Taking the power back: How CoPower creates energy democracy

March 2, 2022
Photo: Pexels

CoPower is a new non-profit energy cooperative which is backed by Australian unions and environmental groups. It sells electricity to households and small to medium businesses. Mel Barnes spoke to CoPower co-founder Godfrey Moase about the initiative.

What motivated CoPower to get started?

The idea came from reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything back in 2015 and thinking about how the broader union movement could intervene within the climate crisis, while recognising that we are also in a crisis of labour, and probably a broader systemic crisis.

If we were in the early 1970s and facing the extent of global warming as it is today, we could have called some general strikes and national days of action and had tripartite meetings in Canberra and worked out a national plan. But that’s not the case now. We needed to begin to turn things around; an intervention that can make a difference across multiple crises.

Then you approached unions to get involved?

We approached a bunch of unions, cooperatives, NGOs and community power groups. We wanted CoPower to sit at the intersection of various social movements that brought different strengths and experience different problems. But we thought that there was real value and strength to what we could do if we sat at that intersection.

There are a lot of other smaller energy retailers who also promote green and ethical power. What makes CoPower different?

What makes CoPower different is its commitment to democratic processes. Our model is different because, number one, we’re not reliant on any small group of well-off people. We’ve deliberately set it up so that it is situated within the social movements and within the labour movement, the climate action movement and the cooperative movements.

Number two, it is deliberately structured so that it can be a member-benefit for organisations within those movements to assist them with building their own power.

And three, it is the only one in which ordinary people can have a say over significant economic decisions, and then take that experience and use it in other parts of their lives. That is quite a radical proposition.

What makes us different is that we don’t see the energy transition as just an environmental, or technical, transition but a social one. We’re not going to get a star rating anywhere for putting a significant amount of funds into international climate justice, or for building solidarity with low-waged workers. But we think that that’s still just as integral to building the social support required to make the transition.

Can you explain how the democratic side of it works? And how do solidarity credits work?

It is possible to engage with CoPower like it’s just a bill you pay. But customer members can allocate the electricity revenue on a one-person, one-vote basis. This is a form of participatory budgeting that is not as widely practiced in Australia as in other parts of the world.

At last year’s participatory budget, members voted to spend 25% of the cooperative’s electricity revenue on what we call a “solidarity credit”. What we mean by that is putting funds in the hands of people who are experiencing income precarity. We try and do that through direct credits off people’s bills. So, their bill will say “solidarity credit” and there’ll be a chunk of money coming off their bill.

How we realise that will probably change from year to year as customer members have ideas and then vote on propositions. But currently, we’ve gone through a process of consulting with customer members and member organisations about where they feel there’s a particular need.

At the moment, we’re supporting farm workers who have had disruptions in their income; whether it’s through illness, or they been terminated from the job. It’s very hard for temporary migrant workers to intersect with our very porous social safety net, which is more holes and less net.

And so that’s where that money is going between now and the next time we redo the budget.

How do members choose where to put the solidarity credits?

It emerged from an act of mutual aid during COVID-19 where we put half of the cooperative’s credits to people who weren’t getting income. The way we did that is through customer members; people nominated whether they could pass their solidarity credit on to us at no extra cost to them. We then reallocated that on an equal share to people who nominated that they needed some assistance.

This year, we decided to ask member organisations what would be helpful to their members. The farm workers support idea came up then. We put that to our customer members and it was voted up overwhelmingly.

At the end of this financial year, at the end of this participatory budgeting, these decisions will come back to the customer members who will be asked what they think we should do with the solidarity credit program. Then we’ll work out, together, what portion it should be based on all the other priorities we might want to fit in.

What impact did Shell’s buy-out of Powershop last year have on CoPower?

We got a pretty big surge in sign-ups; about 2600 new people switched. This effectively means there is an extra $100,000 per year now under democratic management and people get to have a say where that money goes.

Just to be clear about where that money comes from: we are a cooperative that engages collectively with a retailer [Energy Locals] that is pretty ethical and ranks highly in the green electricity guide.

But we redirect money that would have otherwise gone on advertising and sales and marketing. We use social movements to spread the word and the money that would have gone on a TV ad, or sponsoring a professional sports team, is money that we’re redirecting into the commons.

That boost [from former members of] PowerShop would not have occurred if we were a trade union movement-only cooperative.

The only reason we increased our membership tenfold was because we had built years of relationships. Environment groups knew that we weren’t saying that the power that we buy from the open market, from the grid, is better than the power that anyone else buys on the market from the grid. They knew that we weren’t trying to claim that. We’re not just putting up the next small retailer that’s going to be bought by the next global corporation.

What are your plans for the year ahead?

I’m looking forward to increasing the totals spent on community renewable energy. We’ll be able to be a significant funder sports clubs, community-owned houses and not-for-profit art spaces.

Being able to increase our impact through APHEDA’s energy democracy and climate and energy program is also great. The climate crisis is global so we have to have a global dimension to what we do, no matter the scale of CoPower. Being able to draw on the strength of our social movement partnerships to make a difference is huge.

What would be really interesting this year is, if we can, support First Nations peoples to build up First Nations-owned renewable energy.

[APHEDA is a founding member of CoPower which this year donated $2902 to Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA’s partnership with CLASS Nepal, which supports workers on the frontlines of dangerous global warming to build worker power for a just and equitable transition. This article has been slightly abridged and was first published by APHEDA.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.