These Artists Are Turning Their London Street Into a Solar Power Station
The climate crisis, the energy crisis in Europe and rising power bills are inspiring many people to rethink where their power comes from and imagine possible alternatives for their energy needs. One artist and filmmaker couple in London are focused on the street where they live.
Hilary Powell and Dan Edelstyn live in a narrow brick house on Lynmouth Road in the Northeast London neighborhood of Walthamstow and they’ve begun transforming their street into a solar power station. Their Power Station project intends to help as many of their neighbors switch from relying on fossil fuel power plants to generate their electricity to solar power through a series of local actions.
“POWER is a ‘show and do’ project building a solar POWER STATION across the rooftops (streets, schools, community buildings) of North East London via enacting a grassroots Green New Deal – working with art and infrastructure to tackle the interlinked climate/energy/cost of living crises. It begins on one street as template and provocation literally building POWER and possibility from the ground up,” the POWER website states.
Powell and Edelstyn were first inspired to turn their street — which is dotted with signs in the windows that say “Power Station” — into a solar power station during the pandemic.
“We had been really busy making a film about where money comes from and why everyone is so deeply in debt (apart from the banks who create the money, who are so deeply in profit; go figure!). And what we learned was that the way our financial system works is the key thing that is driving climate chaos,” Edelstyn told EcoWatch in an email. “Banks are not incentivised to lend to green projects as much as they are to more profitable schemes no matter how destructive. So we began to think that our next project would incorporate what we had learned – and we have developed a ‘thinking through doing’ approach, so we thought: ‘let’s set up a renewable power station on our street – and document the journey.'”
Two books in particular, The Case for the Green New Deal and People’s Power, inspired Powell and Edelstyn, according to The Guardian. In its reasoning for a more just financial system and a decarbonized world, author of The Case for the Green New Deal Ann Pettifor used the phrase, “Every building a power station,” which struck the couple.
They wondered if they could turn their street into a power grid by linking homes together.
“We experienced lock down like everyone else and we saw the mutual aid groups springing up. As the system we had all taken for granted went into what felt like an overnight tail spin, we saw neighbours helping one another, and we began to see that change should start on our doorsteps. And so taking this whole mutual aid to a new level, we started to think, let’s see if we can turn our street into a decentralised power station – and relocate the power and agency to act right here onto our doorsteps,” Edelstyn told EcoWatch.
Edelstyn said it was Powell who inspired him to follow through with their original idea and make it a reality.
“Hilary Powell was one of those kids that used to rush home and make badges, membership papers and registers when her friends said they wanted to have a gang. She was always an implementer of ideas, someone who was able to not only conceive of an idea but push it through into reality. She’s been very much the person who has believed in the possibilities of actually achieving the goals we set ourselves. Sometimes I’ve found myself struggling to believe we can achieve it, but her determination has been unwavering,” Edelstyn said.
The original plan was for the whole street to have free electricity under cooperative management, The Guardian reported. However, this turned out not to be possible due to not everyone owning their roofs. Still, almost half the residences on Lynmouth Road — 30 households — are involved with the Power Station project.
The research Powell and Edelstyn did to determine the knowledge, labor and cost it would take to make a project like theirs happen was a combination of consulting with authorities and sharing what they’d learned.
“We set up a membership site and we just started to do Zoom calls with experts – and we shared all the findings from the start with our members. If they had questions or worries, we would just find a relevant expert, schedule a Zoom with them, and invite our members to the call – and everyone would ask questions and get to the bottom of the issue. Then, if there were subsequent things to discuss, we would all just get together and have a ‘power hour’ where we do an online chat. This method of learning was great as it was ‘many minds’ and also a distributed development method,” Edelstyn told EcoWatch.
The information they gleaned was not only useful for the initial power station project, but has been added to their renewable energy knowledge archive and continues to act as a database for future projects.
“All the material is still there and available for free to everyone out there – you could say that we immersed ourselves in the world of renewable energy, we had a book club where we got authors to come and read bits of their books and then had a Q&A with the members. It’s been great and we still create workshops aimed at allowing others to access the most important information and the minds that have most influenced us on implementing and imagining the Power Station,” Edelstyn said.
Initially, Edelstyn said he and Powell used their membership site — which had around 350 paying members — to fund their project. With membership came access to all of the information, which was also available for free, as well as their Greenback artworks and invitations to bi-annual cocktail parties, film credits and “shout outs on Youtube, etc.,” Edelstyn said.
“We then moved from the membership and sales of artworks to crowdfunding. We camped on our roof in November and early December 2022 while fundraising £100,000 (which we did in 23 days),” Edelstyn told EcoWatch. “And while we were on the roof we heard about the terrible injustice of the school funding costs and so we devised another ambitious crowdfunder to help turn them into a Power Station, saving money on their energy bills every year – [which left] more to use on educating our children. We raised £50,000 for them in 28 days.”
Edelstyn said fundraising for solar power stations is an ongoing creative process.
“I think all serious enterprises need to be continually funding themselves, impact depends on being well financed – and so innovators need to be much less fearful of money. We have developed a deep understanding of money. Bank Job, our previous film, was the first time we started to print our own cash and sell it for real money, now we do that a lot. But the best place to print cash is always your imagination. You just have to have a set of values about how you deal with the cash as it comes in, where you spend it and why. But money is intrinsically important when building power stations. It needs to be distributed far and wide – like power itself,” Edelstyn said.
Edelstyn added that it’s important to be resolute and believe in what you set out to do, even when things get rough.
“Many of the biggest obstacles are psychological. If you doubt yourself then you will listen too closely to the naysayers who queue up to hurl insults, but when you know why you are doing something, obstacles are just roadbumps, you may slow down a bit as you encounter them, but you will drive right through them. We haven’t yet come across any barricade that proved insurmountable. It’s all in our minds. I’m sure of that,” Edelstyn told EcoWatch.
The Power Station project ended up being a community builder as much as a campaign to bring solar-derived electricity to the neighborhood.
“There’s a lot tighter relationships on our street. It’s not just me and Hilary working on this project, our neighbours have been intrinsically important too. Dee and Sipke and Pippa helped us out of our comfort zone every Saturday to knock the doors and meet the others. I called this process ‘the doorbells of hope’ when we made a short film about it all. Our neighbour Natalie edits all our short films. Carys, the 14 year old from across the street, has trained up as a camera person. We have met some extraordinary people we never knew from Adam and now as we travel up and down the street we feel more as part of a family or a community,” Edelstyn said.
Not everyone was on board with the project, but Edelstyn said that’s to be expected.
“There are some people who don’t like what we’re doing, and that’s fine – that’s normal – one thing you learn when you do these types of projects is that no perfect thing exists. You can never please everyone, you’ll always have detractors, naysayers, haters, people who disagree with your ideas etc. You have to normalise yourself in the zone of discomfort,” Edelstyn said.
Edelstyn said Power Station helped increase a reliance on and support of others in their neighborhood that began during the pandemic.
“It’s built on that – our WhatsApp group is still full of ‘does anyone want this table’ and things like that, but it’s a whole new level of engagement – and for the people who are involved in it, they have ‘Power Station’ posters in their windows. We feel close and we’re on a mutual adventure. When we got to £100,000 on our crowdfunder, our neighbour across the street (who’s part of a singing group) came out on her doorstep and sang us the most beautiful song. We had come inside and we heard her voice in the cold wind battered night, singing… but we were drinking hot chocolate laced with bourbon and we weren’t sure what was happening. She recorded it and sent it to us. It made us cry and it was a fragment of pure beauty and reflected the deeper relationships we’ve all experienced through taking this action. Mutual aid; mutual care; mutual discoveries about ourselves and our neighbours we would never have considered… mutual adventure!” Edelstyn told EcoWatch.
Edelstyn said he believes the solar panels for the project will start going up on their street starting in February 2023.
Powell and Edelstyn have recorded the Power Station journey through the medium of documentary film, which seems to be second nature to Edelstyn.
“Ever since I was a child I have documented my life. It happened because my dad died when I was three. So I became aware of the fleeting nature of reality and capturing moments in photographs or film seemed an ideal way to control time, to take some control over a world that seemed to lack much consideration to my feelings or desires. This just kept going and has developed into a filmmaking practice. Power Station is our third feature documentary, but we have made thousands of films – most of them were abject failures. When I started to make documentaries I made every single mistake, but bit by bit I learned what works and what doesn’t. The critical thing in filmmaking, as far as I’m concerned, is honesty and being vulnerable. What else do any of us truly have to share with strangers other than the things that drive us and the truth of our hearts?” Edelstyn said.
Edelstyn said he hopes to see more neighborhood power stations in the future.
“There are 5 local streets who want to follow suit, so we want to try and help them. We have developed a ‘street by street’ method workshop which they can all view for free. We don’t have capacity to help them with phone calls etc at the moment, but would like to develop an ‘offer’ that would enable them to get 1:1 support. It’s on our to-do list!” Edelstyn told EcoWatch.
Powell and Edelstyn have many more community power stations and other projects planned.
“We are working with the local council and various coops to build multiple ‘power stations’ across our borough of London … not just on the streets but on the municipal buildings, and we would like to enable more and more of these across the UK and beyond. Apart from that we are working on a plan to record songs with the organisations we collaborate with across the borough – a homeless kitchen, a food bank, migrant action network and stories and supper, a group for migrants which cooks lovely food and tells stories and a grassroots football club, not to mention a workers’ food coop. We want to champion all these other aspects of what a green new deal should be benefiting; it’s not so much technological as a deeply social reimagining of resources and relationships,” Edelstyn said.
Their plans also include more film projects.
“I also want to work on a dark comedy about England in its current crisis (a crisis of its heart and its imagination) – a fiction film… and I like to write songs but have taken a break from this for the moment. Hilary has plenty of other projects in her pipeline too, and is trying to finish one off in Wales with a tin factory; she’s very emotionally involved with the Welsh landscape and industry. We are pulled in all sorts of directions! Life is wonderful and continues to deliver surprises and shocks and possibilities and we want to keep fighting for joy in these bleak times,” Edelstyn said.
For more information about the Power Station, visit power.film. To contribute to the project, go to crowdfunder.co.uk/p/power-station. And for free membership access, visit membership.power.film.
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