Community energy co-operatives: green neoliberalism or a radical alternative?

Initially the concept of the ‘green economy’ sounded promising; combining environmental and economic critiques of capitalism to consolidate a radical vision of a new society. Changes in the way we consume (and subsequent reductions in ‘productive’ labour), localised forms of collective production and equitable distributions of resources seemed to form a constellation of concepts closely associated with libertarian socialist aspirations. At the very least the term could support a new framework through which these aspirations could be articulated and developed. 

Perhaps inevitably though, this vision has been obscured by a conversation about ‘making capitalism nice’ by diverting flows of surplus capital into green technologies; increasing competition in energy markets; determining the monetary value of untapped natural resources and incentivising reductions in emissions through financial mechanisms. A ‘greening’ that does not even recognise the fundamental exploitative relations implicit in our economic system, let alone challenge them.

This fits neatly within a wider shift in rhetoric on the part of international capital. A move to sell a picture of a more socially conscious, inclusive capitalism is underway, driven by the few who have accumulated the largest concentrations of wealth and assets in the world. The green economy narrative has become a further string to the bow of this PR offensive, born of an elite concern that the great swathes of disenfranchisement created by economic changes over the last three decades may precipitate a drop in public support for neoliberalism.

The juxtaposition between the radical potential of the green economy and its more dubitable form outlined above is visible in a particular aspect of its manifestation in UK government policy: community energy co-operatives.

Recent governments in the UK have taken an interest in tentatively supporting community energy generation. Currently, the Department for Energy and Climate Change is incentivising communities to generate their own energy and supporting co-operatives to install technologies such as solar panels. Their ‘Feed in Tariff’ policy pays community organisations a price per Kwh both for the energy that they export to the grid and for the energy that they consume. Subsequently, 5000 community energy organisations have sprung up, many of which are run along cooperative lines. The potential of this is immediately apparent – communities organising collectively to use energy from the sun and wind to generate resources – a new terrain of production, the means of which are held in common.

However, a surface appraisal does not account for some deeper issues. In practice this policy has largely been exploited by middle class communities with the resources to buy the necessary technology, the confidence to navigate a complex maze of government policy, and the privilege to be able to take financial risks in the present to improve their future living standards. Furthermore, to place time, energy and resources into a project of this sort requires a stable living situation that is increasingly difficult to find as long term housing options are eroded and more people find themselves in short tenancies with few options but to keep moving as prices accelerate upwards. Lastly, under the broad, co-operative banner different models are being employed, many of which reflect a traditional return-on-investment model less conducive to radical social transformation.

A broader critical question also emerges here regarding the neoliberal dynamic, which restructures social relations to incorporate all areas of people’s lives into the capitalist sphere. The rise of personal debt for example, is reflective of this dominant ideological narrative that facilitates, if not actively encourages, ‘investment’ into goods and services, with delayed or ‘manageable’ payments thereafter. Combined with a fracturing of security of employment, steep drops in the value of wages, and a never ending attack on social security payments, this has forced many to borrow, pay interest and shift debts to stay above water. Student loans also serve as a case in point, creating conditions by which young people must ‘invest in their future’ and spend decades servicing the debt. Could community energy production merely be an embryonic manifestation of this dynamic, expanding a form of ‘social entrepreneurship’ in which communities seek to improve their living conditions by becoming conduits for the circulation of capital, with all the ‘risks and opportunities’ that this entails?

It seems then that community energy co-operatives currently straddle these two contradictory visions of the green economy. On the one side, facilitating collective, even non-hierarchical, forms of production premised on local organising and minimal labour. On the other, drawing communities into a shared enterprise; recuperating social relations into neoliberal logic.

Perhaps their function will become clearer in due course as projects continue to emerge regardless of the existing barriers to access for communities without the privileges noted above. Brixton Energy, Repower Balcombe (to contest the fracking interests springing up in the area) and a project on the Banister House estate in Hackney are in varying stages of completion among many others across the UK. (Some have taken a more active role in the construction of the solar panels themselves, again hinting at a collective, autonomous vision of production).

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For now we can only conclude that the social potential of this opportunity is not inherent to the policy itself but in how it is exploited. A contested terrain that could be seized by communities with an interest in building stronger, more equitable social relations, reducing bills and emissions, and spreading a collective form of production. Alone community energy cooperatives do not pose an existential threat to capitalism (or indeed the state), but perhaps they could be utilised as a helpful building block towards a better society, one which challenges capitalist modes of energy production and increases the collective power and autonomy of those that can find a way to exploit it.

TP | @tisanato

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One response to “Community energy co-operatives: green neoliberalism or a radical alternative?

  1. Community Energy Co-operative’s are actually great idea but unfortunately they work against the “uniquely American ideal” of individualism over collectivism. However, if these cooperatives can be shown to save community members dollars then and only then will they catch on in the American psyche in a significant way.

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