Empowerment through solar power

Agamemnon Otero talks to us about Repowering London, a programme promoting the cooperative ownership of solar energy farms in the city...
11 July 2013

Interview with 

Agamemnon Otero


Agamemnon Otero from Repowering London


Dominic Ford was joined by Agamemnon Otero, a co-founder of Repowering London and Repowering Londonof Brixton Energy, companies which deliver energy to London communities through renewable energy farms that are owned cooperatively by those communities.

Dominic - Agamemnon, you say that solar power can empower these communities. What does that mean exactly?

Agamemnon - Well, in that way, it's power to, for and by the people. The vision is really resilience to provide training and work apprenticeships around solar, but also to create local leadership and draft proofing education, energy switching information. That's what encourages behaviour change. So, the solar panels are just a mechanism which provides a financial revenue stream for the next 20 to 25 years which enables and empowers the community.

Dominic - So, it's got quite an important educational role in that people are learning how to manage a project like this. Presumably, it's also helping them to save money on their electricity bills.

Agamemnon - Yeah, in that way, I'd say that the most vulnerable communities in London and for that matter throughout the UK, pay some of the highest amount for their energy. About 6 million people use prepay cards and they're paying at £300 to £400 a year, more than most people. We're working directly with low income housing throughout London and these project supply the communal areas and reduce the service charge.

Dominic - So, is the money going to the individuals who own these cells or is it all going to the cooperative?

Agamemnon - The cooperatives are on whole housing associations. For instance, in Lambeth, they're on the roof of Park Estate or Loughborough park Park, Brixton Hill and the communal lighting, the elevators, the community centre, the community office, all are being powered by the energy. And so therefore, the energy bill for the overall estate is reduced, and that is passed on by the estate management board.

Dominic - I guess there is uncertainty there though because if you've got a beautiful sunny week like we've had in the UK in the last week, that presumably going to generate a lot of electricity. But then you have other whole months when it's wet across the UK.

Agamemnon - Yeah, for instance today, there was about 280 kilowatts generated on one solar system and so, of the three systems, there was about 750 to 800 kilowatts generated today which is enough to provide 180 homes worth of energy. On sunny days, it can be quite powerful and generate enough for all the residents that live in the buildings where we have solar panels. But on days like Mordor, it still generates a bit of energy. Only when it's dark does it actually stop generating. So, even on cloudy days which we have so many of, we are generating energy. I mean, we out performed last year by 25% on all of our systems, even though it was quite a rainy and cloudy summer.

Dominic - So, how do you pick the communities you work with and how many cooperatives have you set up so far?

Agamemnon - The cooperatives are based on community engagement and so, when people are enthusiastic about renewables and about having a resilient community and they're looking for more than just a way of generating money, but thinking about CO2 reduction and tackling fuel poverty and creating jobs, we are asked to work with them.

The different communities who have come to us have actually come of their own accord. It started outside my house in Brixton and has moved slowly through that from word of mouth from one community member to another. I think the thing to remember about these projects is that while they don't directly reduce individual energy bills, what they do do is provide financial revenue and 20% of the revenue goes back to the community annually for the next 20 years. In that, there's energy switching and draft proofing. The draft proofing can make 40% reduction in the energy bill and on the energy switching, you can also make savings of 30%. So overall, savings can be up to 70% of the energy bill.

Dominic - So, I guess my instinct would be that enviromental concerns tend to be quite a middle class worry and that perhaps some of these communities who are in fuel poverty, it wouldn't be top of their list of concerns. But you seem to be saying that these communities are actually coming to you for help.

Agamemnon - It's amazing how you can think these things up in glass towers and the uptake is not successful. But the whole process of making it a cooperative which is an iterative process because everybody has to come together and say, "This is something we believe in. This is something we want." And to have something, they have to have a vision and that's pretty much a scoping exercise that happens throughout the process where we have energy surveys to find out, what are the needs of that community. And in that way, they have come to us to say, this is what we want to do and there's been a real big push for young people, especially in Brixton where the first projects were, with the riots there wasa  real question around, 'hooded youths' who are perpetrating all these bad things on society. When actually, there are young people who are incredibly intelligent and want to be a part of society and they have been engaged through the internship process.

We have a 15-week internship process and then they do paid work experience on the roofs to work with contractors, putting in the solar panels. So, that has got some of the most amazing community activists - people who've been working for 30, 40 years to say, "Come, please, work with our young people. Let's try to create a system together, co-produce something, which can engage, not only the young people, middle age people who are out of work, maybe working in electrical engineering, but also, vulnerable elderly, about how to be able to use our boiler systems and reduce our energy consumption."

Dominic - It's obviously great you're giving them that opportunity. Very quickly, are you looking to start more of these cooperatives and is there somewhere where people can go to find out more?

Agamemnon - Yeah, we've got a bunch of projects in the pipeline, but right now, we have our third project which is on the Roupell Park Estate and it's open for investment. You get a 50% tax back and there's a 4% return, and you know that it engages and empowers communities with work apprenticeships and paid work experience. So yes, if people want to invest, go to repoweringlondon.org.uk and it's a non-profit, and they can become part of the next cooperative


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