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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder