. I recall nobody having such a dream in the 90s. Almost all community renewable projects in London set their horizons at the edge of one or two boroughs – such as RENUE or SEA (Southwark Energy Agency). Although, these two entities did begin to work on a pan-London basis after they merged to form Carbon Descent

* in Switched on London there is a driving ambition to place renewable energy within a wider push for social justice, to see it in the context of fuel poverty and the rights of citizens to access energy as a social good. I do not remember this combined agenda in the 90s. Of course we were aware of fuel poverty and the menace of poorly insulated housing stock, but this was not joined up with the drive to install photovoltaic panels or wind turbines

* the scale and the range of groups attending ‘Power to Us’, from NGOs to community energy schemes, to residents associations, is utterly inspiring. By comparison, the meetings of RENUE in the upstairs room of The Crane pub, Wandsworth or in the back bar of The Jolly Gardeners in Earlsfield were rarely attended by more than twenty people

* the inspiration gained from initiatives such as Bristol Energy, Our Power from Scotland and Berlin Energetish from Germany (all of whom attended the Switched on London launch in Myatt’s Field) is so powerful. Here are actually existing examples of energy democracy in urban environments. In the 90s there was the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth in Mid Wales, but inspiring though it was, it represented a world a long way from South London

* finally the principle of a People’s Energy Company is that the renewable systems it utilises will generate income which can be used for the social good. When RENUE was planning to install photovoltaics or solar water heaters it hardly occurred to us that they would generate income. The entire financial plan of the scheme was built on the assumption that the venture would have to be entirely subsidised either by the state (through schemes such as the Millennium Commission) or through charitable grants. This shift in the underlying assumptions about the economic viability of renewables systems is amazing and it gives me great hope as a sign that the foundations of fossil fuel domination are being relentlessly eroded.

RENUE failed to realise its dream, although it contributed strongly to the impulse for community controlled urban renewable systems. However, what’s happening now, as represented by Switched on London, and so many other initiatives, is much bolder, much more powerful, and in that, much more hopeful. The vision of the roofs of London glistening in the evening sunshine will be achieved – only this time the panels will be community owned and democratically controlled.

With thanks to Vicki Carroll and Jo Ram


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