In September 2013, residents of Hamburg, Germany – the country’s second largest city – decided that their local electric utility should be run as a public service, rather than as a source of corporate profits.
In an historic referendum, they voted to reclaim local control and ownership of their power system from the Swedish energy giant, Vattenfall, enabling the City to undertake a more ambitious transition towards local renewable energy. The grassroots campaign that spearheaded the successful referendum, ‘Our Hamburg, Our Grid’, was supported by an alliance of over 50 groups. This broad coalition emerged out of mounting frustration with Vattenfall for failing to make investment decisions that acknowledged the urgency of climate change, the dangers of nuclear power, and public support for decentralized renewable energy. (Vattenfall owns two nuclear reactors near Hamburg, as well as two of the dirtiest coal plants in Europe).
Rather than waiting for the giant multinational to act responsibly, Our Hamburg, Our Grid decided to bring decision-making power back to the community where it belonged. The campaigners argued that creating a local power utility would enable the City to provide greener, more reliable and potentially less expensive energy, with greater accountability. And while large corporate utilities such as Vattenfall allocate much of their profit to absentee shareholders, the revenue generated by the new municipal utility could be reinvested in the community.
Hamburg’s decision to re-municipalize its grid is part of a growing local power movement – one that is starting to reverse the privatization trend that began in the 1980s.