Zoe Williams’ revolutionary new economics

“Tangibility” is the word that comes up constantly – you don’t waste it when you can conceive of the energy you have invested in coming in to your house. Feldheim, in Germany, is the most evolved example of this in Europe, and possibly in the world: it powers itself entirely on wind, solar and biogas. All the financial investment is from the villagers, of whom there are 150. The numbers are slightly messed up now by its massive eco-tourist trade, but this much is clear: when you are a stakeholder you pay less and you use less. Naturally, at the level of the individual, this only applies to renewables. There’s no scope to buy a small share in your local coal mine or oil refinery. So there’s an inevitable slant towards sustainable energy – which is the direction I’d like to go in anyway. But if we could take ownership of energy, whatever its source, at a national level, we might see the same behavioural changes played out at that level – a real negawatt revolution.

Eh? Something gets cheaper so you use less of it?

when you are a stakeholder you pay less and you use less

What?

This would rather change our world if it were true. The question is, is it true? And given that renewables are in fact more expensive, watt for watt, than non-renewables, I think what’s happened is that she’s got this wrong. The power is more expensive which is why people are using less of it.

But any other explanations gratefully accepted.

29 comments on “Zoe Williams’ revolutionary new economics

  1. Also rather love the idea that only renewables are suitable for cooperative ownership because that’s why. Unlike those ugly capitalist coalmines, windfarms are all unicorns and cooperation.

  2. Hmmm… only 150 inhabitants, but 47, yes, forty seven rather huge windmills. And even that isn’t enough. They still have to have solar and bio-gas.

    Also, this is priceless. “Residents must carefully predict their usage in order to balance the grid, and penalties apply for significantly over- or under-estimating.” Oh, Brave New World! Explains Zoe’s, “they use less”. Simple fear.

    Would love to know how they afforded to build all that infrastructure. The pice says they paid 3000 euros each, but I have the feeling there is a huge subsidy elephant (Govt or green/tech co promo) lurking somewhere off screen.
    Any info?

    Puff piece here.
    http://www.treehugger.com/environmental-policy/town-goes-grid-achieves-energy-independence.html

  3. I go on a farming discussion forum, and one of the big things in farming these days is renewable energy. Farmers are getting £££ shoved in front of their faces for wind turbines, solar parks and anaerobic digesters and many are now involved in such projects. And there’s a specific discussion forum for those matters. I rarely look at it, due to my ideological dislike of such things, but the did happen to glance at it the other day, and someone was on there promoting this ‘co-operative’ concept for renewable energy projects. So I couldn’t resist having a go:

    http://thefarmingforum.co.uk/index.php?threads/community-ownership.12826/#post-220338

    There is definitely an opening for some trouble making with all these eco co-ops springing up. As they are co-ops they are one member one vote, but the amount people can put in varies from a few hundred to £20K. So it would be entirely possible to get a chunk of people to sign up for the minimum payment, then vote to send all the profits to organizations of their choice, ideally ones to make the hippy types choke on their granola.

    Childish I know, but it would amuse me!

  4. Farmers are getting £££ shoved in front of their faces for wind turbines, solar parks and anaerobic digesters and many are now involved in such projects.

    Indeed, and they are grabbing it with both hands and who can blame them? Farmers need money, the same as the rest of us do, and they sure as hell aren’t going to make it by farming.

    The thing is that whatever your view on this (whether you think the farmers should have subsidy or that they are being parasitical) this problem won’t be around for much longer, as the average age of the UK farmer is 58 and rising (interestingly, that’s about the same as the average age of a butcher). I’m not sure what will happen when we don’t have farms any more but it will be interesting.

  5. It’s all very reminiscent of the 19th century (American, particularly) craze for setting up Utopian socialist communities. They generally failed rather rapidly for Economics 101 reasons or general bizarreness, but these days you have the added input of government subsidies.

    Of course, some failed for rather basic reasons, like the Shakers who banned sex even for reproductive reasons, which tends to inhibit long term community viability. They did make some nice chairs though.

  6. “when you are a stakeholder you pay less and you use less”.

    Bit like page one of Pub Landlording for Dummies: buy low, sell high and don’t drink the stock.

    Anyway, “stakeholder”is a weasel word, what I think Rand called an anti-concept.

    Interesting about the average age of farmers. One of those paradigm-shifting factettes, that.

  7. For me, the other thing is that small communities don’t really tell us much about economic viability. This doesn’t just apply to leftist type ones, I’ve argued about this with some libertarians who have separatist community ideas.

    Many such village type models can work, at least for some period of time, on the small scale, so long as they remain economically insignificant, because they benefit from being embedded in a larger economy not based on the community rules. So, greenists can benefit from the production of goods and services produced beyond the village boundary by energy intensive industry operating in a global trade context, and the greens can sell a few pots of organic hand woven jam to purchase their electric motors and inverters and solar panels and cable and power tools and so on. It’s a fundamental error to think that if Little Piddlington can “go Green”, it shows that the world can.

  8. @Ian
    Surely, we know what green self sufficiency’s like on a large scale. It looks a lot like Africa. Or Europe after about AD400 & for around the next thousand years. Complete with the famines, wars, plagues & all the rest of it.

  9. I am sure the soap salesmen have a hard time selling anything to this lot, a bar soap must last a leap year.

  10. Ian B – bit like Tom and Barbara from “The Good Life”.

    Without neighbours like Margo and Jerry creating the surplus wealth that made it possible for Tom to roleplay at “self sufficiency”, the Goods would have starved to death by the Christmas Special.

  11. TheJGM, I once lived on a kibbutz. You wouldn’t believe how long some of those kibbutzniks made a bar of soap last.

  12. Pardon me, but I feel I have to resurrect my rant about feudalsim.

    I can indeed see how they can pay less and use less.

    They pay less because they have only a tiny infrastructure. They use less because their fuedal system and the fact that the technology doesn’t work means that they have to ration their consumption.

    So, she’s right within these appalling – to you and me- limitations.

    There is no way on earth that these people could live in a society like today without the outside – guilty! – infrastructure and technology.

    Much like a hippie commune that can exist only with the benefit of the monthly giro from the State, it seems like Utopia from the inside. From the outside – from the point of view of the people paying for the commune to exist and for members of the commune to lecture them on their evil ways – it seems like a group of idle hypocritical bastards.

    Of course people like Zoe really want a feudal organistion, so they can constantly tell the peasants what to do, but they don’t realise it can’t be done without the necessary evils.

  13. Edward – what’s it like living on a kibbutz? Cynical old me wonders if they’re not just scams to snag free labour for Israeli farmers. Are they actually proper, productive farms, or just for agrarian roleplay?

  14. Feldheim has been used as a poster-child for environmentalists for the last couple of years. I remember there was some gushing “Costing the Earth” Radio4 report as well as frequent visits form German TV, which is fully paid-up to the warmist cause.

    To be honest, though, that’s how it should work: small communities producing their own energy making them autarchic.
    It’s when you have to run a railway or heat Deutsche Bank’s offices that it becomes a tad trickier.

    Something that the farming-savvy amongst you might explain. Out of their 1700 hectares ( formerly spuds and sugar beet) they have turned over 300 Ha to maize. The biogas generator needs 18 tons of Maize silage, 2 tons of rye and 17-18 tons of slurry a day to run and back-up the windmills.
    Is that a lot ?

  15. Re: the average age of farmers – its not really quite as bad as it seems. Farming being a family oriented business means that nominal ownership is often still vested in the older members of the family, while the younger generations actually do the work. (Incidentally this is a source of much trouble – the rivalries caused between siblings over who inherits, and between children and parents over when the parents should relinquish control over the business and assets). Thus the average age of farm owners, and farming business partners/shareholders will be artificially higher than is actually the case.

    For example 40 yo son (married, with kids possibly old enough to work on the farm) might be actually running the farm, and be a partner in the business, but 65 yo Ma and 70 yo Pa are still partners too. Average age of the ‘farmers’ is thus 58 strangely enough, if you take 40, 65 and 70 and average them, while the age of those doing the work is far less, maybe around 30 if the grandkids are old enough to be driving a tractor.

  16. Ah sorry, misread the article.

    The Biogas is for heating the homes. There is a wood-burning biomass generator for back-up.

  17. Steve, well this was 23 years ago, so much may have changed. But as far as I’m aware, the two kibbutzim on which I stayed had their own farms, factories and so on.

    Other impressions: contrary to what you may have heard, they don’t work hard – which stands to reason, when you think about it; they were agreeable and we’ll-tended places not at all like a Lord of the Flies-ish Californian hippy commune, but not places for people of real ambition or any desire productively to engage with the world – kind of like a secular monastery; er, …; that’s it!

  18. Doesn’t look like Feldheim is actually self-sufficient in energy. It’s really a subsidy farm.

    “Mr. Frohwitter’s company, Energiequelle GmbH, provides all of the town’s homes with heat and electricity generated from renewables at their doorstep, which feed into a local grid. Windmills rotate just behind the houses, a biogas plant on the outskirts provides heat and additional energy on windless days, and a bit farther down the road, rows of solar panels in a field face the dull winter sky.

    Feldheim residents’ energy prices are 30 percent below the average in Germany. Energiequelle profits from feed-in tariffs, a subsidy on the amount of energy they feed into the system. It gives the company, as a renewable energy provider, a 20-year guarantee on the amount of energy they can feed into the grid at a price that is considerably higher than what fossil energy providers get on the free market.”

    Take the FIT away ( and the amount Energiequelle are ‘gifting’ in PR) and then let’s see how long it lasts.

    http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2012/0130/Germany-s-green-energy-sector-can-it-grow-without-subsidies

  19. Thanks Edward. I visited Israel back in the 90s and enjoyed it, was always curious about the kibbutzes but their reputation for hard work put me off :-)

  20. Her assertion at the end that you can’t buy a small share of a coal mine or refinery is slightly wobbly, too. For sure you can’t buy a share in a single facility: but why would you want to? Look at the trials of owning Grangemouth, after all. Instead, you buy a slice of a company which owns lots of facilities, preferably geographically diversified and also diversified in terms of their operations.

    Like, um, Shell. Or BP. Or UK Coal (if you’re feeling lucky. And all of those trade on the stock exchange.

  21. @Jim

    that’s a good point, that I hadn’t considered at all.

    This is because I don’t really know anything about farming – my wife’s people are farmers so I hear the moaning – but I do like the countryside the way it is so it’s pretty when I leave SW London for the weekend and visit it. I harbour no desire whatsoever to live in it. I grew up in it and it’s a fuck sight less bucolic – and more muddy, wet and cold – than people think.

    I usually assume that Green’s are wrong ‘uns until proven otherwise. I have seen nothing, in the course of my life, to suggest that this is an unwise, or even unfair, approach.

  22. I thought the same about the average age of farmers when we went to look at Leyburn cattle market earlier in the year. Mostly guys older than me (mid 60s) with one or two younger guys and the odd woman. It may be, of course, that the younger ones were all back at the farm mucking out whilst the old boys with the ‘experience’ made the buying decisions.

  23. Where I grew up in West Wales, an awful lot of farmers keeled over with heart attacks before they saw out their 50s. I don’t know if this attrition rate was common across the country, but a lot of young farmer’s sons found themselves in charge in their late 20s or early 30s. At least one I know of who inherited the family farm in his late 20s due to his father’s heart attack didn’t reach 60 himself, for the same reason. Very sad.

  24. Ian B,

    Many such village type models can work, at least for some period of time, on the small scale, so long as they remain economically insignificant, because they benefit from being embedded in a larger economy not based on the community rules. So, greenists can benefit from the production of goods and services produced beyond the village boundary by energy intensive industry operating in a global trade context, and the greens can sell a few pots of organic hand woven jam to purchase their electric motors and inverters and solar panels and cable and power tools and so on. It’s a fundamental error to think that if Little Piddlington can “go Green”, it shows that the world can.

    This reminds me of when Prince Charles talks about Poundbury as a model for living, when it has no power generation, no distribution centres, none of that. If a freak storm cut it off from water, electricity and roads, it would rapidly descend into something that looked like Sierra Leone.

  25. @Tractor Gent

    Basically, lots of the old boys go to the markets to catch up with their chums, chew the fat, and because it’s what they have always done.

    There aren’t as many young people employed in farming as there were, but then there aren’t as many people employed in famring full stop.

    My aunt and uncle farm their own place, with two of the sons ready to step in as and when they decide to give it up. In the meantime, one’s a ‘tree surgeon’-cum-gamekeeper and the other works doing something completely un-ag.

    They used to employ farm hands but now the ploughing, harvesting and combining is done by travelling contractors (who use GPS in their vehicles to do the job twice as efficiently and quickly as they used to).

    They don’t milk, but do do beef; the stock management (my aunt is world famous for her Charolais) pretty much takes care of itself, too, with occasional brought-in help at busy times.

    (My aunt’s daughter’s also a farmer, though on her husband’s farm – they would be early 50s now I guess, but their two sons work on the farm – average age would be 35-38.)

    There’s no issue of age, or of no farms – there is an issue, or at least a fact, of conglomeration.

    No small farms, just big ones, unless they’re run by ex members of Blur/people called Jimmy.

    I don’t see this as a problem, mind you.

  26. The other thing to remember about farming and the average age of “farmers” is that there is a tendency towards large farming companies like Velcourt in arable, Hall Hunter in fruit, G’s in veg which employ a large amount of generally youngish managers and advisers to run the business on the ground but who will never have any ownership stake.

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