Labour currently governs most of Britain's cities and large towns. How can it use this power to respond to the challenge of climate change? Jon Burke, Labour Cabinet Member for Energy and Sustainability on Hackney Borough Council, and Mika Minio-Paluello, an energy economist and activist, discuss climate transition, local government, and the potential for a geographical and ecological rebalancing of Britain's economy.
Mika Minio-Paluello (MMP): You published Hackney Labour Group's manifesto for the 2018 elections: a practical vision for the immediate future. Your headline commitments around setting up a public energy company that will roll out renewables, especially solar, on rooftops.
Cllr. Jon Burke (JB): We have 50 per cent of the residential rooftops in the borough, yes, but that means also, in absolute terms, it's a bit more than that, because we've got all our corporate roofspace, and LEA schools that we can potentially work with. But I don't think we should be limited to that. It seems a bit kind of crude to say we'll throw everything at solar, but ultimately that's where our natural endowments are. We haven't got a waterfall in Hackney; we haven't got a dam, though I don't think that that should preclude the company, if it's successful, looking at other schemes beyond the borough's boundaries. We would look at potentially taking equity stakes in other schemes, being part of consortiums to set up other schemes.
One of the things that I'm really excited about is the potential for 'gas-to-grid' in Hackney. We could be closing the domestic and commercial food-waste loop, alongside cuttings from our substantial amounts of green space in Hackney, to produce bio-methane and inject directly into the local gas grid. That hasn't yet been fully explored. I'm not an expert in this field, but having a vision is sometimes more helpful than being an expert. If you know what all of the very real barriers are before you encounter them, then that can be debilitating.
MMP: Yes--you end up shrinking your vision and it becomes too small. Obviously that doesn't mean being conservative: but you can end up thinking within the existing parameters, when actually transition means we need to completely transform our economy and our social space, our urban spaces. We need to imagine things we wouldn't really imagine otherwise.
JB: You can slightly misquote Ursula LeGuin: 'we don't need progress we need change'. (1) Change is much more difficult to implement than progress, because human beings do not respond well to change. So the key to success for the great transition, in energy terms, will be to do so under circumstances that do not significantly disrupt people's daily lives.
MMP: Which I guess is one of the challenges if we are trying to change the urban fabric to some degree. It's essential to ask how we take everybody with us. If we're putting solar panels on rooftops, we're also going to have to deal with things like cars, how people move around, how people heat their homes. And one of the big challenges that comes in is, we're going to have to find a solution to gas, to heating. Part of that might be about hydrogen in some places, part of that might be about green gas solutions, but clearly a big part of it will be about electrification as well.
JB: It's funny how the CEO of Shell said recently that everything that can be electrified, should be electrified. (2) That's a view we share. But we also need radical alternatives using existing infrastructure, because we won't be able to pull out a lot of the gas grid. I frequently see people run down the potential for bio-gas but, ultimately, we know that a litre of organic food waste can produce sufficient gas for three hours of cooking time, and I don't need to be an expert in the gas industry to know that ergo the potential for green gas from domestic and commercial food waste is huge, absolutely huge.
MMP: I guess there's various challenges with it. One of them is that as soon as you start transporting it beyond a certain distance, the emissions rise.
JB: Yes--so you have to completely decentralise it. My vision for the future is one in which there's a small gas-to-grid piece of kit on every street in Hackney, in every park in Hackney. That for me is a way in which we could close that organic waste-gas loop with minimal disruption. To me it's not a radical departure from the streets that we currently have now: one small silo on every road occupying the space that a Chelsea Tractor currently does.
MMP: That raises all sorts of other issues of scale and the difference between public and private space. Do we need to change appliances in peoples' homes? Do we need to shift boilers? How do we put energy storage in, to what extent do we end up putting batteries, other forms of storage, in peoples' homes? Would collective ones on streets not be better? It might make sense to have something slightly larger-scale that's not so individualised.
JB: Storage is the holy grail of all of this. A 5-panel solar system, roughly speaking, can generate enough electricity for about 70 per cent of a household's needs. Of course it's generating surplus electricity in the daytime when people aren't necessarily there, and nothing in the evening. With appropriate storage that would mean that one five-panel system is providing a household with 70 per cent of all its energy needs if everything was electrified.
So for me, the potential seems absolutely huge, and when that moment happens--and it might not happen with batteries, it might happen with flywheels--it will be 'a world turned upside-down' moment. Not for people who use it, because it will be very easy. Maybe in ten or twenty years, it will be like the mobile phone: people will not be able to remember what it was like not to have energy storage in their homes. That's not me being some kind of techno-utopian. I think to make that happen is going to be an incredible political fight.
How to start a municipal energy company
MMP: That is how technological change always happens! How do you see the new public energy company that Hackney is setting up at a municipal level playing into the technological shift? Obviously, in the short term, you're putting solar PV on rooftops and seeing if you can be part of energy projects elsewhere. But do municipal authorities have a role to play in delivering that fundamental technological shift? Because I guess that's what we'd like to see from Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham and Bristol Energy at the moment. I'm not quite sure whether they see themselves fulfilling that role.
JB: Robin Hood Energy's great gift to municipalism has been to demonstrate to other politicians what's possible out there. The idea that the first iteration...