Looting the Ivory Tower: “Energy democracy as the right to the city: Urban energy struggles in Berlin and London”

The title: Energy democracy as the right to the city: Urban energy struggles in Berlin and London

The authors: Soren Becker, James Angel, Matthias Naumann

The journal: EPA: Economy and Space

The DOI: DOI: 10.1177/0308518X19881164

The abstract:

In this paper, we argue that it is generative to link struggles around access to, control over, and the transformation of urban energy systems to the imaginary of the right to the city; and we explore the conceptual, empirical and political contributions of this connection. Our paper starts with two main questions: (1) what do we learn from reading attempts to reclaim urban energy systems from a right to the city perspective? (2)What can this analysis add to debates around the right to the city? We make two main arguments from our empirical engagements with initiatives seeking to remunicipalise urban energy systems in Berlin and London, each of which is premised upon calls for more just, democratic and ecologically sustainable forms of energy supply. First, we argue that these struggles need to transcend concerns around energy infrastructure to raise broader questions around the democratisation of urban space. Second, we contend that appropriating long-lasting urban infrastructure requires the creation of new and durable forms of democratic institutions, providing insights into the notion of self-management (autogestion) beyond more spontaneous and fleeting forms of protest and uprising addressed in much of right to the city literature. Overall, the paper hopes to put the question of autogestion and related strategies at the centre of conversations around right to the city moving forward.

In plain English/tl:dr: “So this “right to the city” notion goes back to 1968, alongside ‘autogestion’ which aligns more to ‘workers’/public control’ than to ‘nationalisation’. Meanwhile, energy democracy comes from the climate justice movement, more recently. How does all this play out when we look at Berliners and Londoners trying to make their energy provision systems less crap? We’re the first people to put all these concepts together, and we did loads of fieldwork – interviews, participation”

Key concepts:  right to the city, autogestion, energy democracy

Marc’s two cents: This is a good article. At the end they write

What is needed is a narrative about alternative imaginaries of social organisation in-against-and-beyond the state (Angel, 2017; Cumbers, 2015), and a strategic approach based on an analysis of promising anchor points for such an endeavour. This also implies not rejecting the local scale as the legitimate and feasible entry point for political projects for transforming wider social and technological systems; but surely while linking local issues to broader scale processes and not constraining action or thinking to a mystified local level.

Hmmmm, alternatively you could say what is needed is a hard look at what skills, knowledge, relationships, organisations and institutions would be needed to arrive at meaningful autogestion, and what (overlapping but distinct) skroi would be needed to sustain meaningful autogestion, to protect it from the usual depredations of the Animal Farm piggies.

But useful for thinking about social innovation (the creation of new organisations/institutions) and energy transitions, so, I’m happy.


Thus far, energy research and critical urban theory mostly appear as distinct fields (for an exception see Silver, 2015). Yet we believe that flourishing debates on energy justice (Jenkins et al., 2016; Sovacool and Dworkin, 2015) and, in particular, energy democracy (Becker and Naumann, 2017; Hess, 2018; van Veelen and van der Horst, 2018) could benefit from a stronger grounding in debates around the production of urban space more broadly; and, equally, that debates around the right to the city might be developed further through engagements with urban energy contestations. Our paper starts with two main questions: (1) what do we learn from reading attempts to reclaim urban energy systems from a RTC perspective? (2) What can this analysis add to debates around the right to the city?

Anthropologist Dominic Boyer (2014: 325), for example, targets the ‘genealogy of modern power . . . through the twin analytics of energy and fuel’ as linked with historic processes of state formation, expert rule and different biopolitical regimes.

“Others have stressed the deep entanglement between state power, industrial capital and imaginaries of technological progress necessary to develop and run nuclear energy (Jasanoff and Kim, 2009).”

“The notion of energy democracy originated in the German climate justice movement around 2012, and has since gained international recognition in activist contexts as well as in academic debate across human geography, sociology and other social sciences (Becker and Naumann, 2017; Hess, 2018; van Veelen and van der Horst, 2018). The term has since been taken on by a broad range of activist networks, trade unions and left-wing political parties, largely but not exclusively in Europe and the USA. The concept is framed loosely, incorporating an array of diverse political perspectives, from anti-capitalist de-growth claims towards more Keynesian arguments for green jobs (Angel, 2016). Broadly speaking, proponents of the term tend to advocate energy systems that are ecologically sustainable, socially just and democratically controlled.” Page 6

“Our analysis in this paper relies on intensive fieldwork by the authors undertaken in both cities from 2013 to 2017, which was updated consequently thereafter. Research methods involved interviews with key stakeholders in both urban administration and citizen initiatives for public energy ownership (a total of 19 in Berlin, and 13 in London), as well as participant observations at meetings, events and protests. This was complemented by a comprehensive media analysis continued until today.”

“Democratised municipal energy utilities, as demanded in Berlin and London, could become part of ‘the creation of a new urban common, a public sphere of active democratic participation’ (Harvey, 2003: 941). If the right to the city can work as a ‘“wakeup call” for democratic forces to endorse participation, challenge existing inequalities and injustice, and seek to repair the city’ (Rosen and Shlay, 2014: 949) energy democracy can do just this for transforming an energy sector still characterised by a rigid melange of state and economic power producing an array of social and ecological problems.


References worth tracking down (I am still in the kidding myself phase)

Angelo H and Wachsmuth D (2015) Urbanizing urban political ecology: A critique of methodological cityism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39(1): 16–27.

Becker S and Naumann M (2017) Energy democracy: Mapping the debate on energy alternatives. Geography Compass 11(8): e12321.

Belda-Miquel S, Blanes J and Frediani A (2016) Institutionalization and depoliticization of the Right to the City: Changing scenarios for radical social movements. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40(2): 321–339.

Boyer D (2014) Energopower: An introduction. Anthropological Quarterly 87(2): 309–333.

Creamer E, Eadson W, van Veelen B, et al. (2018) Community energy: Entanglements of community, state, and private sector. Geography Compass 12(7): e12378.

Cumbers A (2015) Constructing a global commons in, against and beyond the state. Space and Polity 19(1): 62–75.


Hall S, Foxon T and Bolton R (2016) Financing the civic energy sector: How financial institutions affect ownership models in Germany and the United Kingdom. Energy Research & Social Science 12: 5–15.


Jasanoff S and Kim SH (2009) Containing the atom: Sociotechnical imaginaries and nuclear power in the United States and South Korea. Minerva 47(2): 119–146.

Kipfer S (2018) Pushing the limits of urban research: Urbanization, pipelines and counter-colonial politics. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 36(3): 474–493.


Paul F (2018) Deep entanglements: History, space and (energy) struggle in the German Energiewende. Geoforum 91: 1–9.

van Veelen B and van der Horst D (2018) What is energy democracy? Connecting social science energy research and political theory. Energy Research & Social Science 46: 19–28.


Should you read this?


Hell yesProbably, yup


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