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Creating Local Energy

Posted by in blog, Homepage October 28, 2014

We don’t have an energy crisis. We have an energy conversion crisis. The hoary old fact that the earth receives enough solar power from the sun in one hour to power the planet for a year is often rolled out in this context. Our challenge is therefore how do we get enough energy out of a range of sources, from fossil fuels, through nuclear to renewables, and get it to the right people at the right prices.

But our centralised energy infrastructure in the UK is creaking a little to say the least. Ageing nukes, dirty coal, spivvy gas and a collection of plucky renewable technologies from offshore wind, through solar to biomass (or as we used to call it ‘wood’*) all contribute to what the DJ in charge of spinning all this harmoniously together might call ‘the mix’.

A hundred years ago there were over six hundred energy providers in the UK. We normally rely on the market to increase competition but it has worked in perhaps unexpected ways. A century later a mere six big energy companies (usefully referred to as ‘The Big Six’) dominate the landscape.

This relative lack of clear customer choice is echoed at the strategic level by a Hobson’s Choice between comparatively expensive, extended fixed price contracts for new nuclear power stations and politically charged, energy dependency relationships with challenging partners like Russia or Qatar. Or fracking.

Make no mistake people are worried about their energy supply – especially price-wise, hence the parliamentary posturing around cutting supposed subsidies and levies (aka ‘green crap’). But how, where and who generates that energy simply doesn’t feel as if it’s in people’s sphere of influence. Though it is clearly in their sphere of concern.

It can feel as if our relationship with energy is doomed to be linear, transactional and passive, that we’re on the receiving end of an industrial machine where all we can do is pay up, put up and shut up. It can appear that we have a ‘can’t fix, won’t fix’ approach to energy; resigning ourselves to ever burgeoning demand, failing to tackle climate change at the pace and scale required and seeing the necessary changes through a myopic lens of cost alone, not as investment in a safe, secure and sustainable energy future for all. It’s what Journalist Zoe Williams recently referred to as ‘the straitjacket of pessimism’.

But something is stirring in energy’s grassroots and it potentially offers some compelling solutions. A few weeks ago it was my enormous privilege to Chair ‘Powering Up’ the community energy conference jointly convened by DECC and OxFutures and held in the magnificent wedding cake confection that is Oxford City Hall.

In January this year DECC launched its Community Energy Strategy, a genuinely smart piece of legislation aimed at helping accelerate the growth of ‘community energy’ in its broadest forms. Wisely this is not just focused on the physical infrastructure of community owned renewables like wind turbines and solar arrays, but also includes energy efficiency (smart meters, advice services), energy management (balancing grid load and demand) and collective purchasing – get your energy GroupOn. The strategy has lots of impressive numbers and initiatives attached to it; £10M and £15M funds for urban and rural community energy respectively, a £100,000 energy saving competition and a ‘one stop shop’ information resource to name but a few. And it has ambition, aiming for 3GW (enough to power 1M homes) of installed capacity by 2020.

So just over seven months on since the strategy’s publication we gathered the great and the good, the grafting and the crafting, the enthusiasts and the experts from the world of community energy UK to review progress. We sought to share the latest developments and challenges, learn from each other’s real life experiences and identify solutions. It was an extraordinary day.

Governments understandably get a little anxious about the use of the word ‘revolution’. But even the Secretary of State himself, the Right Honourable Ed Davey MP, has in the past called for ‘nothing less than a community energy revolution’. So our morning keynote, the indefatigable Rebecca Willis tackled the idea of revolution head-on.

Revolutions are about the birth of something new she argued, where the vanguard of community energy in activist places like Brixton and Brighton, is then echoed in relatively small ‘c’ conservative constituencies such as Bath, Slough and Tunbridge. But revolutions are also about the overthrow of something old. We must be less coy about what ought to go in regard to business models. This is less a simplistic critique of ‘The Big Six’ and more a sophisticated plea to question what really needs to change. To progress we need more ‘good stuff’ (e.g. community energy) but also less ‘bad stuff’ (e.g. fossil fuel divestment). Action on climate change urgently needs both.

We must caution against accidentally reinforcing the models and systems that support the status quo and remind ourselves that real change is economic, societal and cultural. We cannot wholly know what our brave new energy future will look like, but we do know that shared ownership, where every new renewable energy development will include an option for community buy-in and a radical new set of energy behaviours will be crucial.

Whilst there is optimism for the achievements in community energy to date, Rebecca warned that unfinished revolutions are dangerous things and challenged the movement to confound Kafka’s dire prediction that ‘revolutions [can] evaporate leaving only the slime of bureaucracy’.

And the rest of the day lived up to this stirring start. A parade of presenters shared punchy ‘pecha kucha’ style presentations from their projects and experiences. Each was an inspiring testimony to their community’s determination and drive, and reminded us all of the multiple benefits successful projects can bring; the financial returns for investors (up to 7% – significantly higher than savings left in any bank), the carbon savings, the bill savings for residents but perhaps most importantly the affects projects have on people. Agamemnon Otero the hugely charismatic spokesperson of the team behind Repowering summed it up best, reminding us powerfully that our goal is the ‘creation of local energy’ in all its diverse forms. Community energy can put people back at the heart of the energy system, and create a system that serves communities and doesn’t just exploit them.

The Laws of Thermodynamics state that ‘energy cannot be created or destroyed, but simply change its form’. This is the potential transformation of our energy system; from a linear, transactional, passive, corporate dominated relationship between generator and buyer to a circular, reciprocal, active, inclusive, collective, collaborative and community led system.

In the thirteen years of running Futerra we’ve learnt to understand and appreciate the key factors that underpin change for sustainability. ‘Sizzle’ – the positive, exciting, aspirational vision of the future that captures attention and imagination. ‘Stories’ – the compelling narratives of real people delivering real projects with real results that we can relate to. ‘Salience’ – the prominence of an idea in the mind’s eye, the ability to imagine the project. ‘Social proof’ – the visibility of projects in my own neighbourhood, town or area.

It is increasingly clear that our ongoing community energy revolution embraces all of these elements. It gives hope for the future through practical tangible solutions, it is full of amazing tales of empowerment, community self-esteem and reconnection, and it is increasingly salient through the social proof of solar panels, wind turbines and mini-hydro schemes popping up all over the country.

In this sense these pioneering green shoots of courage and innovation must be nurtured and supported with the right breaks and incentives, and not squashed, suffocated or constrained by legislative foot-dragging or current vested interests. In doing so we will reduce the risk of a Kafka-esuqe outcome or the perpetuation of the ‘strait-jacket of pessimism’. Instead we open up a real opportunity for community energy to become a mass-scale, mainstream movement far more Utopian, wearing a techni-colour dreamcoat of possibilities.

*OK I know it’s not all wood, but you get the gist



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  • Jo Colwell
    October 28, 2014

    Positive and optimistic is how I read this blog which is exactly the tone and energy (renewable of course) of the whole of the Powering Up conference in Oxford. Somehow our colleagues at DECC felt unable to put this lovely blog on their own website so to all who read the above please share and point out this blog.
    PS. I should have never have mentioned the cake..

    • October 29, 2014

      Could that be because the majority of DECC’s business is conducted with the incumbent Big 6 energy suppliers? Doubtless they don’t want to upset their key partners and suppliers of in-house ‘advisers’…