Unlike in a number of other European countries the generation of energy in Britain is overwhelmingly in the hands of the Big Six energy firms. Ownership matters and the increasing evidence of ever rising prices, growing profit margins and rising wages at the top of energy businesses are further encouragement to the idea that a more mixed economy of energy owners is needed.
Smaller energy generating businesses including a greater number of energy co-ops are essential if the market is to change. To lead that transformation of our energy market we need imaginative, determined local councils willing to help champion such ‘Change Towns’.
In Germany 1 in 3 people get their energy from an energy co-operative (or through their own generation for example through solar panels). In the US 42 million people belong to energy co-operatives. More specifically in Copenhagen, more than 8,000 residents are investors in the Middelgrunden Wind Turbine Co-operative which part owns a 20 turbine wind farm generating energy for local people and profits for the city
The town of Schonou near Freiburg in Southern Germany set up their own energy co-operative to buy the local electricity grid when the licence to run it came up for renewal. It now supplies energy to more than 115,000 households.
Could the same situation happen in the UK? It certainly could and there has been growing interest from thinktanks, politicians and the public alike in co-operative energy schemes such as Baywind in Cumbria or Westmill Farm in Oxfordshire.
The social entrepreneurs and enthusiasts involved in such schemes highlight the time it takes, the red tape and challenge of finding funding for feasibility studies as difficulties that politicians need to help find solutions to.
To really make a significant move forward it will require local councils to support such change, to properly consider it in their regeneration and housing planning.
In the Co-operative Party we have considered the idea of ‘Change Towns’ concentrating some of the limited government funding for community energy schemes to support co-operative energy pioneers, working with imaginative councils to turn ambition for locally owned energy solutions into feasible, effective schemes that local people want to get behind.
It is local councils that can help to release the potential of communities’ desire to control basic fundamental services such as energy and power. The strength of the co-operative model is that it helps to ensure that those who control a service are held to account for their actions by their consumers or members of the co-operative.
In turn ‘Change Towns’ would become areas of community energy expertise and would inevitably help to attract new employment, encourage more social action and facilitate a wider, more diverse mix of energy businesses in local energy markets.
Reforming the energy market requires a more diverse mix of energy businesses. Energy co-operatives are essential to that process and ‘Change Towns’ could help to focus interest and effort in a US/Germany style expansion of community energy ownership.