Yves here. Even though this piece is written for a UK audience, the principles have broad application. Seattle is one of the few US cities that operates its electrical utility. Can natives tell me how well that’s working, and what if any shortcomings need to be addressed, particularly from a clean energy perspective?
By Cat Hobbs, director of We Own It. Originally published at openDemocracy
Whether it’s 11 years or 18 months, we haven’t got long to make the big, bold changes needed to prevent global climate catastrophe.
If we’re going to have a chance of preventing widespread disaster, we can’t keep waiting for the private sector to deliver our clean, green energy future. Public ownership is the way to transition quickly to zero carbon, hand in hand with workers, citizens and communities.
Privatisation Failed – if You See Sid, Tell Him
In 1986, when Thatcher sold off British Gas, the company was floated on the stock market, accompanied by the famous ‘Tell Sid’ advertising campaign. In 1990, the UK’s regional electricity boards were privatised. But a shareholder democracy owned by people like ‘Sid’ never materialised.
We don’t own much of our energy, individually or collectively. The UK is rich in offshore wind, but only 7% is owned by UK entities and only 0.07% is in UK public ownership. We’ve flogged off our nuclear to China and France – for ‘£17 billion of risk and not much benefit’ as Aditya Chakrabortty points out. Our energy infrastructure is owned by National Grid and other private companies owned by investors from Qatar to China, to US to Hong Kong. The Big Six supply companies (British Gas, E.ON, EDF Energy, nPower, Scottish Energy and SSE) are owned by UK, French, German and Spanish investors.
These investors aren’t interested in clean, green, affordable energy. They’re interested in their profits. That’s why since energy was privatised we’ve seen rip off prices, burning of fossil fuels and a lack of investment in the infrastructure we need. The government needs to set the pace and start the race. Bringing energy into public ownership would save us around £3.2 billion in dividends and a lower cost of borrowing – money that could be reinvested in getting us to our carbon targets quicker.
The transition to a low-carbon, sustainable future cannot be left to the investor class, CEOs of multinational companies, or governments that refuse to break with the current paradigm of endless growth, the imperative of profit, and the enforced chaos of competition in strategic sectors. Acting alongside other social movements, unions can begin by explaining the challenge in clear terms. Unions must then develop transformational strategies that are anchored in a paradigm of sharing, solidarity, and sufficiency. This is perhaps the only way to ensure a Just Transition for workers, and survival for human society as a whole.
Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, Working Paper 11 ‘Trade Unions and Just Transition’
Across the World, People Are Taking Energy Back
The Transnational Institute (TNI) has tracked cities around the worldthat are taking control of their local energy supply, sometimes backed by popular votes
The city of Munich in Germany is particularly inspiring. It has committed itself to developing an electricity supply that is 100% municipal and 100% from renewable energy. The council did this because they were tired of waiting for the private companies to make the necessary investments, and they were confident that the city council could do the job better – putting sustainability before profit. By 2025, the utility company aims to produce so much green energy that the entire demand of the city can be met.
What Would Public Ownership Mean in Practice?
77% of us believe energy should be in public ownership. Our new report ‘When We Own It: A model for public ownership in the 21st century’ aims to outline what energy democracy means in practice.
We propose that you would have easy access to data and information, and could give your feedback and ideas online, on the phone or in a shopfront on every high street. You’d be a member of ‘Participate: Energy’ – the new, democratically accountable organisation representing energy users. Energy reps will sit on supervisory boards, alongside trade union reps and civil society reps – like environmental NGOs, fuel poverty groups, renters’ unions and local community groups.
Public planning processes would include large scale meetings every five years, annual reporting back, open board meetings and citizens assemblies for difficult or controversial issues.
We need local, regional and national conversations about our energy future. Andrew Cumbers explains how in Norway, the publicly owned company Statoil was set up in 1972 in order to control the use of oil in the interests of the ‘whole of society.’ Although Norway now needs to transition beyond oil, we can still learn from this example. The company was subject to a lot of democratic scrutiny and debate in parliament and a new, independent ‘Petroleum Directorate’ was created, with responsibility for regulating and controlling North Sea oil and gas resources, which led to better health and safety for workers.
The conversations should involve organisations and groups who understand the challenges in the energy supply chain. Controversial, extremely damaging extraction techniques like fracking should be outlawed altogether. Asad Rehman has argued the Green New Deal will be dirtier than we think as the technology often depends on extracting rare minerals from countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chile.
We need the right to vote against any proposals to privatise or outsource energy. In 2013 the citizens of Hamburg voted to reverse the privatisation of the city’s electricity, gas and heating networks.
These accountability mechanisms and democratic processes would go hand in hand with a bold plan for a Green New Deal – delivered through public ownership at every stage: generation of renewable energy, transmission and distribution across the country, and supply to our homes.
Generating Green Energy and Green Jobs
Government needs a duty to decarbonise – and that means leaving the oil and gas in the ground. Platform points out that extracting 20 billion barrels of oil and gas will make it totally impossible to meet our carbon targets. The UK and Scottish governments need to switch subsidies to renewables and work with trade unions and communities on a plan for just transition.
The PCS report ‘Just Transition and Energy Democracy’ explains that over 250,000 mining jobs were lost in the 1980s and 90s – we need to ‘address the legitimate fears of workers that they will again be left to pay a disproportionate price.’
To answer this, government, councils and unions need to work together to introduce new green, permanent, unionised, skilled jobs and revitalise communities across the UK. We need a new Lucas Plan, with workers at the heart of the process – looking at how technology can be best deployed for social benefit.