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Max & Ian of
Demand Energy Equality

"I'm not naive about climate change or about the scale of the problem. However, I think if we can keep getting people to do something practical that relates to the problem, and if just 1% of those people get inspired and make it a bigger part of who they are and what they care about, then we've done our work"

There’s a large, flat, rectangular shaped object waiting for me on the table. At first glance I wonder if there’s a new laptop concealed in the mysterious soft case, but from the proud look on Dan’s face I’m pretty sure it’s something he’s made. Unless he’s been living a secret dual life and surreptitiously garnered the technical knowledge of a computer engineer, I’m fairly certain I won’t unzip the case to find a laptop. What it does reveal however, is a working solar panel complete with phone charging lead. It’s impressive and makes me wonder if I was onto something about his ‘other life’.

The panel was the product of a seven hour workshop with social enterprise Demand Energy Equality (DEE) at a local art centre, demonstrating that with the right tools and knowledge, a working solar panel can be created in just one day. With the future of renewable energy funding still precarious and yet needed more than ever in the current environmental climate, it’s enlightening to see how potentially viable it is to create renewable energy sources using your own hands.

Obviously we can’t change the world by making just one solar panel, but DEE believe that getting people to engage with the subject of energy, how it’s created and where it comes from, is a vital step towards a more sustainable and community orientated solution.

We chatted to two of the three directors, Ian Westmoreland and Max Wakefield (below l-r), in their recently renovated South London workspace.

 

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How did Demand Energy Equality begin?

MAX: Our co-founder Dan is an academic in modern energy systems and he became increasingly interested in the social and technical interface of an economy transitioning towards a greener mode. Part of that involved critiquing the popular narrative that ‘technology will save us’, with regard to how we solve climate change and deal with energy crises. It’s quite hard to see how we will meet our growing energy demand if we are reliant on just renewables. There is a real need to reduce our consumption and that involves rethinking the way we use and think about energy in the first place.

As part of this process Dan stumbled across YouTube videos about DIY solar technology and he thought it might be interesting to have a go. He was living in this huge ramshackle house at the time and started using the space to run a few workshops with friends. He came to realise it was quite a good way of getting people to engage in energy as a broader topic. Also it helped to research and learn at the same time, so at first it was more of a hobby with Dan then getting bits of funding from here and there to keep things going.

I bumped into him one day at a festival in Bristol. We knew each other a little bit from university and I got involved by helping out at a few workshops.

In Summer 2012 we did this energy tree project  [the world’s first DIY solar PV tree built with community participation]. We did three days of workshops for it and worked with a local sculptor which was a lot of fun.

The second big thing we did was a two year project with a drugs rehabilitation charity in Bristol called The Bristol Drugs Project. The programme is for those who are around the three months clean mark and it’s basically about giving people activities to encourage socialising, learning skills, building confidence, that kind of thing, as part of the long process of rehabilitation. We put together a super hasty proposal to do a bigger, better Solar Tree and run workshops with them.

This created a bizarre situation where we were sub-contracted to provide services to a drug rehabilitation charity having built a random little solar sculpture.

We managed to persuade the science museum in Bristol to house this new solar tree. The museum is right in the centre of the city in a place called Millennium Square and it fits really well with their exhibitions.

In 2014 I moved back to London and set up a second workspace, so for a while we had one in Bristol and one in London until Dan moved here too. At most we have only ever been able to afford to employ one person to work four days a week, so there’s been a rotation of someone who is actually paid to work. For a while it was Dan, then it was me for a bit, and currently it’s Ian who started to work with us about two and a half years ago.

IAN: About five years ago I looked into making my own solar panels. My idea was to build something on a large scale, but then I came to realise that doing that would be really challenging. But I had the idea to do it, and like many people, I wanted to know how it worked.

I later got involved in a place called Grow Heathrow which was an off grid squatted community space involved in campaigning against the 3rd runway at Heathrow. It was set up in the spring and when I arrived a few months later I found that they had gone through the whole of the summer without any real electricity on site. People had been talking about getting a solar system put in for a while, but no one really knew where to start. I said I knew a bit about it so decided to do a bit of research and try to put something together. That was essentially the first time I had done anything like that.

A couple of years later we were running workshops at the site about all kinds of different things covering the spectrum of issues pertaining to the Transition movement [a network of communities working to address environmental and social issues]. Someone who Max knew wanted to do a DIY Solar Workshop at that site, so contacted Max which led to DEE coming down and running a workshop at Heathrow, completely off the grid.

I really liked the approach that their workshop took, anyone can turn up and in a day make a solar panel that can be taken away and used. After that I got in touch with Max and asked him if I could help. It turned out they were looking for people to run off-grid design workshops so I started doing that in London. Dan has got his physics and economics background, Max has a policy and campaign background and I have an engineering background, so it’s worked out quite well.

"The biggest challenge is always to get people to take notice of what you are doing. There is so much competition for attention these days."

What have been the main challenges of getting to this point?

M: Money is like petrol for a charity or social enterprise, it allows you to keep going, so you can’t be complacent about it, but I think the biggest challenge is always to get people to take notice of what you are doing. There is so much competition for attention these days.

There are two different ways that people end up in a workshop with us. The first group are those who are already interested in the subject and will actively seek us out, or move in circles where they might hear about us. They also have to be willing to pay for the workshop. We think it’s pretty good value for what you get, but they’re quite expensive to run, so inevitably it costs a bit to turn up, which means that pool of people is always going to be limited.

The other way people who come to us is through organisations saying they would like to put on a workshop for their members or beneficiaries. In those cases it’s free for people to turn up. It’s always rewarding to run workshops for people whoever they are, but it’s really interesting when you’re talking to people you might not normally talk to, which happens more with these groups.

Throughout the whole time we have been operating as a social enterprise, there has been a period of austerity so a main challenge is funding. A lot of the groups that we work with or might work with don’t always have £500-£600 to spend on a day making solar panels.

A good example is our work with The Bristol Drugs Project. They were really keen to continue to work with us because they had seen benefits from the workshops we were running, but they had their budgets cut by 40%. Anything that is not a core delivery service is then obviously under threat, so they didn’t renew our contract.

What are the high level aims for the organisation?

I: We have three main goals: increasing energy literacy, reducing energy demand and making renewable energy more accessible.

M: We wrote those four years ago and obviously, in that time, you change your assessment of what you’re doing and what’s useful, but I still think those headline aims are pretty much what we set out to do.

In the DNA of a transition to renewables is the potential for a new kind of energy system because it totally rewires the way in which energy is procured, generated, distributed and used. Putting solar panels on your roof means you are producing electricity and thus taking a huge chunk out of what your utility can sell you. So there is a big opportunity for localising energy systems and creating local energy markets.

There is this inherent challenge to the status quo in rooftop and local renewables. In theory we could end up in a situation where people are much closer to, and have a much greater stake in where their energy comes from and how it benefits them and their community. However, companies are waking up and smelling the coffee and starting to shift their business models. The chance for people to take more control may get lost, with that in mind I think a key aim for us is in unpacking the subject for people who might not have had a chance to engage with it.

There is a really interesting book I’ve been reading about the history of the ‘Energiewende’ [German for ‘Energy transition’]. It’s now a central tenet of German Government policy and grew out of anti nuclear sentiment in the 70’s and 80’s. One of the principles that was established in 1990 was the right of German citizens to sell electricity back to the grid.

I: I think it’s something that more and more people are going to be introduced to. If you go back five to ten years, solar power was very rare but nowadays it’s becoming more common. If you look at off-grid systems, five years ago the only people who would really consider that would be people who wanted to live in the middle of nowhere, but now there is more and more emphasis being put on things like micro-grids, hybrid energy systems and grid scale storage. So I think the stuff we’re doing is becoming more and more relevant.

What motivates you?

I: When the financial crash happened the company I was working for had to lay off 10% of their workforce. I knew there would be lots of people out there in the same position, all trying to go after whatever jobs were left, so I decided to try something different instead. I started by doing a bit of travelling and getting involved in campaigning and activism, so that’s essentially where I have come from to end up in this organisation.

Personally I really enjoy designing and making things. The work that DEE does essentially brings together a lot of things that I have been interested in for a long time and have been doing in isolation. This is the only time I have been able to do all of those things together in the same place. There are several related elements: the practical element of getting to design and make things; the campaigning element of focusing on an issue which I think is absolutely crucial; and the community engagement element.

M: What originally motivated me was just the idea of building a solar panel. I did a year of physics at university, then I changed course to do politics and philosophy so I quite enjoyed dusting off my physics knowledge and getting to grips with that side of things again. I have always been an environmentalist first and foremost so I had a strong motivation to learn more about energy.

I think the other thing I find refreshing is how much I enjoy doing the workshops. Watching the satisfaction people get from starting with nothing to seeing their phone charge from something they made is just inherently gratifying. When you’re with people and you’re doing practical stuff, it’s such a great antidote to digitalised modern life.

I am not naive about climate change or about the scale of the problem. However, I think if we can keep getting people to do something practical that relates to the problem, and if just 1% of those people get inspired and make it a bigger part of who they are and what they care about, then we have done our work. Sometimes that’s the most you can do.

I: I was just thinking about that because we are coming up on our 200th workshop. That means there are a few thousand people that have learned how they can generate their own clean energy, and those people have come from all over the world. A couple of weeks ago I did a workshop with a group based in Africa. They had all, individually, come up with the idea of doing small scale solar projects. I thought, why not get them together and flesh things out a bit more? They’re probably not all going to start something up, but I know that there will be people who have come to our workshops who will go away and do really amazing things.

"Watching the satisfaction people get from starting with nothing to seeing their phone charge from something they made is just inherently satisfying"

What characteristic to do you most admire in others?

I: I think curiosity is the main one.

M: Tenacity and spiritedness. There are some people who just have this incredible ability to lead, simply through their own sheer belief in other people’s capacity to do good. It’s not quite the opposite of cynicism, you can be a cynic and still lead, but I think its the determination to keep going and keep positive that gets people walking beside them. I always admire that in people because I think it’s so hard.

What piece of advice would you give your 21 year old self or someone starting out?

M: I’m intrigued to hear your answer to this. Come on, let’s have it.

I: One of the things that I have found in the last few years is that you shouldn’t be afraid to be as open as you can with people. It’s ok to rely on the kindness of strangers if that’s all you have. If that’s the only way that you can do the things that you really want to do, then accept that and just be as open and honest about what you want as possible.

M: Maybe take life a little less seriously, I think you can always take more risks can’t you?

Is there a motto or principle that you live?

M: That is a really interesting one, I suppose the short answer would be no. On the whole I have usually just ended up doing what’s in front of me, which sounds a bit rubbish, but actually I’ve always ended up working on things that I care about and with people who give a shit. I suppose I’d just say to try and do good stuff would be my principle.

I: Basically, just be excellent to each other. And don’t be a dick.

What couldn’t you live without?

I: How many of these questions did you get from online dating?

M: Are we about to be propositioned?

I can think of several things I would really struggle without. Marmite. My family’s sausage dog. I would have said probably coffee and cheese but actually I have weaned myself of them to a large degree. I don’t know. I guess friends.

I: Well I am old enough to know what life was like before the internet so I am going to say the internet.

"In theory we could end up in a situation where people are much closer to, and have a much greater stake in where their energy comes from and how it benefits them and their community"

Demand Energy Equality

Ladywell Arches,
59 Ladywell Rd,
London,
SE13 7UT

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