With the government’s energy price cap set to rise in January, the issue of fuel poverty is once again a pressing concern this winter. Daire Ní Chnáimh interviews two activists from Fuel Poverty Action to discuss the future of the energy justice movement.
On 1 December 2023, Fuel Poverty Action, Unite Community, and allies co-organised protests across England and Scotland to challenge unaffordable energy bills and the forced installation of prepayment meters in response to energy debt. This ‘fuel poverty’ – the lack of access to energy due to unaffordability for necessities like lighting, powering critical electrical devices, and perhaps most notably, heating – is widespread. Last winter, over 4,700 people died due to the inability to adequately heat their homes. This year is set to be worse, with energy bills rising again in January. What led to the spiralling cost of greed crisis which is becoming normalised as people avoid turning on the heating well into December?
Throughout the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher oversaw the privatisation of most of Britain’s public utilities, which had been built up with public money. For a pittance, British Gas, the Central Electricity Generating Board, nuclear power company British Energy, British Nuclear Fuels, and British Aerospace (now BAE Systems), were transferred to private hands, along with dozens of other public utilities. As Brett Christophers observes in his book Rentier Capitalism, these utilities operate in conditions of ‘natural monopoly’, which means the owners of infrastructure have no incentive to improve or upgrade it. ‘When utilities are privatised it is not only infrastructure, but captive bill-paying citizens who are sold off.’
Below are interviews with two activists working in the Glasgow energy justice movement about where we’re at and the horizons for this area of struggle. Lucia Harrington is an organiser with Fuel Poverty Action, and she has recently started the organisation’s first local hub in Glasgow. Nishikant Sheorey is an energy researcher and organiser who studies energy justice movements and energy system formations, while engaging with relevant campaigns and organisations on the ground.
Cost of greed crisis: 2022, 2023, 2024? an interview with Lucia Harrington
Lucia Harrington: ‘Since last year, more people are active in their trade unions, partly as a result of the cost of living crisis hitting. But how many people still talk about that in relation to the cost of living crisis? People do, but it’s not in the same angry way – it’s become more normalised. That kind of normalisation is something I’m really worried about, because it means that people are less likely to take action, because they’re more willing to accept it.’
‘Don’t Pay emerged as well last year. Even though that payment strike didn’t happen on the scale that people were hoping, it made an impact because we saw energy firms saying to each other, “if this were to happen, this would cause massive problems for us.” And that’s when we saw change happen.’
‘There was lots of other work going behind the scenes from lots of different organisations and groups as well. It proved that if the government was to do nothing in response to the momentum that was being built, they would have been in more trouble. This led to the moratorium on the forced installation of prepayment meters. That was a win. And that couldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for all these organisations working together to get that to happen. Sadly, that’s coming to an end now.’
‘The way standing charges are set up right now means there’ll be people who are paying more for the least usage, when they have less money to pay for their energy bills, compared to those who have a lot of money and use way more than they need.’
‘With the forced installation of pre-payment meters, they have to do the so-called “wellbeing checks” to make sure that they’re not fitting them to people who are so-called “vulnerable”. So that if someone’s energy gets cut off, they’re not responsible for that person’s death. This wellbeing check is not sufficient at all. They say they only cut off people who won’t be affected badly if they lose access to energy. That’s just a ridiculous argument. No one should be cut off, because that denies your ability to heat yourself and cook for yourself. That affects everyone terribly. And these wellbeing checks occur literally when they break into someone’s home. So if someone had medication in the fridge, or they had kids but those signs weren’t so obvious, they still get forced pre-payment meters immediately.’
‘There are a lot of laws around this that people don’t know about. So if a company breaches their own licence, you can challenge that under the law, but loads of people don’t know that.’
‘For years and years the environmentalist movement has failed to understand class issues. That’s suddenly changed, across the board. Focusing on poverty is a way to intersect the climate struggle with class struggle, because it’s where climate issues like energy are hitting people immediately, because it’s a systemic problem that’s coming from profiteering. You have to face it in your everyday life. We’re seeing that shift in the climate movement.’
Fuel Poverty Action has been calling for the Energy For All manifesto, which proposes the abolition of the standing charge, and a free band of energy that covers our heating, lighting and cooking needs. This could be paid for with a windfall tax on energy company profits, and would incentivise a rapid move toward renewables. This shows how the energy justice movement brings climate organising into the same frame as resistance to profiteers.
What kind of power? an interview with Nishikant Sheorey
Nishikant Sheorey: ‘Plenty of people will still talk about nuclear power as a solution to energy scarcity. This lacks consideration for its socio-political impacts and ramifications, because it’s not just a technical question. It’s a sociotechnical question of what forms of social organisation the technology incentivises. Large, capital-intensive projects incentivise the centralisation of social power and ownership, which is not compatible with true (energy) democracy. With heavily state-regulated or even state-owned energy systems, there’s a consistent development of large scale energy production facilities and infrastructure in places where they might cause social and ecological harm, and perpetuate environmental racism – in large part due to a failure to incorporate democratic decision-making and the resultant neglect of people who would be most impacted by the project.
‘There are also issues with trying to distribute energy over hundreds of miles. High power lines are relatively efficient, but there are losses. The bigger issue, though, is actually maintenance of those lines and what they do to local environments – the most egregious example of this is the frequent causation of wildfires in California by downed long-distance transmission lines due to poor maintenance. More small sites of production with shorter lines are easier to maintain and more resilient in the face of climate impacts as well as social instability – so long as they are networked. We don’t want isolated energy islands.’
‘You regularly hear that “technology is neutral, it’s just a matter of how you use it.” That’s not a sufficient analysis, because the form of the technology incentivises different forms of use. For energy, large, capital-intensive projects incentivise very centralised, undemocratic ownership and governance. Renewables can open the way for community ownership because the way they scale is different. Solar power scales linearly. Setting aside slight deviations, two panels generally produce twice the power of one panel. Wind benefits a bit more from scale, because of the physics – the power produced is proportional to the square of the area swept by the turbine’s blades, so a 20 meter diameter turbine will produce more than twice as much as a turbine with a 10 meter diameter. So it does help to have a larger turbine there. But you can still realistically have 15 megawatt turbines under community ownership. You’re probably not going to have a community-owned 500MW gas-fired or nuclear power plant.’
‘The logistics are also simpler for renewables: once the infrastructure for renewable energy is built, it doesn’t require fuel drilled elsewhere to be transported to it. Between the nature of the technology itself and the relative ease of socio-technical implementation, it makes community-owned energy a more accessible goal.’
‘This is where the degrowth perspective comes in, because climate goals are only one aspect of it. There are a lot of ecological and resource justice issues at play with energy, very much including with renewables – the common one that arises is the impact of extraction of minerals like lithium and cobalt and attendant (neo)colonial relationships – and ultimately, there is no answer other than to build and use less. These technologies will hopefully get more efficient with technological advancement, but so long as we are in the technological state that we’re at, we need to figure out how to use less. If we’re producing consumer goods for the sake of consumption, that uses more energy than we can ever sustainably produce. There is increasing evidence that we won’t be able to meet climate goals if we continue to increase energy consumption, because we simply won’t be able to develop renewable energy infrastructure at the rate necessary to make sure all of that increase in consumption comes from carbon-free sources, particularly if we care about decolonization. We need a complete rearrangement of the production of goods: how we decide what needs to be produced, how it needs to be produced, and how we exchange and distribute those resources. It’s not austerity – there should be abundant energy available for things people actually need, not billionaires flying across the world all the time. There is no capitalist green energy future, it just can’t be done.’
‘People need to see that there’s an alternative, and the government needs to see that we’re not going to let them continue as is. We can draw from examples like Reclaim Our Power, a group who attempted a myriad of tactics to improve California’s energy system: from resisting disconnections and mass refusal to pay energy bills, to public demonstrations like the ones Fuel Poverty Action are calling here, to attempts to get the California state to take over the private utility companies. They’re also looking into establishing microgrids throughout the Bay Area. Another example is Casa Pueblo, a community organisation in a town called Adjuntas in Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria devastated the country’s energy system, they built a microgrid compatible with how the community’s social structure already worked.’
‘Scotland is energy rich in a lot of ways, so how can we start trying to practise some of that collective self-governance and get communal access to renewable energy, somewhere like the greater Glasgow area? Private energy entities are extremely dominant, but they do sometimes overstate that hegemony – there was a time in recent generational memory when a lot of energy was publicly owned, and there are plenty of people around who remember that and want that back. We need to get that started again, and part of that is practical experimentation: trying out different ways of organising our communities, including our relationship to important resources such as energy in ways that are context-sensitive and prefigurative, and then seeing how that can expand towards larger scale systemic change.’