Stories of Change: The past, present and future of energy

Energy Stories Library item 04 Sep 2017

Repowering our inner cities

Agamenmon Otero visits an overground station energy garden

Agamenmon Otero visits an overground station energy garden

Spending long periods of time receiving treatment for two separate forms of cancer in his late teens and early twenties gave Agamenmon Otero time to think about how we use energy at work and in the home. He was interested in its generation and how, in places such as hospitals, where priorities lay elsewhere, it wasn’t being used as efficiently as it could be.

Following a successful recovery and after studying for medical and architectural qualifications, Agamenmon’s career path led to him revisiting those earlier energy ideas.

The native New Yorker began to explore ways in which energy could be used to create sustainable systems for communities. In 2011 this led to the formation of community energy cooperative Repowering to support inner city communities interested in developing their own renewable energy projects.

As part of its first collaborative project, a team of people came together to create a community share offer that raised the £58,000 capital required to install several hundred square metres of solar panel on Elmore House, a social housing estate in Brixton. On completion in 2012, this was the UK’s first inner-city, co-operatively owned renewable energy project.

Since then Repowering have completed a further two solar projects in Brixton, with a fourth currently at the planning stage. Whilst investors see a return on their money, a percentage of the revenue generated from selling energy to the National Grid is fed into a Community Energy Efficiency Fund. This funds a range of initiatives including a scheme to improve the energy efficiency of the housing stock.

As well as working with Lambeth Council in Brixton, Repowering has joined forces with Hackney Council on a solar project at Banister House. Completed in October 2015, it is the UK’s largest community energy project on social housing generating 82,000 kWh each year, saving 50,000 kg of CO2 emissions. Over the 20-year life of the project it is forecast to generate over £28,000 for the solar community fund.

Projects such as these also offer opportunities for local youths to upskill. A 40-week paid internship programme saw 25 local young people gain valuable work experience in Hackney. Repowering across all its Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) internship programmes pays interns to learn about the finance, IT, technical and legal aspects of an energy coop, and about energy efficiency.

Agamenmon explained: “The idea has always been to generate a revenue stream that supports the community and amplifies that communities needs. We did the first community energy projects on social housing in the UK in Brixton. Five years later the revenue from the energy generation is still supporting young people to study as well as community away days and education seminars.”

Shareholders within the community projects decide where the profits from the energy schemes are distributed. Last year these totalled £67,500 across all Repowering projects. The funds have been used for education projects, trips out of London for disadvantaged children, many of whom have never been beyond their estates, and opportunities for young people to participate in vocational courses.

Agamenmon believes Repowering’s mission is to engender empowerment that leads to positive change by devolving ownership to the community.

He said: “You can put solar panels on rooftops but that won’t change people’s behaviour but if you start to build cooperatives with people in the places where people live, that’s a way to do this.”

Repowering is both a community development organisation and a renewable energy organisation. It creates different types of local energy in its two forms.The key objective is to work to alleviate fuel poverty in inner cities. Their programmes carry out draft proofing, home energy audits and energy switching workshops that have helped residents achieve up to a 40 per cent reduction in their energy bills.

There is a significant social return on investment. Feedback collected over the last five years has highlighted how being involved with Repowering has brought communities closer together and enabled a higher-level of autonomy, self-sufficiency, and increased sense of well-being.

Continuing its community development journey Repowering added food security to the energy journey, through its Energy Garden concept.

There are 2.4bn passenger journeys each year in greater London so, to Agamenmon and his colleagues, it seemed a natural progression to create micro energy gardens on platforms to give travellers and commuters the opportunity to learn more about energy, food and sustainability.

Energy Garden has now transformed a number of the capital’s overground platforms and stations into thriving gardens incorporating food growing plots from which commuters are welcome to pick the produce.

Solar energy generation provides on-site renewable energy for lighting and water pumps. The project, developed in conjunction with Groundwork and Transport for London, has plans to identify a larger solar energy site at one of the stations to secure a long-term income for the gardens

Partnerships with UK-wide energy bodies and the Rockefeller Resilient Cities Programme, dedicated to helping 100 cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges of climate change, is extending Repowering beyond the British capital.

“The idea of resilience for a range of communities makes a lot of sense to me”, Agamenmon said. “It has given us the template to move out of London but remain within the urban environment. With 54 per cent of global populations living in cities we really need to figure out how to make them sustainable. By becoming more aware of the products we consume, starting with our energy and food, people can change the way they think and this helps inform the choices they make.”

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