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A promising attempt to reclaim Berlin's energy supply

In 2011 the non-partisan alliance Berliner Energietisch, roughly translated as Berlin Energy Roundtable, initiated a direct democracy campaign in which Berlin's citizens were asked to ‘reclaim’ the city's power. The coalition of 56 local civil society groups called for the remunicipalisation of Berlin's energy distribution grid by the new local grid operator (Berlin Energie) and for the establishment of a Berlin-owned local energy supplier (Berliner Stadtwerke). The demands were spelled out in a draft law that called for an ecological, social and democratic transformation of Berlin's energy supply.

A promising attempt to reclaim Berlin's energy supply

After two rounds of signature collection, the draft law was put to popular vote on 3 November 2013. An estimated 600,000 Berliners, or 24% of the electorate, voted in favour of the initiatives, but the quorum of 25% of eligible voters was missed by 20,000 “yes” votes. Nevertheless, the campaign built up enough pressure to lead to the creation of the local grid operator and energy supplier even if many demands remain unaddressed including greater public participation.

Background

In the 1990s, many German municipalities were affected by the wave of liberalisation and privatisation. Promoted by EU market liberalism, indebted municipalities withdrew from the areas of local interest (energy, water, waste, public transport) and started to privatise them. These sell-offs generated short-term revenues for municipal budgets. Consumers were promised lower prices, better quality and more customer-oriented service based on the private sector’s alleged efficiency and the benefits of market competition. However none of these promises were ever kept.

Some 15 years later, things started to turn around. In recent years, especially in the area of energy supply, a clear trend of remunicipalisation has been recorded in Germany. The pending deadlines for concession renewals have led many municipalities to discuss distribution of energy by a community-owned provider and the future of local energy supply more broadly. Not only are local government and local councils involved in the debate, in many places different civil society actors have also joined and promoted the process. In Berlin, the Berliner Energietisch put this topic on the political agenda, linking it to all three sustainability areas – ecology, social condition and the economy.

Berliner Energietisch

The Berliner Energietisch is a broad social alliance and a socio-ecological movement of local initiatives and organisations from Berlin that is composed of many dedicated citizens. It was founded in the summer of 2011, in reaction to the agenda of the newly elected Berlin government formed by the Social Democrats and the conservative CDU, who opposed the remunicipalisation of local energy supply.

The non-partisan alliance sees itself as an open platform. To this day, 56 local civil society groups have joined the coalition. These alliance partners range from large organisations to small initiatives from the social and environmental movements and activist networks. Church groups, welfare and tenant counselling organisations, as well as cultural associations are also part of the alliance. Broad coalition-building was made possible by the understanding that energy affects different interest groups in different ways. What we did was to translate the Energietisch approach for the members’ different working areas (e.g. energy poverty is a crucial issue for the more socially oriented associations, who want to ensure that households do not pay more than 3% of their income in energy bills).

Objectives of the Berliner Energietisch

Ecological, democratic and social aspects of energy supply were given equal importance and made essential pillars of the new strategy for Berlin. It was deemed necessary to apply political pressure on the newly elected government in 2011 to make the realignment of Berlin’s energy supply possible. The Berliner Energietisch thus chose the way of direct democracy: the framework for the new energy supply system would be determined by a referendum. For this purpose, a draft law was developed, which defined the key principles of an ecological, social and democratic energy supply. In addition to municipal ownership of the electrical power grid, the creation of a community-owned energy supplier was proposed.

The campaign of the Berliner Energietisch

The campaign of the Berliner Energietisch asked of Berlin’s citizens no less than to “reclaim” power. A three-step direct democratic way was chosen. The first step put forth a proposal for a petition for a referendum. Some 20,000 valid signatures would have to be collected within six month before taking the second step: the petition for a referendum with a minimum of 173,000 signatures to be collected in six months’ time. The Energietisch managed to collect 227,748 signatures at that stage.

After successfully completing the first and second rounds of signature collection, the federal state government of Berlin fixed the date for the referendum to 3 November 2013. The referendum narrowly failed; whereas 25% of the Berlin electorate would have been enough for the draft on community-owned energy supply to become law only 24.1% voted in favour (599,588 people). Even though most Berliners greeted the initiative, with 83% of those who voted having cast a “yes” ballot, the initiative missed the necessary quorum. The proposal of the Energietisch was put off the table. A new referendum campaign will only become possible in the next election period (after October 2016).

The demand

The draft law demanded the remunicipalisation of Berlin’s energy distribution grid managed by Swedish energy giant Vattenfall and the creation of a 100% Berlin-owned local energy supplier. The aim is to supply Berlin with 100% decentralised production of renewable energy based on a long-term vision. This community-owned energy supplier would offer green electricity drawn primarily from renewable energy plants in the Berlin-Brandenburg region. New investments in nuclear and coal-fired plants were totally excluded from the proposal. In addition, energy saving and efficiency were defined as key business objectives.

The publicly owned energy utility would have an explicit social orientation against energy poverty in Berlin. One possible strategy would be targeted counselling for low-income households, for example. Another measure is house retrofitting policies that would be fairer to renters at the same time as curbing gentrification by finding the balance between energy efficiency and affordable rents.

Finally the draft law specified broad transparency rules and a number of opportunities for Berlin citizens to participate in this process. The civic participation mechanism goes far beyond the parliamentary control of state-owned enterprises. Direct elections would be held for citizen representatives on the administrative council in order to make both the distribution and supply utilities more democratic. The draft law proposed that all citizens of Berlin directly elect six members of the board of directors. The employees of the energy company would elect another seven, while the final two seats would be reserved for the Berlin ministers of the Environment and the Economy.

The law would also allow for direct participation in company affairs. Annual neighbourhood assemblies would give Berliners a chance to meet their council representative from the energy company, to learn about policies, and to present new initiatives and make suggestions. Any initiative gathering 5,000 signatures would force the company to consult the customers on the particular issue. 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 users’ concerns.

The outcome of the campaign

Although the main campaign goal was missed, other key aims were achieved. The social democratic–conservative federal state government was pushed to create the grid operator Berlin Energie that applied in the formal competition bid for the concession contract. Even though the concession contract expired at the end of 2014, the selection process is still underway. The distribution grid is still under the control of the Swedish coal and nuclear company Vattenfall for now. A decision is expected by the end of 2016.

Also the local energy supplier Berliner Stadtwerke was established as a result of the Energietisch campaign. Many proposals from the draft law were taken up by this utility. The 100% Berlin-owned energy supplier produces only renewable energy and one of its mandates is to reduce energy poverty. Unfortunately the democratic control mechanism proposed by the Energietisch was not adopted; an old-style advisory board was established instead.

Nevertheless the idea of energy democracy – understood as equitable access to energy supply and democratic control – are being actively debated in Berlin and beyond. The Berlin campaign has inspired for instance the campaign “Switched On London” (switchedonlondon.org.uk) and lessons learned are being shared broadly. There is hope that a more progressive federal state government in the next election period can push the Berliner Stadtwerke in a more progressive direction. Berliners are still demanding democratic control over the Berliner Stadtwerke.

Further information: www.berliner-energietisch.net

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