For the last year the Youth Community Energy Catalysts programme has been supporting 20 young people to start their own community energy projects. After months of training and peer mentoring these projects are beginning to get off the ground – and if there is one thing they have in common, it’s innovation. They push the boundaries of community participation and self-management, fiercely refuse to leave anyone marginalised and even recognise a role for art in the energy system.
In recent months UKYCC’s Fight for our Future campaign has been busy thinking about what demands we should make of politicians in advance of the 2015 election. In the Community Team this provoked a process of reflection on the community energy movement: to ask what politicians should do, we first need to ask what needs to change. The result was a vision for the future of community energy which politicians can do a lot to facilitate: but which in many ways could be advanced from within the community energy movement.
Community energy is one of the most exciting vanguards in the fight against climate change, but to keep pushing boundaries we need to keep challenging ourselves. Just over a year after the launch of the Community Energy Catalysts programme here are our 4 proposals for how community energy can be taken to the next level.
A renewed focus on energy efficiency
Community-owned wind turbines set all of our hearts racing, but the truth is that installing energy efficiency measures cuts just as much carbon and can fight fuel poverty at the same time. Fuel poverty is a national emergency: millions of households are choosing between heating and eating and fuel poverty causes 25 000 deaths, on average, each year. These people live in all of our communities and we cannot ignore them the way they have been ignored for so long by the fossil fuel energy oligopoly.
Many community energy groups have shown how a focus on energy efficiency can help us fight climate change in a way that leaves no one marginalised. Manchester’s Carbon Coop is a coalition of residents mutually supporting one another to retrofit energy efficiency measures in their homes. Fuel Poverty Action’s “Keep Warm Cafes” have provided survival spaces for those in fuel poverty and their energy rights workshops have helped equip people to hold their own when the Big Six are trying to make them choose between heating and eating.
The national fuel poverty emergency needs a super-scale response, which is exactly what the Energy Bill Revolution has proposed. They are campaigning, with the backing of a massive coalition of organisations (including UKYCC), for a national energy efficiency programme to retrofit 6 million low income homes to be highly energy efficient. If eliminating fuel poverty alone doesn’t convince you this is a great idea, add unimaginable carbon savings and the creation of 100,000 direct and indirect jobs. Convinced you yet? The successful delivery of a programme of this scale would require massive community involvement to ensure no one gets left out, and we think community energy groups would be the perfect partners.
Participation! Democratic decision-making
As community energy groups grow in ambition, their projects require more and more specialist expertise. The mechanical, legal and financial technicalities of installing a wind turbine certainly aren’t things we studied at school. As things get complicated, it can be very easy for community energy groups to shrink down to a small group of people with technical expertise. However there is far more to a community energy project than these technical aspects. Just because a project requires someone’s particular skills, it doesn’t mean that the whole community shouldn’t be involved in the decision making process.
Although it might take a little longer for key decisions to be made in assemblies open to everyone, where time needs to be taken to explain the technicalities, it is vital to ensuring we are running community energy projects, not just energy projects. It also pushes community energy projects to innovate. Being challenged by the ideas and questions of those coming with a different background is a great way to inspire those that have done similar projects before to think of new technical approaches.
The community turbine in Gamlingay, Cambridgeshire did this very successfully: they were extremely careful to ensure all the technicalities of the project were well explained and the organising process was open, transparent and accessible. Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN) made themselves extremely open and accessible by having a physical presence: an “Energy Shop” in the town centre where people can seek advice and find out how to get involved. They have managed to focus both on energy efficiency and renewable energy generation in a way that had a huge impact on the town: of the 7900 residents of Wadebridge, 1100 are members of WREN!
Furthermore community energy projects need to ensure that decision-making isn’t limited to those who can afford to invest. With typical minimum investments being £200, decision making processes only open to those who can afford to invest in the co-op will exclude many people – not least young people. Being a co-operative of investors isn’t enough to consider a project open to the whole community.
Community energy projects in the UK are making powerful interventions in the way we generate and use energy – but they’re currently locked out of the critical middle stage: supply. This is unique to the UK. In Germany community energy projects are using municipal referendums to take control of the local grid. In Spain co-operatives such as Som Energía and Zencer Energía operate as regional suppliers whose members co-manage the company which supplies their electricity.
Control of supply allows a powerful new, accessible route for engagement: we all need an energy supplier, regardless of our financial situation. It also opens up a world of possibilities for socially just supply innovations. A supplying co-operative could decide to offer cheap tariffs to those in fuel poverty, collectively fund energy efficiency measures or trial flexible tariffs based on the weather (i.e. cheaper when there is surplus energy when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing).
This is currently possible in the UK: it is just very expensive to obtain a supply license from Ofgem, limiting it to large scale projects. Changes in energy policy to introduce an easier, cheaper option to community projects could transform the movement’s possibilities. For this reason it is one of the campaigning priorities of Community Energy England. In the mean time there is nothing preventing existing renewable energy companies like Ecotricity and Good Energy from becoming co-operatives which their members co-control. There are already some examples of these mid-scale energy suppliers taking a more community-minded approach: OVO’s Communities programme looks like it could be an extremely promising partner for community energy projects and Good Energy already offer a special local tariff to neighbours of their Delabole wind farm.
Our friends at 10:10 have just launched a campaign called “Our Power” for the next climate minister to allow community energy projects to supply directly to their community. You can learn more and sign their petition here.
For the first time energy infrastructure is being planned, developed and managed in communities in a decentralised way. But things need to get much bigger, and to get much bigger we’re going to need skilled people. There are two options: slowly steal skilled people from the old school, centralised, boring energy sector or cultivate those skills in our communities. While the first requires no special planning, the second does. But its rewards could be enormous: a whole generation of well trained community energy activists and workers, bringing new ideas and new energy to the movement.
The Youth Community Energy Catalysts programme is one of the first to attempt this sort of training. It recognises the vital role young people can play as organisers and facilitators of community energy projects, regardless of any particular energy expertise. The programme has already proved a vital space for training, empowerment and mutual support between young people in similar circumstances, and we are currently figuring out how the project should grow and develop in the year ahead. This and eleven other peer-to-peer mentoring projects were supported by the government’s Community Energy Peer Mentoring Fund and it would be great to see more funding for these sorts of projects – especially those with a youth focus.
Taking community energy training to the next level might see this sort of training in community organising offered more tightly embedded with an existing project as an apprenticeship, or combined with technical training programmes. There are already some good examples of this. Hackney Energy’s community ‘internship’ programme offers two hours of in-work training a week to young residents of the estate on which the group installed solar panels, enabling them to learn from and participate in the process of project development. Edventure in Frome is taking things up a gear: it runs nine month apprenticeships in social entrepreneurship in partnership with local community projects.
There are several things we should be demanding of political parties in advance of the elections: an Energy Bill Revolution, regulation that allows community energy groups to supply energy, support for community energy training for young people – but more than anything we need to keep challenging ourselves to push the boundaries of how environmentally and socially just community energy can be.
UKYCC Community Team