How Will We Repower Communities After Corona?

(An extract from ‘The Power Of Us: How We Connect, Act And Innovate Together’ — Thread Books)

Illustration by John Biggs www.johnbiggs.art

Repowering is a cooperative dedicated to empowering communities in London to control and generate energy. But that description doesn’t do it justice. It’s also a training and employment agency, an educational project, a community investment fund, a solar panel manufacturer, and the force behind 40 ‘energy gardens’ at overground railway stations in London. Oh, and did I mention the UK’s first two blockchain-powered peer-to-peer energy trading pilots? The dropping of ‘London’ from its title indicates an ambition to diversify and grow.

Repowering’s founder is Agamemnon Otero, OBE. Agamemnon is an unusual name, and Otero’s arrival into the world no less so. Agamemnon was a king from Greek mythology who famously sailed his troops to Troy to wage war against the Trojans. His name in Greek means ‘steadfast, unbowed’ (two handy qualities of leaders). This Agamemnon (Otero) had a father who made a living diving for rare metals in shipwrecks off the coasts of Uruguay and Brazil. When his mother was pregnant, Agamemnon used to kick constantly in her womb unless she was in water. So she spent the whole of her pregnancy bathing in a coastal port in Uruguay. That port was where one of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s ships, HMS Agamemnon, was shipwrecked. ‘So my name had to be Agamemnon.’

His remarkable early life continued. By the time he was 24 years old he had discovered his second cancer — stage-four testicular — while working as an artist-in-residence in the Highlands of Scotland. After intense chemotherapy, he lived in a small cottage on the Findhorn river: ‘I’d come out of chemotherapy and go straight into the river, with salmon swimming over me, and I thought: This is the perfect way to be dying — or living.’ The second cancer provoked a rethink of… Well, everything: family, friends, money, systems. He resolved to enjoy good health (and he looked a picture of just that when I met him) and to find a way to use his maker skills in bringing people together.

A means to an end

So, how did Agamemnon become involved in solar energy? Expecting a technical explanation of the centrality of renewable energy platforms within public policy, I was a little taken aback by his response:

[Solar is just a means to an end. This is the best solution right now, but in the future there will be better solutions. It’s about finding a financial mechanism that provides a revenue stream to support well-being in communities […] London uses 13% of the UK’s total energy generation; as a country we spend £117 billion a year on energy. Lambeth borough is spending £160 million a year on energy — and there’s only 350,000 people living here! What if we invested that money into energy generation in a renewable, zero-carbon way? What if we grouped together to buy that energy? What if we did practical learning around the finance, technical, legal, media, marketing of how to own and manage that? In fellowship, yes, but building a succinct, clear, business case towards well-being.

And that, in a nutshell, is Repowering. It’s a beautifully circular programme of self-sufficiency: a community fund is established, with a guaranteed 3–4% interest for investors, which pays for the making of solar panels, made by young local trainees (who gain skills, employment and a qualification along the way); the panels go on the rooftops of social housing blocks, schools and hospitals, discounting energy bills for occupiers; the surplus energy is sold back to the government, which then supports the administration costs of the new cooperative, self-sustaining community. Rinse and repeat. All over London (and soon, further afield).

The Energy Garden cooperative is similarly circular. People nominate overground train stations in London and track-side spaces to be gardened. The harvest is not only fruit and veg, but also energy. Solar panels are planted alongside edible gardens in and around stations; school kids learn about real food by growing vegetables and herbs, and about science by installing the panels; the energy generated helps pay for maintenance; the energy gardens generate sales of crops, honey, even beer (there’s an Energy Garden Ale). As Agamemnon observes, the gardens transform drab stations: ‘Once corridors of urban grey and we’ve turned them into arteries of support and health for a resilient city.’ At the time of writing, energy gardens have greened over 20,000 square metres of London — that’s about the same as New York’s High Line.

Repowering’s Co-CEO is Dr Afsheen Rashid. She joined Repowering after advising the UK government on energy and climate change. Together, Afsheen and Agamemnon bring a powerful mix of advocacy and vision, together with technology and business smarts. A cornerstone of Repowering’s success, however, is a commitment to building relationships. Because they work primarily with people who form closely-knit collaborative communities, Afsheen and Agamemnon have a deep understanding of the mindset, values and attitudes that collaborative communities (as described in Chapter Six) are built upon. They understand the need to not fake it, to honour the tribe and to stay true to your founding principles. Agamemnon is acutely aware of the need to achieve financial viability, but it cannot be at the expense of the communities they serve. Businesses cannot be immune to the societal shifts they see around them. Speaking at the Atlas of the Future Conference, in 2019, he zeroed in on the crisis at the heart of the current turbulence:

Right now, people feel disenfranchised. We have a systems failure. Young people don’t feel invigorated to go out and take a space in society. It’s not that they don’t want to learn, it’s that they feel there is not a way in. Adults feel excluded too. We believe that companies don’t have to be divorced from community development — they should be at the heart of it.

After an hour in his company, I realised why this Uruguayan-born, adopted Londoner, with movie-star looks and a mythical handle, was awarded an honour (Member of the British Empire) by the Queen. He sees connections where others see problems. He sees peer production as a vehicle for societal transformation. This isn’t just people-powered money, or people-powered education and training, or even people-powered energy. He’s not Repowering electricity — he’s repowering people, and that’s a much more significant force:

Bringing user-innovators and producers together

One of Repowering’s immediate targets is to eliminate the dreaded electricity meters, loathed as symbols of lack of trust by people on limited incomes. Their solution is to use community-owned blockchain technology to allow people to trade their surplus energy through supplying batteries. This is a UK first, and it’s important to stress that it came about through a request from users to have more control of the energy they were now generating. They wanted to be able to buy energy from specific sources (say, the solar panels on their local school), so that community projects would benefit. They also wanted to be able to gift their excess energy, or sell it at a discount, to family members and friends. A complex collaboration between resident groups, Repowering, EDF (a national energy utility) and University College London have demonstrated mass ingenuity in a way that the Financial Times predicted will change the entire energy market, stating that ‘households will increasingly buy their energy from local sources, such as neighbours or local businesses that generate their own electricity via solar panels or wind turbines’.

As a leader, however, the most important skill Agamemnon brings is engagement: knowing how to engage people in believing in themselves and their communities; knowing how to engage with politicians and investors in seeing beyond the return on investment (ROI); engaging young people in meaningful work; and, perhaps most importantly, knowing how to engage with people as the artist and maker he really is:

The most demeaning piece of human existence is to not be a part of your own creation. If you want to demoralise someone, give them everything. Struggle is a beautiful thing. If you make a desk for your partner, you start off by thinking: ‘If I make this thing, it’ll be cheaper than going to IKEA.’ After 15 hours, all of that’s gone and it’s about ‘What is your purpose?’ Is the process of building something for the person that you love empowering you as much as it is empowering them? Is this item beyond money? Everybody has that choice. What better way to teach someone how solar energy works than to make the panels with them? Our kids had never grown the food on their plates from scratch. We took them into track-side garden spaces, picked the crops and hung the seeds upside down. In the spring, they shake the seed husks out over a whole garden, they’ve eaten the food and repropagated a field. THAT’S when they go: ‘It’s a cycle, and I did this.’ Food becomes the direct link between their spiritual growth as a human and the consumption of nutrients.

At a time when learned helplessness is disproportionately affecting our urban communities, Repowering is telling a very different story. It’s saying: ‘No one is coming to save us. But no one needs to save us. We can do this ourselves — we have the power of us.’ To help people find that voice is just about some of the most important work you can do. And, given the unprecedented set of challenges we’re facing in the near future, it’s never too soon to start.

Key points:

● Societal influences (like learned helplessness and a crisis of identity) will have an impact upon group mindsets, so don’t perpetuate those deficits in the groups you lead.

● When people have greater control of their futures, they are capable of extraordinary feats of invention (as in the peer-to-peer trading platform).

● The sense of concern for others in the community, coupled with agencies whose technical expertise is founded upon the pursuit of a common good, is a powerful combination. If it can change a community, it can change a world.

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