How energy co-operatives could help keep bills down

Isn't it time we got more for our money?

Centrica, owners of British Gas, one of Britain’s biggest energy companies, has once again posted very good profits - made out of our individual energy needs. Isn't it time we got more for our money? That we had a stronger stake in how our energy gets generated, who benefits and where the profit goes? In the US a very different and far more diverse energy market exists. At its heart are energy co-operatives. 

Indeed, there are 42 million American citizens - the equivalent of two-thirds of the British population - who are members of energy co-operatives getting their energy needs met not from one of the Big Six energy firms that dominate the UK energy market but rather from ordinary people pooling their buying power to get a better deal. Even given the size of the US the co-operative energy movement serves 12 per cent of US energy consumers, far exceeding the reach of the UK’s small energy co-operative sector. 

Could things change in the UK? With concern growing about how our future energy needs will be met and increasing recognition that co-operating consumers could get a better deal for themselves and their communities, there is growing interest in how the government could map out a different, more decentralised and inevitably more sustainable energy market. 

The last Labour government saw and encouraged the growth of the social enterprise movement and the beginnings of a new community energy model providing mainly wind energy but some solar energy too. Baywind Energy Co-operative in the Lake District was the first to raise the required finance for turbines through community shares but a number of others have followed and more are planned. 

But if energy co-operatives and social enterprises are to be able to offer a real challenge to the traditional energy firms embraced by the Coalition, a far stronger set of signals from the Government will be required. 

One of the key lessons from the US is the need for a strong "champion" of consumer-led energy co-operatives and social enterprises to provide dedicated support, expertise and advice. In the US it is the National Rural Energy Co-operative Association, in the UK a new similar body would be needed to help local people prepare, finance and run community energy schemes. Such a body would help to galvanise interest in new forms of community ownership of energy generation. 

In the 1980s, a TV advertising blitz featuring a "Tell Sid" message drove home the opportunity to buy shares in newly privatised energy companies. We need a new share ownership drive in the energy industry – community shares giving people a real stake in the generation and distribution of the energy they use. Because the lesson we’ve learnt since the 1980s has been that individual shareholders on their own don’t have enough power to really make the Boards of the big energy companies sit up and take notice of local needs. 

Where the community owns a stake or 100% of the energy that is being generated power and influence is spread more widely across the membership.  Crucially too, the benefits of the energy generated are spread across the membership, helping to keep more of the money the energy generates in the local community rather than ‘lost’ in large profits or high executive pay, often to companies based far away from where the original energy was generated. 

In the UK, community-scale energy schemes are slowly expanding. Although they tend to be based in rural areas Brixton Energy with its solar panels initiative is an encouraging exception. To help drive a more rapid expansion of community-owned energy the government needs to be bolder in the incentives it creates within the energy market. 

Every time a new source of energy – a new power station, a new wind farm or hydro scheme is established the big energy companies have to secure a licence and/or establish a company to raise the finance to drive the scheme. The government could insist through incentives built into legislation that a right is created for local people to invest in the new energy "companies" (subsidiaries in the main of the Big Six). After all why shouldn’t local people, whose ever rising energy bills will have to pay for this investment not have the opportunity of a more direct financial benefit too from the energy being generated in their neighbourhood. 

I understand the power of markets and the benefits of strong competition, but we need to ensure those benefits and power are used for the general good rather than the self interest of a few. Co-operatives offer the possibility of a new "shared capitalism"; ensuring more benefit from the efficiencies and opportunities markets, properly regulated; can create. Energy co-operatives have a far larger reach outside the UK. Isn’t it time there were more opportunities for a new generation of innovative energy co-operatives to emerge here too?

Gareth Thomas is the Labour and Co-op MP for Harrow West and the chair of The Co-op Party

The sun sets behind the chimneys at Didcot Power Station. Photograph: Getty Images
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If only I could wangle a job in the John Lewis menswear department I’d get to say, “Suits you, sir”

I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

So now that I have made the news public that I am even deeper in the soup than I was when I started this column, various people – in fact, a far greater number than I had dared hope would – have expressed their support. Most notable, as far as I can tell, was Philip Pullman’s. That was decent of him. But the good wishes of people less in the public eye are just as warming to the heart.

Meanwhile, the question is still nagging away at me: what are you going to do now? This was the question my mother’s sisters would always ask her when a show she was in closed, and my gig might have been running for almost as long as The Mousetrap but hitherto the parallels with entertainment had eluded me.

“That’s show business,” she said to me, and for some reason that, too, is a useful comment. (I once saw a picture of a fairly well-known writer for page and screen dressed up, for a fancy-dress party, as a hot dog. The caption ran: “What? And give up show business?”)

Anyway, the funds dwindle, although I am busy enough to find that time does not weigh too heavily on my hands. The problem is that this work has either already been paid for or else is some way off being paid for, if ever, and there is little fat in the bank account. So I am intrigued when word reaches me, via the Estranged Wife, that another family member, who perhaps would prefer not to be identified, suggests that I retrain as a member of the shopfloor staff in the menswear department of John Lewis.

At first I thought something had gone wrong with my hearing. But the E W continued. The person who had made the suggestion had gone on to say that I was fairly dapper, could talk posh, and had the bearing, when it suited me, of a gentleman.

I have now thought rather a lot about this idea and I must admit that it has enormous appeal. I can just see myself. “Not the checked jacket, sir. It does not become sir. May I suggest the heather-mixture with the faint red stripe?”

In the hallowed portals of Jean Louis (to be said in a French accent), as I have learned to call it, my silver locks would add an air of gravitas, instead of being a sign of superannuation, and an invitation to scorn. I would also get an enormous amount of amusement from saying “Walk this way” and “Suits you, sir”.

Then there are the considerable benefits of working for the John Lewis Partnership itself. There is the famed annual bonus; a pension; a discount after three months’ employment; paid holiday leave; et cetera, et cetera, not to mention the camaraderie of my fellow workers. I have worked too long alone, and spend too much time writing in bed, nude, surrounded by empty packets of Frazzles and Dinky Deckers. (For those who are unfamiliar with the latter, a Dinky Decker is a miniature version of a Double Decker, which comes in a bag, cunningly placed by the tills of Sainsbury’s Locals, which is usually priced at a very competitive £1.)

I do some research. I learn from an independent website that a retail sales assistant can expect to make £7.91 an hour on average. This is somewhat less than what is considered the living wage in London, but maybe this is accounted for in the John Lewis flagship store in Oxford Street. It is, though, a full 6p an hour more than the living wage in the rest of the land. Let the good times roll!

At which point a sudden panic assails me: what if employment at that store is only granted to those of long and proven service? God, they might send me out to Brent Cross or somewhere. I don’t think I could stand that. I remember when Brent Cross Shopping Centre opened and thought to myself, even as a child, that this was my idea of hell. (It still is, though my concept of hell has broadened to include Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush.)

But, alas, I fear this tempting change of career is not to be. For one thing, I am probably too old to train now. By the time I will have been taught to everyone’s satisfaction how to operate a till or measure an inside leg, I will be only a few months, if that, from retirement age, and I doubt that even so liberal an employer as John Lewis would be willing to invest in someone so close to the finish line.

Also, I have a nasty feeling that it’s not all heather-mixture suits with (or without) the faint red stripe these days. The public demands other, less tasteful apparel.

So I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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