Energy alternatives and collective ownership

During late 2015 our research group hosted Sören Becker from the Leibniz Institute for the Research of Space and Society (IRS) in Erkner, Germany. He was appointed to a junior visiting fellowship at the Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy at the University of Manchester. In addition to meeting colleagues and engaging in scholarly exchange, he delivered a public seminar on critical perspectives towards resilience.

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Sören’s research focusses on the emergence of new collective and public forms of ownership of energy utilities in German cities and beyond. His PhD project compares attempts of remunicipalisation – the re-installation of public ownership after privatisation – in the energy sectors of Berlin an Hamburg. In both cities, social movements have articulated stipulations for public ownership, combined with a reorientation of energy provision towards ecological sustainability and social justice. In each of the two, this has resulted in the formation of both a political initiative pushing for a referendum on the future ownership of the energy grids and a cooperative through which citizen raise funds to purchase shares of the network operating utility themselves.

Both cities provide a fascinating case showing how collective, community-based forms of energy provision are translated to fit the urban condition, but they also demonstrate the political dimension, the conflicts and antagonisms involved therein. Both types of initiative have spelled out a practical form of organisation for the transition to a post-fossil energy supply. Not surprisingly, incumbent energy providers, local governments and other established interests oppose these new visions and forms. While all of the attempts have failed until now in Berlin, Hamburg provides an interesting case as there was formed a public utility engaged in advertising and investing in renewable energy in 2009, and there was held a successful referendum to remunicpalise the city’s energy grids in 2013. Together the two cases provide an interesting comparison as Berlin shows the very conflictive nature of urban energy politics, while in Hamburg one can observe the work involved in the implementation of alternative energy technology ownership and low-carbon experiments likewise.

These developments are particularly interesting as ownership, therein, is not just a means to democratise the economic structures in the energy sector. In theory, collective ownership is conceived of as a means to alter existing business practices and to replace a profit-oriented energy provision with one that is based renewable energy sources and on values such inclusive access, environmental and social justice. While there is a gap between these expectations and the practical implementation, it is important to understand this shift in speaking and thinking about energy supply.

To provide a conceptual heuristic to assess this combination of ownership with wider political issues, together with his colleague Conrad Kunze, Sören has suggested the idea of collective and politically motivated renewable energy projects (CPE) to grasp the multitude of unconventional and alternative projects in the field of renewable energy. Posing an alternative to the mainly British notion of ‘community energy’, or the German ‘Bürgerenergie’ (‘citizens’ energy’), this concept defines CPE projects as having ‘an agenda of political aspirations, which goes beyond the mere generation of electricity or heat from renewable sources. These aspirations are embedded in an organisational structure that emphasises participation and makes use of collective legal ownership, a collective benefit allocation mechanism, or collective decision-making processes’ (Kunze and Becker 2015). This heuristic can help to internationally compare energy alternatives.

A future research agenda would highlight three points:

Firstly, the notion of CPE was deliberately designed to allow for an international comparison of similar projects in different countries. While some examples from various European countries are presented in a book co-authored with Conrad Kunze (in German only), this preliminary database should be extended and updated.

Secondly, it would be interesting to understand how such projects evolve out of and affect their social, economic, spatial and political context. In his PhD Sören tries to grasp how the developments in Hamburg and Berlin are embedded in and interwoven with changing institutional ensembles, political ecologies and sociospatial structures. However, more insights into the effects of alternative energy projects are indispensable to fully understand their impact on the governance of energy systems.

Thirdly, one should loosen the subliminal focus on energy generation inherent in the idea. This is where a synergy in German and British energy research can potentially exist. While in Germany the debate is often narrowed down to the generation of electricity from renewable energy, academic debate in the United Kingdom seems to focus more on the consumer side and is more open to other forms of energy, such as heating. Bridging these two perspectives with a framework that combines the impacts of energy generation with questions of social equity could provide a fertile ground for future academic cooperation.

Read more about Sören’s work:

His co-authored book on alternative energy initiatives in different European countries: http://rosalux-europa.info/userfiles/file/WegederEnergiedemokratie.pdf

A short version in English is available here: http://rosalux-europa.info/userfiles/file/Energy-democracy-in-Europe.pdf

A paper on collective and politically motivated renewable energy projects:

http://extra.shu.ac.uk/ppp-online/transcending-community-energy-collective-and-politically-motivated-projects-in-renewable-energy-cpe-across-europe/

A paper on the issue of ownership in the German energy transition:

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13549839.2014.915799?journalCode=cloe20#.VmXFHB8k7Qo

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