Chris Coonick: Leaving No One Behind In The Energy Transition

by Chris Coonick

Chris Coonick: Leaving No One Behind In The Energy Transition

The Government has set some very ambitious targets for the UK to reach net zero carbon by 2050.  It is inevitable that in order to meet these targets there will be a significant increase in electricity consumption within our communities. Moving away from carbon intensive energy sources, particularly gas, has the potential to push more people into fuel poverty and negatively impact people who are already vulnerable.

With 12.6% of Cornwall’s households currently in fuel poverty, Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN) is concerned that rural communities need to act now, in order to pave the way for a zero-carbon energy transition that doesn’t leave anyone behind.

WREN is a community energy group that was established in 2011 on the simple proposition that localising our energy economy would produce substantial benefits to the small town of Wadebridge in North Cornwall, including greater economic resilience, improved quality of life, enhanced future job prospects for our children and a step towards reducing our impact on the climate. Our activities advance education and raise awareness of energy resource scarcity and low carbon living, promote individual, community and organisational commitment to reduce carbon emissions, and provide a sustainable means of achieving economic development and regeneration.

What is the scale of the problem?

It is estimated that, as a minimum, the demand for electricity could double by 2050. The Climate Change Committee has recommended that homes need to be at least EPC level C by 2035 (which it is estimated that only a third of Cornwall’s homes currently attain) and have set out a plan in the 6th Carbon budget to achieve this by increasing insulation levels, improving energy efficiency and phasing out domestic gas supplies and other carbon intensive heating fuels. In addition, the Government plans to phase out diesel and petrol cars.  All of these policy drivers are necessary but will have a massive impact on rural communities with poor public transport links, living in poorly insulated homes both on and off the gas grid.

Affordability and availability of capital to invest in energy saving and decarbonisation measures is likely to be a real problem for a lot of people and could well mean that individuals will not be able to take advantage of the most energy efficient options to reduce carbon.  The reality is that many of those that are classed as ‘vulnerable’ are already being left behind. Lack of available income to invest in new technologies is a contributor, but awareness of the issues is also key, and we have a huge educational task to get the wider population to understand and accept the need to change and to take action quickly.

We are already seeing the economic impacts of the pandemic recession, and it is likely that people who are already struggling with everyday challenges will be unwilling to take on any additional issues. This is especially the case with the Climate Change agenda where for many it is not seen as an immediate concern and actions can be delayed.

But it’s not just homes, it’s businesses too.

I was shocked to discover that there is no recognition of the term ‘vulnerable business’ in our energy market.  A report produced by Citizens Advice in 2019 highlighted that the non-domestic energy market is not working well enough for the smallest businesses.  In particular, they were seeing that microbusinesses (a high proportion of Cornwall’s 24,450 businesses) were not afforded the same protections as domestic consumers, many citing debt and billing problems which can ultimately result in disconnection from their energy supply.  At present our energy supply system is failing those in need not only in their homes, but at their workplaces too.

What can we do to deliver net zero without any unintended consequences?

As energy anthropologists, WREN believe that community energy has a big part to play in the energy transition and are about to embark on the Net Zero Community (NZCom) project to better understand how the needs of vulnerable households and businesses will change in the future.

NZCom will be funded by Western Power Distribution through the Network Innovation Allowance programme and will pave the way towards transparent and accurate information on the carbon content of electricity bills, helping everyone to make more informed energy decisions and drive more carbon-conscious choices.  As part of the project a series of guides and tools will be developed to support communities across the UK in understanding what their own journey to net zero might look like and how to bring everyone along for the ride, equally.

Hitting net zero by 2050 is a daunting target. It will be possible only if everyone makes a contribution. And, indeed, only if everyone is in a position to make a contribution. Community energy groups know their various and diverse communities and are uniquely placed in their potential to deliver net zero outcomes without leaving anyone behind.

Chris has been involved with the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN) ever since she moved to Cornwall in 2014. An Industry recognised and well-respected specialist with over 10 years’ experience in the field of solar photovoltaics (PV) and associated smart and flexible technologies, she took up the role of Technical Director for WREN as a volunteer in 2017.  As a STEM Ambassador for Cornwall, Chris is passionate about giving the next generation an opportunity for a sustainable low carbon future and encouraging women into engineering roles.

Image Credit: Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network

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