The promises and challenges of community energy: what did we learn from the EPG/ESI community workshop event?

The potential role for community level energy initiatives to contribute and engage with the broader aims of energy security and climate change strategy in the UK has become increasingly recognized in recent times and was again highlighted in the recent Government led community energy ‘call for evidence’ which took place during the summer.  Whether this political interest is genuine or whether it is merely paying lip service to both the importance and the possibilities for a more grassroots approach to governing energy and environmental issues remains to be seen.What would seem to be apparent however is that the proliferation of community led energy initiatives that have emerged in the UK during the last two decades, seem to offer hope of an alternative vision or visions, through which to challenge the obvious limitations of top-down governance around energy.

On the 30th October, the Energy Policy Group and the Environmental Sustainability Institute held a workshop on Campus with the aim of bringing together representatives of the 16 groups known to be working in Cornwall to network, to share their ideas, and to think about the University might contribute to a more joined-up agenda for community energy in Cornwall.  The University has worked with a number of these organizations in the past and it was felt that such an event would provide an opportunity to both reinvigorate these links and existing networks and also work out how we might move forward into the future.

The day was a great success with over eighty people taking part; fifty of these participants currently engaged at various levels with community energy initiatives in Cornwall.  Amongst the topics discussed during the day were:‘joined up thinking between Government policy, Cornwall Council and community renewables’; ‘the economic, social and political benefits to developing local energy markets’; ‘delivery mechanisms and investment readiness’; ‘the importance of trans-disciplinary thinking’; ‘the importance of engaging with people, places and issues’; and ‘a practical discussion with community groups, sharing knowledge and experience of establishing and developing community renewable schemes’.  The last session revisited the issues raised during the day in order to clarify what participants thought might be the best issues to base future workshops at the university on.

One of the main issues raised revolved around the criticism that many community groups were not actually being supported by Central Government – despite political rhetoric which suggested otherwise.This is a finding which is readily supported by much of the research which has been undertaken in the field i.e. Hoffman et al (2013), Peters et al (2010), much of which highlights firstly the primacy of the market in framing the debate in the first place and, secondly, the important role of financial and political support in leveraging the success, or otherwise, of initiatives which are developed at community and local level.  Indeed it was felt by some participants that the difficulties of getting projects off the ground at this level are largely due to the ways in which community energy remains a monetarized debate.  Some saw this as evidenced by the extent to which projects (particularly those around the development of installed capacity) will need to involve a large amount of input from consultants, lawyers etc.  The majority of participants felt that local knowledge of what communities themselves need and might contribute in terms of energy continues to be overlooked at the national level to a large extent in favour of scale oriented, supply side solutions.  It was argued, for instance, that there remains a political preference for the big six energy companies to supply and deliver energy as opposed to more decentralized alternatives which might be delivered at community scale.

It was suggested for example that the ultimate aim of the Green Cornwall programme is to try to encourage the development of local energy markets, linking generation and local supply near to point of use.  Potential benefits would be locally produced energy – being sold to local homes and businesses – and also benefits consumers in terms of cost.  It was felt by many participants that this is an important selling point as the majority of people frame their energy use in terms of cost.  It was suggested that this would ultimately require greater local leadership in changing, or setting in motion the change, to convert the grid from its present centralized structure and to subvert the influence of current power relationships.  In this way, it was felt that communities might then capitalize on a market based approach to energy but in a way which would visibly benefit its inhabitants – particularly in terms of cost, fuel poverty, local employment, and environmental benefits.

It was felt by some participants that the ‘short termism’ around Central Government thinking was particularly pertinent in respect to the emergence of decision making at the local level – both in terms of local authority influence and community decision making.It was suggested that it was difficult to develop a longer term vision at community level where current planning laws remain a huge constraint on doing things more creatively.  It was felt that this was also related to the conflicts which exist around mainstreaming community energy where the role of opposition groups tends to influence inertia rather than change.  It was argued that better communication was needed around what the priorities should be at local level and what the benefits of change would be for everyone.  It was suggested that setting up ‘local education forums’, where competing views could be articulated, might be a start in reconciling different interests within communities themselves.

The final points made related to the role of the university and what some community members were worried would turn out to be an ‘exercise in opportunism’.  Participants stressed that a working relationship with academia would need to be based around ‘embedding’ research around the needs and requirements of the communities themselves in order to establish a relationship based on trust.  Many argued that they were suffering from ‘consultation fatigue’ and that in order to deliver real change this kind of working relationship must be mutually beneficial for both parties.  It was argued that academic research had to be useful and practical in order to help local energy projects to deliver real and lasting change in their communities.

The presentations and videos from this event are available from: http://projects.exeter.ac.uk/igov/community-energy-workshop-30th-october-2013/

– Shane Fudge, Lecturer in Energy Policy

 

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