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Gaining public ownership of electricity in Berlin

by Michelle Wenderlich – April 16, 2013

Berliner Energietisch (BE) is organizing a referendum initiative to remunicipalize the electricity grid and create a public, democratic energy utility in Berlin, Germany. BE’s slogan “ecological-social-democratic” names the three key principles behind the campaign to buy back the city’s electricity grid from the current owner, a subsidiary of Swedish corporatized public energy company Vattenfall.

Photo: Stefan TaschnerThe coalition, whose name can be roughly translated as Berlin Energy Roundtable, started to form in the summer of 2011 and now unites some 40 civil society groups with support from four of five parties in the Berlin state parliament. After successfully completing the first round of signature collection, the coalition has until June 10, 2013 to collect 200,000 signatures in order to get the initiative voted into law at the September parliamentary elections.

Ecological, democratic and socially progressive energy alternative

The alternative proposed by BE is to establish a municipal, democratically run public utility with an explicit social and ecological orientation. 

The public utility (Stadtwerk in German) would focus on expanding and decentralizing its renewable capabilities to open up space for small-scale, community projects. During the transition period following a successful referendum, it would use cogeneration plants – and ban coal and nuclear energy – until it could achieve 100% renewable energy. The public utility would have a clear ecological mandate to invest in energy efficiency and reduce consumption.

To make the grid operator and the public utility more democratic, direct elections would be held for citizen representatives on the administrative council. Other council members would be worker representatives and only two appointees of the Berlin Senate. Annual neighbourhood assemblies would allow Berliners to meet their council representative, learn about policies, and bring new initiatives and suggestions. There would also be a possibility to petition the council outside of these assemblies and an ombudsperson with non-voting participation in the administrative council would collect and convey concerns of users.

The public utility and grid operator would also have an explicit social orientation against energy poverty. The public utility would help households switch to more efficient appliances and support house retro-fitting policies that would be fair to renters, and try to avoid displacement and gentrification.

Establishing legal standards on such matters is complicated, however, because a referendum cannot allow setting up social tariffs per se. As a next step, BE activists are exploring a progressive tariff that would rise with consumption, do away with the basic fee and energy cutoffs. Another option being discussed is to fix an amount of “basic electricity” as a human right, but this would require larger mobilization and national-level legal changes. 

Planning the transition

After a referendum win, BE’s plan would be to buy back the grid with public sector partners and to guarantee the necessary commitment to expand renewable energy. The new grid operator would also commit to offering unionized jobs to all current grid company workers to ensure a smooth transition and maintain that workforce until 2020. 

Mobilizing around ideas

There are many ideas that come together in this initiative: that energy should be renewable, social and democratic, and that citizens should have local control and ownership. Money generated from common goods should be reinvested in Berlin instead of filling multinationals’ coffers – even if they are foreign state-owned. Berliners cannot expect commercially-oriented energy companies to develop decentralized energy renewables or to make the system socially sustainable; they need to take control.

Photo: Berliner EnergietischThe BE campaign is asking city residents to “reclaim” Berlin energy, in parallel with other citizen initiatives such as the successful anti-privatization referendum led by Berliner Wassertisch to make water contracts public and theS-Bahn Roundtable initiative on regional transportation. A wealth of lessons learned can be shared across sectors to boost the electricity campaign and win the referendum.

Fundamentally, BE supporters want a right to participate regardless of their access to capital and hope to contribute to shifting the very meaning of “public” toward more direct democracy. The participation and democratic control mechanisms put in place in the BE referendum law are still limited, but they could further open up space for communities to take back responsibility for organizing basic services – and life – in the city.

A successful initiative would provide a more open and participatory model to counter both the neoliberal privatized one and the bureaucratic/technocratic approach. It would reinforce the wave of decentralized, community-controlled energy alternatives developing in Germany. Cities such as Hamburg, Oldenburg and most recently Stuttgart are also trying to regain control over their electricity grids, and there are growing numbers of energy cooperatives, renewable energy cities and regions, and “biomass villages” around the country.

The German energy system will have to be restructured in the coming years; the question is who and whose interests will lead this change.

Michelle Wenderlich is a scholar activist working with the BE and gegenstromberlin and will be working on a PhD on the subject at Clark University. She can be contacted at MichelleW101@yahoo.com. For more information and to support the campaign, visit www.berliner-energietisch.net or become a friend on Facebook!