Municipalization: Localization made real

Trianel Windfarm: The worlds largest wind farm in community ownership.

Trianel Windfarm: The worlds largest community owned wind farm.

In Britain we are caught up in an outdated debate about whether services, from the health service, to banks, railways or the energy infrastructure, should be nationalized or privatized. Neither of these models seem ideal to me. We in UK have much to learn from our European neighbours who have a much more pluralistic, localized and democratically controlled mix, with a huge ‘not for profit’ sector. Germany and Sweden both, at least to some extent, followed Britain in the 1980’s fashion of privatization. Now they are both undergoing a process of ‘re-communalization’.

When I was working in Frankfurt last year I was impressed by Mainova, the local municipally controlled provider of electricity, heat, gas and water. Many German cities and some smaller places have their local Stadtwerke, municipal organisations that run a huge range of local services and feed any profits back into long term local investments usually with a range of social, economic, ecological objectives. In Britain we’ve been hampered by a short term profit maximizing privatized industry since the 1990’s and before from 1946 to the 1990’s by an over-centralized and remote nationalized industry. In the 1930’s we had a greater municipal sector, which it might be time to revive, along with a whole raft of new coops and international joint projects. A recent academic study comparing the German and British systems of finance and ownership of energy infrastructure by Hall, Foxon and Bolton is well worth reading. It shows the extraordinary range of difference between the German and British systems. A vast range of local ‘not for profit’ banks and energy organisations are at the heart of the German Energiewende. Here is one example.

The first phase of the Trianel wind farm Borkum has just opened. This is a 200MW plant, with another 200 MW due to follow soon in phase 2, making it by far the biggest community owned wind farm in the world, with an estimated total cost of 1.3 billion Euros. The ownership and financing are utterly unlike anything we are used to in Britain. It is owned by 33 local municipal utilities, mainly owned and controlled by local city and town councils spread all across Germany, Holland, Switzerland and Austria. Collectively they formed Trianel to develop a rapidly expanding portfolio of energy infrastructure. They are supported by a huge range of banks, many themselves locally controlled, democratically accountable and in the not for profit sector. Trianel’s membership is expanding so in future many more than the current 33 cities might be stakeholders in ever more ambitious energy projects, which increasingly will be low carbon. Can we imagine British cities having the organisational capacity and ambition to join-in? Let’s hope so!

Hall, Foxon and Bolton’s paper ‘The new ‘civic’ energy sector: implications for ownership, governance and financing of low carbon energy infrastructure.’

Trianel, structure and membership

Trianel wind farm Borkum

Many other places all over the world are looking at the benefits of municipal energy; here is one example, Davis, California.