Ecosocialism Conference

Ecosocialism or barbarism… it's up to us


Community Energy – a case study

By Lee Towers

I did my PhD working with community energy organisations examining how they might contribute to a just transition and energy justice. If you’ve not come across community energy, they are organisations that try to address the climate crisis collectively through shared ownership of renewable energy such as solar or wind. There are many shapes and types of community energy, some with more cooperative models some with more commercial models, but in general they aim to address the collective climate crisis collectively. 

The idea of a just transition refers to mitigating the climate crisis or dealing with it fairly and effectively. This involves workers in ‘batshit’ jobs of fossil fuel, arms manufactures and sale, and nuclear industry get retrained and supported in a move away from these socially and environmentally damaging industries. A just transition involves ending the vast inequalities and gulf of wealth and power between economic and political elites and the rest that causes such precarity and insecurity. One aspect of this precarity is known as energy poverty and involves people not being able to adequately cover their heating and electricity costs. This was a problem when I started my PhD in 2018 and conducted research in early 2020 before the pandemic, as I will document below. However, with the energy crisis and associated inflation, precarity, insecurity and energy poverty have become far more widespread. A just transition also involves an end of neo-colonial extraction in the Global South. This neo-colonialism involves the extraction of valuable resources needed for a low-carbon transition in the Global North – silver, cobalt etc. often involving child miners and ecological destruction.1 It also involves waste streams from these technologies going back to the Global South. This has been called the decarbonisation divide but is better seen as green capitalism’s neo-colonialism, a continuation of neo-colonialist extraction of fossil fuels and other valuable minerals such as uranium that has been happening since the end of formal colonies in the 1950s and 60s. The future demand for rare earths and metals such as cobalt are set to soar dramatically under business-as-usual assumptions.2 Therefore, if we don’t oppose this, green capitalism’s insatiable demand will cause chaos in communities across the globe. 

Finally, energy justice is an academic framework that argues we should share the benefits and costs of our energy systems fairly. This framework is elaborated on in the box below and will be expanded on below. During my PhD I worked with several organisations but Energise Sussex Coast (ESC) in Hastings was a profound experience that shaped my whole approach. So, I will focus on this organisation in this piece.    

 Working With ESC

I worked with ESC from November 2019 until February 2020 helping to give energy advice in food banks and contributing to meetings and planning on ESC’s energy generation projects. This experience, especially giving energy advice in foodbanks and an immigration advice centre, was profoundly moving and upsetting. While giving this energy advice, I spoke to people and saw examples of the everyday and terrible injustices in England. 

These energy injustices can be seen through the three tenets of energy justice. In terms of distribution, the climate levy, which aims to fund some of the energy transition, is a portion of your and my energy bills and as such a regressive tax. However, it is even worse when examined in finer detail. Those in the lowest 5% of income were paying upto 6 times more proportionately than those in the top 5% of income, which meant those in energy poverty were overpaying for their own patchy support (see below) to the tune of approximately £61 million.3 This is despite the fact that those in the top 10% contribute over 50% of CO2 emissions.4

Regarding process, our energy system is so plagued by dysfunctions and anachronisms that members of ESC often referred to it as ‘broken’. Table 1 below, details the support that energy advisors receive training to deliver. The Warm Home Discount (WHD), that is paid for by the climate levy, is one such injustice of process largely because it is farmed out to the energy companies to administer. These companies have a fiduciary responsibility to make profits above all else and this is what they tended to do. One company, Utilita, only allowed people to apply for the WHD for one week in August. One man told me he contacted EDF and was told that despite him being eligible, EDF’s fund had ‘run out’. Each supplier had differing criteria of exclusion for a benefit that those on low incomes had more than paid for. More generally, these types of opt in benefits routinely miss those in most need as was evident in my work with ESC. Another injustice of process was that of funding with ESC’s funding for energy advice being reduced year on year, while the need for this was growing. Further, I was involved in a bid for the funding of regional energy advice, which would have systematised, funded properly and shared best practice of energy advice in the South-East region. In this bid, which was unsuccessful, I saw that funding to relieve energy poverty was competitively rationed under the logic of austerity.5 This results in some communities receiving support if they can show ‘value for money’ and others not given support, in what I characterized as postcode lotteries of injustice. 

Table 1: Measures to Alleviate Energy Poverty 

Measure/PolicyDetails/eligibilitySource of fundingImplementation
Warm Home Discount£140 yearly credit/people on benefits and, or with vulnerable residentRaised through climate levy a flat charge on energy billsThrough the energy companies
Winter Fuel Payment£100-300 yearly amount depending on age and living circumstance/ universal age > 65From central government and general taxation.Direct payment
Warm Home CheckVisit to home by energy efficiency advisor for soft/hard measures/those in social housing not eligible East Sussex County CouncilVia Citizen’s Advice
Switching SupplierTo compare tariffs for cheaper energy bills/some people have to pay exit fees and those with debts over £300 cannot switchN/ABy the user or a third party.

Injustices of recognition are evident in the fact that 28% of ESC energy advice went to ethnic minorities despite the national data suggesting those deemed ethnic minorities only make up 13% of the population, while the Hastings area reported less than 10% as ethnic minorities in the 2011 census. Ofgem routinely fines companies for errors with bills and while I was working with ESC, I received a threatening letter from EDF for a debt from a previous tenant. The solution for me was a quick phone call and stern explanation this was not my debt and to stop writing letters to this address. However, one person we dealt at the immigration advice centre brought in his bill as he was concerned about his high costs. When we examined the bill, we saw a much higher than average charge for the first month of the man’s tenancy, suggesting he was paying somebody else’s debt. Finally, the whole way the government and Ofgem frame and conceive of energy poverty is a form of misrecognition for they see an individual in an energy inefficient home that perhaps should get some support if they really need it and there is enough money, which there often is not because the government has systematically defunded local authorities.6 However, what I saw and ESC actors confirmed was multidimensional poverty caused by the ‘broken’ energy system, a commodified housing market, privatised utilities including the water companies whose bills we often had to deal with, a punitive benefit system and low paid and insecure employment. Thus, the government and Ofgem rhetorically talk of ‘leaving no one behind’ during a low-carbon transition, while they are abandoning millions by individualising and framing energy poverty as a technical issue, when ESC and I saw it much more as a collective socio-political problem of general impoverishment.7 This sanitising, techno-fix approach to energy poverty is evident by the fact that energy poverty falls under (the newly and foolishly named) Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), while general poverty is ‘dealt’ with by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Energy Justice Principles

To support energy justice as a decision-making tool, a framework of 10 principles has been developed along with a preliminary checklist of questions to help evaluate a range of situations. These principles include: affordability, availability, due process, transparency and accountability, sustainability, intragenerational equity, intergenerational equity, responsibility, resistance, and respect.8 Table 4 gives more information about these principles. This framework is proposed to bridge the aims of the three tenets of justice with more practical but people-focused objectives. These principles start off with straight-forward, relatively well-accepted ideas like energy should be universally available and affordable, then become more complex and controversial, with ideas such as resistance and respect. Table 2 below elaborates these principles. 

Table 2: Energy Justice Principles

PrincipleExplanationCorresponding Tenet of Justice

People deserve sufficient energy resources of high qualityDistributional
All people, including the poor, should pay no more than 10% of their income for energy services.Distributional
Due process
Countries should respect due process and human rights in their production and use of energy.Procedural
All people should have access to high-quality information about energy and the environment and fair, transparent, and accountable forms of energy decision-making.Procedural
Energy resources should not be depleted too quickly.Distributional
Intragenerational equity
All nations have a responsibility to protect the natural environment and minimize energy-related environmental threats.Distributional/recognition
Intergenerational equity
Future generations have a right to enjoy a good life undisturbed by the damage our energy systems inflict on the world today.Distributional/recognition
All nations have a responsibility to protect the natural environment and minimize energy-related environmental threats.Recognition
Energy injustices must be actively, deliberately opposed.Recognition
RespectIntersectional differences in knowledge and epistemic upbringing, culture and experience, and race and gender have to be respected in energy decision-making.Recognition

The problem that became evident early in my work with ESC was that even the straight-forward and well accepted ideas that energy should be affordable and accessible seemed beyond the English energy system. This lack of basic justice implies little chance of achieving more expansive forms of equity or a just transition. However, ESC does a lot of work helping people access more basic energy services and benefits as will be outlined below. 

 The principle of energy availability maintains that people should have enough, high-quality energy for their needs. There were a few cases were people had self-disconnected due to being unable to pay high costs, but many more with faulty or poorly working boilers and heating systems. More broadly, the poor energy efficiency of Victorian era housing in the Hastings area, and the UK more generally, means that even with a fully functioning boiler and heating system this heat energy is not retained and thus people are denied high quality heating. This results in high bills and people incurring debt as will be moved onto next, but note case one as a person with a problem of energy availability and the valuable work ESC does to mitigate this.  

 The principle of energy affordability argues that people should pay no more that 10% of their income after housing costs on energy. Under this metric and the energy crisis, many even on fairly good incomes will find their spiralling energy costs far above 10%. However, as usual it is the those on the lowest incomes that will face the most severe problems. Again, this involves poor energy efficiency and heating systems and/or no gas, but also prepayment metres (PPM) that are problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, while some people choose these as budgeting tools, this is arguably because energy prices are so high, which is turn is a function of successive governments not investing in renewable infrastructure combined with a privatised, extractive energy system.Secondly, when people get into energy debt the energy provider can impose a PPM, a process which Ofgem said often exacerbates the debt and is an upsetting experience. Once a PPM is installed due to debt it is often hard to get rid of and if the person has more than £500 of debt they cannot switch tariffs or suppliers. Finally, and in an egregious injustice, those on PPMs who are often those on the lowest incomes and have other issue such as complex health problems, pay the higher standard tariff. Case 2 shows one such householder subject to a PPM.    

The principle of due process argues that fair processes and human rights should be respected in energy decisions. The principle of transparency/accountability complement that of due process by arguing that people should have access to high quality and detailed information about energy and associated environmental issues and that energy decision-making should be fair and transparent. While working with ESC it became clear this was not always the case at the local level. This involved the local council declaring a climate emergency on the back of the school strikes and XR action, but then the planning department blocking ESC plans for community solar PV on questionable grounds of area integrity. More generally, the UK government cut then removed the Feed-in-Tariff (FiT), which guaranteed an income for energy exported back to the national grid via smaller scale renewables. Many community energy organisations relied on the FiT for income and future projects, and its cutting then removal placed many of these organisations in a crisis of funding. This is at the same time as fossil fuel majors based in the UK, Shell and BP, make record profits while paying no taxes and even claiming money back to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds.9 Further, the fossil fuel sector receives direct and indirect subsidies to a total of £11.6 billion a year (calculated in 2016).10 These planning decisions and broader government energy policy have little due process, transparency or accountability about them. Instead, we have a system of unaccountable local planning, while nationally we have extensive lobbying by powerful actors and corporations, a revolving door between government and energy companies, and the Tory party receiving millions from fossil fuel players and opening new fossil fuel extraction licences and projects in return.11

Overall, as suggested above, this situation stymies the valuable work that ESC does to both mitigate the climate crisis and energy injustice. For ESC, this involved during the early years of austerity their energy advice service becoming all-encompassing and reducing their energy generation planning time and resources. As the Marmot reports show, this was as local councils were defunded, child services withdrawn, benefits reduced, and a host of other reductions and removals of services. A small organisation like ESC could never fill the gap left by the local state, but just like the food banks who do not want to exist, they do this because the need is there under our highly unjust national system. Things must change and change quickly, and this for me involves a fundamental rethinking of democracy and how we do this.     

Energy Democracy

Community energy as a concept is about local communities taking control of and learning about energy and its consequences. As such, it is part of a broader international movement that I frame as connected and complementing energy justice, that is energy democracy. In essence energy democracy agrees that energy processes and outcomes should be fair but goes beyond this to argue and advocate for communities to own their own means of energy production. In the USA this movement is historically connected to the environmental justice movement and the anti-nuclear movement. More recently, energy democracy as expressed by radical union voices is the need to “resist, reclaim and restructure” the present fossil fuel energy system leading us all to disaster. In Europe with a history of Green Parties but also related anti-nuclear activism, community energy organisations and municipalities have begun the process of taking power – in both senses – back. Energy democracy may have different historical trajectories as places and people differ in different places and this matters; however, energy democracy can be distilled into three broad themes elaborated below in table 3.12 

Table 3: Energy Democracy, Dimensions, Components and Indicators. 

Main dimensionsComponentsIndicators
Popular sovereigntyCitizens as recipients of energy policy  Citizens as stakeholders (producers and consumers) Citizens as accountholdersWelfare and energy access as key benchmarks Consumer prices and quality of service Prosumer legislation and grid access  Public accountability of energy decision-makers  

Participatory governance

Inclusiveness Transparency Access to information Energy education and awareness raising   

Incorporation of public consultation at all levels  Citizen interests and opinions on par with experts  Due process and clear procedures Regulated lobbying  Reporting on legislation and deliberation  Independent research possible and available  Dedicated educational programmes

Civic ownership

Civic ownership of power generation  Civic ownership of transmission and distribution infrastructure 

Renewable energy deployment, dispersed energy capacity  Share of energy from private, cooperative and communal sources  Civic ownership structure and power in the political economy of energy  Share of grid infrastructure co-owned by municipalities and communities

Energy democracy theory and activists agree that energy works as power in both senses. So, concentrating power of the fossil fuel or nuclear concentrates power of the social kind as in the massive wealth of Shell and its ability to capture governments, or in the security state required by nuclear power. This means that any new fossil fuel power station or extraction licence is both an expression of power and an extension of this power via the wealth this accumulates of the 30-40 year lives of these projects. In contrast, distributed smaller scale renewables allow for distributed social power and more democratic societies. More concretely, at present we have a fossil fuel, nuclear dependency and large-scale privatised renewables like offshore wind, that extracts wealth from local communities and from those in the lower wealth and income brackets and funnels this wealth upward to huge corporations and their wealthy shareholders. And as if this was not bad enough, these shareholders and huge corporations have sophisticated techniques and willing governments across the world that allow massive scale tax evasion.13    

Mariame Kaba argues “when everything’s got to change this can seem daunting, but it also means there are many places to start.” Community energy organisations like ESC have started the process of reclaiming power in both senses. I argue that this process will work better in a Community Wealth Building (CWB) context. CWB is a movement that began in the USA but spread to England and is now being explored by various local authorities, the most advanced example being the famous Preston model. CWB like energy democracy recognises our current political economic system is not working for the vast majority of people. This relates to energy poverty, commodified housing, privatised energy systems and utilities, and low-paid insecure employment. Turning this round requires local community action but more than community energy, for it requires local authorities, hospitals, universities, alternative financial and ownership models, all working to keep wealth within communities rather than flowing outward and upward. More details on the five principles of CWB are provided below in table 4.14

Table 4: Principles of Community Wealth Building, Explanations and Examples (Adapted from CLES 2022). 

CWB PrincipleExplanationExample
Plural ownership of economy Developing small businesses, coops, community organisations and municipal ownership because these better retain wealth in localesIslington Council have begun a social enterprise hub to support coops in childcare and social care sectors.
Making financial power work for local placesUsing finance in place rather than extracting this via local authority or university pensions or mutually owned banks or credit unionsNorth West Community Bank is a collaboration between Wirral Council, Liverpool City Council and Preston Council to create a regional banks that will provide capital to SMEs, mortgages to low earners and overall provide local low-interest, patient capital.
Fair employment and just labour marketsSome of the largest local employers are anchor institutions – local authorities, hospitals or universities and thus have a responsibility to push just employment practices down their supply lines and by employing local people from lower income areasThe Real Living Wage that Salford Council began to pay its staff from 2013 and to encourage local businesses to follow this example. It aims to increase the proportion of people being paid this from 59.1% to 65% by the end of this year (2022). 
Progressive procurement of good and servicesDeveloping concentrated local supply chains via SMEs, coops, employee owned businesses – to retain wealth locally. Manchester City Council’s Social Value Framework, which emerged in 2008, aims to use its anchor status to make sure its capital produces as much economic, social and environmental benefit for Manchester as possible.   
Socially productive use of land and propertyMake land and it ownership by anchor institutions benefit local people, while also extending communal ownership of land and facilities – the commons. Public-Common Partnerships is an idea that emerged from the think tank Common Wealth. It involves a novel approach to such things as energy or water infrastructure and includes unions, social movements and local authorities. The aim would be for local residents to run the organisation/infrastructure in a commoner association and for the local community to get an annual dividend and democratic input into how the profits are reinvested. 

So, specifically how would these principles in practice impact an organisation like ESC? Plural ownership of the economy could enable what a national level community energy actor called a ‘fair playing field’ where organisations that do the community work like energy advice or installing solar PV on a school to lower its costs are valued for doing this work rather than merely on their generational capacity or profits. This would mean local authorities should favour coops like community energy organisations where they have the capacity, to do the essential retrofit of housing and businesses across the country. This might also open the door to more synergy between coops, for instance between a community energy organisation and a cooperative building and trade organisation like Retrofit Works. More broadly, the lack of economic democracy is why liberal representative democracy is such thin gruel – bullshit jobs where people do pointless work, or batshit jobs where people do actively damaging work, are compounded by an inverted pay structure where the more pointless and damaging the work the more you are paid – think banking – while the more socially valuable and necessary the less you are paid – think teaching or nursing. Without economic democracy and control of the means of our social reproduction we do not have democracy.    

Making financial power work for local places via credit unions and regional mutual banks could help solve the current problem of financing the transition. 50% of the UK population (perhaps more considering the pandemic and the energy crisis) has no capital and cannot fund basic energy efficiency measures. This leads to the perverse situation where only the wealthy can be sustainable, which is a contradiction as the climate crisis is a collective problem not an individual behaviour problem. Mutual banks open the door to patient capital which can be directed to fund lower income groups’ transition via shared communal solutions, for longer periods and for lower interest rates, or better still no interest or fixed sums over compound interest.

Fair employment and just labour markets againinvolves anchor institutions (hospitals, universities and councils) pushing just practices through their organisations and employing local SMEs, coops and community energy organisation over multinational corporations. Within coops and community energy organisations an aim would be to move from a volunteer model, which excludes low-income communities, to Real Living Wage positions, and the increased funding opportunities in a CWB region should allow this.   

Progressive procurement of good and services could redirect anchor organisations like universities and hospitals into spending the money they need to become more sustainable through local coops and community energy organisations. It also involves thinking about where things like solar PV come from and end up, as currently this is occluded and involves many injustices within the Global North but especially in the Global South.15 Long-term we should aim to produce these things here and a thriving CWB region could do this and control and monitor its supply chains. Short-term we could pressure suppliers, via the motivator of anchor institutional capital, to mitigate mining and extraction injustices and to rapidly increase recycling rates while arguing the producer takes the responsibility for this.        

Finally, socially productive use of land and property, whichcommunity energy is already doing via its work with schools, could be expanded and become much more inclusive. Public-Common Partnerships (PCPs) are an explicit counter to the extractive model of Public-Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs). PFIs are an extractive accountancy trick expanded under New Labour who saw schools or hospitals as liabilities. PFIs allowed these to be funded privately off the government books with long 30-40 repayment schemes with high interest rates attached, that have now saddled schools and hospitals with onerous debt, again funnelling wealth upward. Even worse PFIs have become, according to tax expert Richard Brooks, tax evasion vehicles to the farcical extent that HMRC offices are owned offshore and indeed the only major government office not leased out by tax dodgers is ironically the Foreign Office. PCPs aim to reverse this rot by definancialising, socialising and commonalising economic decisions and ultimately change how “we relate to one another and the resources and infrastructure we rely upon”.16 Energy, water, housing and telecommunications are things we as a society paid for in the past as essential, as they are now. However, in the neoliberal era (last 50 years) these have been privatised and made the cash cows of the rich. A CWB and commons agenda of the future would be to take these back but, in a future-facing democratic and devolved mode. 

A Renewable Democracy?       

Democracy is a word used often but often as if its meaning were self-evident and static rather than contested and shifting. Under our very noses the thin democracy we have is being attenuated by the Tories, but the Labour Party is not much better. Both see themselves as natural governors or technocrats that know better than us how we should organise our society. However, a quick look around would disabuse anyone of this notion, with the climate crisis getting worse and our government and the opposition supporting genocide in Gaza. I propose a more expansive notion of bottom-up democracy that might be labelled ecological democracy. Following the theorist John Dryzek this would involve three themes: expanding participation in any democratic exercise; expanding the scope of decision-making beyond choosing representatives to actually making decisions; ensuring the authenticity of these activities in that decisions are binding. To this I add ideas from Ashish Kothari and what he calls radical ecological democracy.17 This involves: devolving decision-making to the smallest unit possible; economic democracy with local control of production and housing as this is where we live our lives; and democratic knowledge practices with it made explicit that knowledge is a social resource and not to be used and profited from exclusively. 

Many people expressed concern for the state of our democracy during my PhD and my research suggests they are rightly concerned. ESC can be seen as a re-democratisation engine that I enjoyed working with and hope can develop and flourish in the future. For this to happen and for a just transition we all need to look to our locales and see how we can build from the bottom-up through and with organisations like ESC and movements like CWB.  

  1.  Amnesty has reported on this ↩︎
  2. Sovacool et al. 2020. Sustainable minerals and metals for a low-carbon future. ↩︎
  3. See IPPR report
    And academic paper ↩︎
  4. See report by Piketty and Chancel ↩︎
  5. This logic of austerity and rationing was stated plainly by Ed Davey when he was minister. The Tories and the Liberals abandoned the idea of eradicating energy poverty claiming it was a ‘complex’ problem that could not be eradicated meaningfully with limited resources. Davey also claimed they were not moving the goal posts, which is exactly what they were doing. ↩︎
  6. See Marmot report which shows how this defunding has been unfair with poorer communities having more resources removed ↩︎
  7. Ruth Wilson Gilmore uses the term organised abandonment to describe how neoliberal governments withdraw key resources such as welfare and education from impoverished, racialised and lower-class communities and when these communities fight back the neoliberal answer is the prison industrial complex – see Gilmore. 2023. Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation.     ↩︎
  8. See Delina & Sovacool 2019 ↩︎
  9. Lots of coverage of this e.g. ↩︎
  10. The EU reports on this but more recently an academic paper covers this ↩︎
  11. Even the BBC is reporting this
    However, Open Democracy does the real journalism ↩︎
  12. One of the main thinkers and who I adapted this table from is Kasper Szulecki ↩︎
  13. Best organisation covering this is the Tax Justice Network ↩︎
  14. This information all comes from the Centre for Local Economic Strategy or CLES ↩︎
  15. Academics have looked into what they call the decarbonisation divide
    Again, Amnesty has reported on this ↩︎
  16. Keir Milburn and Bertie Russell’s report for Common-Wealth is great ↩︎
  17. Find information on Ashish Kothari here ↩︎