From Electricity to Empowerment: Democratizing Urban Energy Systems

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This scenario has been developed on the basis of a real world case.


Imagine a city where rooftops are lined with cooperatively owned solar panels, providing much more than electricity. Through collective decision-making, local skill-building, jobs, and reinvestment in marginalized neighbourhoods, this city becomes an emerging energy democracy.

How might a city create this future?

When a community pitches in their time and ideas, and is financially supported by government programs, energy becomes empowerment. A likely beginning would sprout from a small but enthusiastic group of community members, possibly using pubs as meeting spaces, until the local government hopefully recognizes their efforts and joins the game. The government, perhaps a local district council, could act as an important player, connecting this fledgling group to like-minded others and offering a more formal meeting space (Q13).

What possible sources of learning should be sought out?

Riding a wave of new partnerships and legitimization, the team should be sure to look both outward and inward for inspiration. Why both? To be successful, this project can learn from good ideas elsewhere while still centering itself around local needs. In this novel case, where there may be no similar models in the city to learn from, inspiration comes from elsewhere. While examples from other areas may offer practical advice and sample financial structures (Q27), project proponents’ proactive and direct consultation with fellow locals is essential to make sure the initiative is meaningful to them. What are their priorities, their limitations, issues they’d like to see resolved? (Q9) These answers can be used to adapt other models to the community context (Q28).

Even beyond this initial stage, the community energy project should learn from local residents as they provide input at annual meetings and participate in democratic decision-making processes (Q14 & Q15).

How could a resilient financial arrangement benefit the initiative?

Centering the community energy business model around other experiences and local needs will create an engine to drive the idea forward. In this model, share purchases raise money for capital, which then provides returns for investors, and any extra revenue feeds back into a community fund (Q21). To invest, community members need assurance of reliable returns. Therefore, such a model may only be financially feasible with the support of ongoing government subsidy schemes and grants (Q21).

Although it is tempting to make the most of government financial support, rapidly changing political landscapes will upend even the best-laid plans. Declining or cancelled subsidies can destabilize the entire concept of community energy (Q23a). If this happens, it’s back to the drawing board to develop and test a new, more self-sufficient, business model (Q24). This new model could involve peer-to-peer electricity trading, or selling energy into the grid as a licensed supplier.

What comes next?

Ambitious proponents of this more durable model can continue to scale it up and enable many more projects throughout the city and beyond (Q33). To do this, learning and implementation processes will need to be less experimental and coordination by a higher institutional body would be very helpful (Q31d).

How could this reality be created in your city? What obstacles would have to be overcome?

Do you want to learn more about this scenario?

Take a look at the detailed description of Inner-city community energy in London that has inspired this scenario. The initiative is a cooperatively owned community energy initiative for multi-unit residential buildings, which, among other things, strives to tackle energy poverty and reduce dependence on big energy companies. Check out their website,

This scenario relates to some enabling governance arrangements:

This scenario fits under the approaches:

It addresses some drivers of injustice:

What do you think about this scenario? Was it helpful to you? Do you find our approach problematic? Send us an email to Philipp Spaeth.