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The ‘solar punks’ turning their London street into a community power station

Words: Robin Eveleigh

Main image: Peter Searle
This article originally appeared on Positive News on 28 November 2022

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Two artists in London are finding ingenious ways to fund a project that puts power in the hands of people. Other communities are watching with interest.

It would be easy to mistake artists Dan Edelstyn and Hilary Powell for master magicians. For their first stunt, they made £1m (€1.2m) of debt disappear (more on that later), and for their next trick they’re conjuring up a power station from an ordinary, east London terraced street.

Not the wheezing, fossil fuel burning kind, but one fuelled by sunlight, one that prioritises people over profit, and puts power generation in the hands of the communities it serves.

On course to raise £100,000 (€116,000) through crowdfunding, Edelstyn and Powell hope to install rooftop solar panels on dozens of homes in Walthamstow, London, with some of their neighbours getting the retrofit upgrade for free.

The project, they say, is a direct response to the government’s “lack of imagination and foresight” in dealing with climate change and the energy crisis, and a reaction to the record profits raked in by energy firms.

Watch the ‘trailer’ for the rooftop power station. Thumbnail: Simon Alford

Learning as they go and documenting their journey on film, they’re creating a blueprint for ‘solar punk’ activism that they say could be emulated by communities across the UK.

“Everything’s just driven by profit and people are so trapped in making ends meet, it’s hard for them to see that there is an alternative,” says Powell. “If we’re to have an equitable future in this transition away from fossil capitalism, we can’t let renewables repeat the power games and monopolies we’ve seen in the fossil fuel industry. There has to be equitable distribution.”

The roots of the project can be traced back to the duo’s mischievous 2021 film, Bank Job. It followed the husband-and-wife team as they printed their own ‘money’ – mock banknotes featuring local heroes including a soup kitchen volunteer and a teacher in place of the Queen.

Selling these artworks raised £40,000 (€46,000), half of which was used to buy and write off £1.2m (€1.4m) of payday loan debts. The remainder went to local charities. Debt purchasers can bulk buy bundles of debt for a fraction of its face value. They’re allowed to collect on the full amount, or – like Edelstyn and Powell – they can choose to write it off entirely.

The move follows in the footsteps of similar activism in the US where RIP Medical Debt has bought up and cancelled almost $7bn (€6.7bn) in unpaid medical bills, and the Rolling Jubilee Fund which cancelled $3.8m (€3.6m) of student loans.

The pair celebrated their successful Bank Job by blowing up a knackered Ford Transit van near Canary Wharf in London. The vehicle was painted gold and was said to represent debt.

They’ve used their art to help free people from debt. Photo: Graeme Truby-Surety

Their latest venture ‘Power’ is similarly eccentric. It involves Edelstyn and Powell sleeping on the roof of their family home to publicise their crowdfunder (which has nearly reached its £50k initial target).

They reckon that £100,000, plus contributions from some homeowners, will fund solar panels for an initial 30 homes. Buying in bulk, which spreads costs like labour and scaffolding, means savings of around 50 per cent.

“We want this to be something that fills people’s hopes, dreams and imaginations”

Dan Edelstyn

A ripple effect is already being felt beyond their neighbourhood – the pair have brokered a deal for five nearby schools to go solar.  They’ve also created more banknotes, with the proceeds going towards organisations focused on generating ‘community wealth’. Other neighbourhoods are watching on with keen interest.

“We’re arguing that a green deal is not just about technology, it’s about social and economic equality as well,” says Edelstyn.

With home surveys well under way, the first solar panels should be installed in the New Year.

“We want this to be something that fills people’s hopes, dreams and imaginations, and maybe builds their spirits to know that rebellion is possible,” says Edelstyn. “We want to show that we can actually achieve something by working together. We need that in our own lives too.”

Take action

Support the crowdfunder

Donate here

See the US Department of Energy’s advice on home solar panels

Visit the site

Write-off strangers’ medical debt for a few cents per dollar

Donate here