Powering the energy transition in SE London

When the local really is global. Why your bills have gone up and what can you do about it…

Solar Panels being installed on the roof of Horniman school in Lewisham, in 2016 as part of the first share Selce share offer


South East London Community Energy
was started in 2015 and in all this time we have never seen such high energy prices and so many people in South East London unable to afford the simple human right to stay warm in the cold. Here’s a short guide to why it’s happened. If you’re looking for extra help, please get in touch with us here

So why have energy prices risen so much? Essentially, the wholesale market for energy is global, so countries’ individual systems have no choice but to participate in a worldwide marketplace and then sell the energy they purchase to their customer-citizens (us). It works just like wheat or oil: the whole of the world’s stock is tradable everywhere. If other countries need more energy or change how they source it, there is a knock-on effect on our prices. In fact, some countries have rightly decided to move away from dirtier fossil fuels, such as coal, to rely more on gas. On top of that, the war in Ukraine has put pressure on global markets, although it is by no means the only factor. In the UK, only 5% of our natural gas comes directly from Russia, but the resulting economic and political isolation of Russia has had an influence as other countries depend on Russia more than we do. And there’s another reason: the UK stores far less of our own gas output than in previous decades so we have little to play with in the event of shortages or global price hikes. At the moment, almost all manufacturing processes worldwide depend on fossil fuels of some kind. Almost no area of life is unaffected by the current changes in energy prices.

This situation has left us feeling hard-done-by, powerless and confused. What happened to consumer choice? To being allowed to decide how you spend your money? At the moment, Selce’s advisers are encouraging people to sit tight and hold onto any pre-arranged energy deal they have. At the moment, the energy market is such as mess that new deals being offered really won’t be an improvement from what you have already: it’s almost certainly going to be worse.

Many people have been left in unacceptably cold homes, which is a risk for seniors and those with health conditions

There is an underlying narrative in our culture that we ‘choose’ our lifestyles, and that security and status are the result of hard work and good decision-making; misfortune, insecurity and deprivation are ultimately your own fault. This is enacted in the invisibility of poorer people, the hidden nature of so many social problems and the terrible lack of political empathy for social issues.

The across-the-board rise in energy prices smashes a hole in this narrative: whose fault is it that prices have risen above wages, and increasing numbers of deserving hard-working ‘normal’ people are finding finances a struggle? It’s not us, it’s them. We are collectively on the whiplash end of global systems over which we have no democratic control and no way to refuse participation.

Some people in the UK have simply switched off their electricity,
determined to cope without as they are unable to economically participate and refuse to get into debt as most other do. Coping without electricity, however, is no small matter, especially if you are at all vulnerable or have children, and we certainly don’t suggest that you take these risks: using candles and storing food out of refridgeration bring their own penalties, fire risk being one.

Meanwhile, those who produce the energy we all need: the likes of BP, are taking record profits as the relative scarcity in energy drives price rises. BP’s CEO, Bernard Looney, was privately reported last November as saying that the energy market was ‘like a cash machine’, at which point crude oil was 85$ a barrel. More recently, it hit $105 a barrel, and the quarterly profits of BP were record-breaking at $9.1 billion, up on $6.3 billion in the last quarter of 2021, and $3.2 billion in the first quarter of last year. This is an exponential rise in profits just as our bills rise, leaving many of us out of pocket, and these are Billions of dollars, not millions but almost unimaginable amounts. The calls for a ‘windfall tax’ on energy companies to address the cost of living crisis grow louder and louder in the face of this shameful exploitation, see Ed Milliband here.

In many ways, our national governments are meant to protect us from this kind of force. For example, the aim of Brexit was to give us more control over our own laws and politics and to determine more of the details of our national policies. The reality is that we, as a population, are just as exposed to global shapeshifting as we ever have been. A great missed opportunity would have been to invest solidly in renewable energy and microgeneration: ‘decentralized’ energy not added to the national grid and therefore not obliged to be part of the global energy market and therefore not vulnerable to abrupt and unfair changes.

At a more local level, ‘microgeneration’ means generating small amounts of energy for direct needs. An example is solar panels that are directly connected to a home, so the people in the home use their own rooftop solar energy source for, say, watching TV or using a hairdryer. The same would be true if you had your own wind turbine. This makes householders energy-independent, at least partially, and keeps their energy price constant. Most solar panels can pay for themselves over about 10 years, as your energy bills plummet.

This begs the question: is our current marketized energy system fit for purpose? Is it time to think of alternatives, that really help people to keep the lights on for an affordable price? +

A pleased pupil at Mulgrave primary school. Solar panels on schools can make children feel that the adults who make decisions around them care about their future in a low-carbon world.

SELCE regularly runs projects to provide solar panels for public buildings, through community share offers. So far we have raised over £500,000 to install large solar arrays (that means a lot of solar panels) on community centres, schools and other venues in SE London. The users of the buildings benefit from cheaper electricity and the people who contributed to our fundraising pot get an annual pay-out. The energy bills from Selce are stable and reasonable and reflect what the community buildings use, not what a global market dictates. We have run three schemes already and are planning a fourth soon.

So far, our solar panels grace the roofs of:

  • Horniman Primary School, SE23
  • Bannockburn Primary School, SE18
  • Deansfield Primary School, SE9
  • Alderwood Primary School, SE9
  • Ashmead Primary School, SE8
  • Mulgrave Primary School, SE18

Apart from schools, we’ve installed solar arrays on:

  • Thamesemere leisure centre, SE28
  • St Luke’s Church, SE7
  • The Intercontinental Hotel, Greenwich

These installations collectively generate 487,326 kilowatts of electricity annually, and over their 20-year lifetimes they’ll save nearly 700 thousand tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

These projects benefit the users of these buildings, but they are still far from helping individuals in our homes and our household finances. If you are finding that high bills are hitting you harder than you thought, click here to see ways to deal with this, including accessing our services.