We heart ownership

Matt Mellen, Campaign Director of Trillion Fund, explains how community ownership of renewable energy projects allows people to consolidate their position, get a better deal and build up resilience to future shocks.

© BedZED low carbon community, UK

Contemporary capitalism has resulted in a concentration of wealth and power at the top of multi-national corporations and in the hands of a few ultra-influential individuals. Today, decisions about the fundamentals of how we live, eat and power our homes are often made in boardrooms many miles from where we live – quite possibly in another country.  Combined with this, market uncertainties presented by both the sputtering global economy and politicians’ diverse attitudes to resource constraints contribute to a feeling of being increasingly buffeted by mysterious forces beyond our control.

Do we have to accept whatever price the market throws at us? Are we just cogs in a giant economic machine?

New approaches to ownership suggest that there are ways people can consolidate their position, get a better deal and build up resilience to future shocks.

The key may lie in buying a stake and co-owning infrastructure assets that previously have been considered the domain of governments and large companies. By using new, online, collaborative platforms and pooling resources consumers are getting a better deal on everything from energy bills, access to cars, and loans.

More than this, communities that come together to buy key assets and access a better price for services find that not only do they pay less, they gain back some control and become more empowered to make important decisions locally. Evidence suggests this both rejuvenates a sense of real democracy and enhances lives (examples here, here and here). There are an increasing number of cases where enthusiasm replaces anger when local renewable energy assets are owned by and benefit the local community (e.g. in Brixton, Westmill Solar and BedZED. Imagine villagers collaboratively financing the construction of a wind turbine. Not only do they get cheaper electricity, they also get a quarterly dividend from surplus electricity sold back to the grid.

Energy ceases to be abstract and mysterious. It is real, linked to the rotating blade over yonder, and households are better motivated to understand it and use it wisely.

Coal fired power stations are located far away and deliver electricity as if by magic. But the harm they cause is real. In contrast, each turn of a wind turbine’s blade translates to energy for our homes. We can see the energy being transformed from the wind to the light we read by. We understand the benefits the wind turbines and solar panels outside and Combined Heat and Power bring to our neighbourhood.

Other benefits are less easy to quantify but perhaps even more important: the community is more resilient.

Scarcity is becoming the hallmark of the post-industrial world. Peak Everything predicts that costs of energy, food and other resources will continue to rise as demand increases and supply is constrained. This scarcity makes us vulnerable, as our access to food depends on vast convoys of boats and trucks that burn oil. Furthermore, agriculture itself is based on petrochemicals. Should market energy rates soar a village with a wind turbine and community vegetable gardens is in the conventional modern landscape as an oasis in the desert. This village can stay fed, watered and powered in the face of global disruption.

The organisational process of community ownership is itself valuable. It feels good to come together and find solutions to shared challenges. Our happiness is strongly correlated with the number of neighbours we know, and community ownership is one opportunity to reverse the modern trend of disconnectedness and begin to again get to know the people around us.

What’s next? Neighbourhoods might investigate crowd funding a community space or opt to save the local post office. Perhaps shared funds could turn part of the village recreation ground into an allotment space. Or could a locally run car club reduce the total numbers of cars in the neighbourhood, freeing space for a weekly farmers’ market?

When we rebel against the notion that we are powerless individuals, we can see an opportunity: by joining together, we can do better.

By Matt Mellen

Monday, January 28th, 2013