“If you want to be Che Guevara, stop walking around pointing to what’s bad. Want to be a true revolutionary? Rip up the paving slabs, plant a garden and cover your roof in solar panels.”
In South London a Uruguayan-born, New York-raised community entrepreneur and artist is tackling fuel poverty with renewables – while catalysing the true democratisation of the energy system through people power. In the UK the number of small-scale energy systems has jumped from a few thousand to over half a million – thanks in no small part to Agamemnon Otero MBE.
Always smiling, the Technical Director of nonprofit energy cooperative Repowering London has set up community-owned renewable energy power stations on social housing and infrastructure projects across networks of rail and transport.
Started in 2011 by a group of volunteers, Repowering sees that communities engage with energy to reduce CO2 emissions, by generating decentralised low-carbon energy. Working in partnership with local councils, the private sector and community groups, it delivers local solutions to local energy problems with solar PV arrays on estates in inner-city areas like Hackney and Brixton. Now he’s turning his attention to tidal power from the River Thames and a city-wide network of Energy Gardens.
Happily living in London, Agamemnon says he was “eaten alive by the corporate sector in New York.” When his mother worked as a teacher and his grandpa as a policeman in the Bronx, his life was all graffiti, warehouse parties, breakdancing and art – until getting cancer made him reevaluate his life.
Today the survivor has an MBE for services to the community energy sector and has been recognised with multiple awards, including the 2016 Ashden Award for Community energy – but most importantly “by the families living on these estates – grandmas Ann and Fae, mothers like Lila and Mary and youth like Jalil, Ziggy, Aisha, and Habiba – who I got to know over building six energy cooperatives.”
We chatted to the energetic innovator about the power of women, how collective responsibility can make sure that everybody wins and loving the people who are ****ing the system.
Collective consciousness is truly powerful. When I began to work with people and communities and cities, a lot of the ideas I had originally conceived went out the window – because the collective is so much more effective in addressing problems.
I have always felt that the most important thing is… the relationship between people. In business that means trust, honesty and the ability to deliver.
Right now people feel disenfranchised. We have a systems failure. Young people don’t feel invigorated to go out and take a space in society. It’s not that they don’t want to learn, it’s that they feel there is not a way in. Adults feel excluded too. We believe that companies don’t have to be divorced from community development – they should be at the heart of it.
The domain of the tech world sits largely in white middle class and upper middle class hands. That’s where the money is raised and the pilots happen. Whereas the directors of our energy projects are the 65-year-old West Indian director of a local elderly food programme and he’s doing an energy trade with an 18- and 19-year-old brother and sister we work with, who both have kids. They will have the financial benefits.
Business has a function, which is to deliver what people can’t. It also has a responsibility to make sure that when delivering your product you are not hurting those people you are helping. At Repowering we factor in all of the environmental, social and financial needs of delivering a service which a community needs.
I’m the Chief Executive now, but I started Repowering London as a volunteer. I worked with other volunteers to build it and now have many loving people working to deliver different programmes. After five years of being CEO I am now Co-Chief Executive, sharing the position this year with Afsheen Rashid.
Respect the matriarchy! Amazing woman have made every one of the projects I am working on happen and are the lynchpins behind any success.
We need to invest in training, leadership development and paid employment. Invigorating people is giving the a chance to be apart of their surroundings learning to make solar panels you know where your energy comes from becoming an investor member of an energy cooperative you own your
Energy Garden has released a bond for the largest community energy project in the world. It’s for a whole city. We have already worked with 1,500 young people and paid accredited training. We have 110 different community groups across London who have taken over 200,000 square metres of green space into that. It’s five times the size already of New York’s High Line and even has overground stations, bees and beer!
We have built a new type of co-operative. Everybody has equity and there is no debt cascade for larger investors. You can invest in it alongside a multinational corporation. You might put in £50 and they might put in £50m. Traditionally they would get issued their money first, their share capital, their interest – and if anything goes wrong they get taken care of first. That is not the case here. It is equal. It’s one vote, one share. Everyone is equal.
You need patience. Clean Marine has won the first licence of the last 45 years (out of 200 applications) for tidal power on the Thames. It’s taken 7 years to get this far, but soon we will see electric-powered boats on the river and have a public venue where people can eat, drink and see how electricity is being generated by tidal flow and by solar panels.
I want to do away with prepaid meters. We are running the first blockchain project in the world to be done on a national grid – and it will be in Hackney (East London), owned by the community. They will have their own battery systems, they will be able to make the best trades with each other. It bypasses the algorithm of the smart meter, the intrusion into people’s lives and the selling of their data. I am so excited by it.
What does success look like? It looks like whole communities throughout urban areas being resilient and empowered environmentally, financially and socially.
I draw my hope from the darkest places. Ziggy, a young person who we trained for two years, was stabbed and killed on his 19th birthday. He had been trained in financial, legal, technical, media and marketing to set up a community energy power station. After his death the kids who had trained with him were faced with a lot of dark, dark questions – but out of that came a reinvigoration to say ‘look, if we don’t do this, no-one else will. No one is going to do it for us. Ziggy is a huge part of my drive.
Take technology, empower the local community and you get a very different, very distinct flavour of what the future holds. Blockchain technology can put the leading technology in the world in Ziggy’s friends’ hands.
The peak of darkness is what Trump represents for inner-city youth. His racism, his sexism, the absolute revival of nationalism – well they’re not standing for it. The darkness is actually getting people out of the wave of not-doing – and that gives me a huge amount of hope.
Government or big business has to think about many, has to implement one thing. What we are trying to do is work with individuals in unique communities around very specific needs and through consensus come up with solutions.
Sometimes I wonder if the sun is going to rise. I have seen so many cities now where it never gets sunny because the smog is so impenetrable, but I an optimist. I believe we can make it. I see solutions and I see people and organisations and ideas which are coming to fruition.
Everything is already sacred. Allowing oneself time to be present, that’s real love: accepting who people are, accepting the darkness they’ve done, being able to forgive. Blocking or pretending things don’t exist takes a lot of energy and a lot of work – it’s acceptance that enables real transformation.
My FuturePower would be to love the people who are ****ing the system. People have taken out injunctions to try to stop us doing projects. I want to have the ability to accept and love them for who they are, otherwise I am going to be wrecked by all this, because I am at the frontline of the negativity. I want to give them love!
Watch ► We spoke to Agamemnon about invigorating young people to take a space in society.
Watch ► Agamemnon appeared at Atlas of the Future’s Barcelona conference: ‘Fixing the future: adventures in a better tomorrow’. Check out the video here.