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Local Power


The climate problem is an energy problem. In 2018, almost one-quarter of all net greenhouse gas emissions in the UK were estimated to be from energy supply. Reducing the carbon intensity of electricity generation is vital and, thanks mainly to the collapse of coal in this country, emissions from energy supplies are down fifty-seven percent from 1990 levels. However, our national strategy of closing coal plants has run its course, as all remaining operations will shut down by 2025.

Currently, natural gas provides more than eighty-four percent of our national heating needs and around forty percent of our electricity generation. The good news is that natural gas has half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal. The bad news is that natural gas has half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal. To serve as a bridging fuel, natural gas must replace coal entirely (a transition that is already happening) and then itself be replaced entirely by renewables (or else the bridge leads to nowhere).

One story of Nasreddin, a satirical wise man from the thirteenth century, tells of the time when he lost a precious ring. When his wife asks why he is searching for the ring outside when he lost it in his room, he replies that the room is too dark to see and the light is much better outside. Looking to swap one fossil fuel for another is like looking for something where the search is easiest. We will not find the solution there, when what we are really seeking are supplies of renewable energy.

By now it is conventional wisdom (even if it’s not common practice) that switching to renewable energy supplies is one of the most important steps we can take. Achieving the reductions in the Paris Agreement demands that industrialised nations make much more drastic emissions cuts across all sectors. The good news is that cuts do not automatically equate to a lower standard of living for economies that were built on fossil fuels, as there is plenty of evidence that reducing harmful emissions can be decoupled from the health of local economies.

Wind, water and solar power all make money, but given their localised nature they will never supply the concentrated profits that multinational oil and gas companies expect from the likes of a single oil field. Conversely, for municipalities that have not enjoyed the windfall of generating local energy for their residents, the decentralisation of energy supplies is their gain.

Decentralisation of renewables is an unstoppable force for several good reasons: local energy generation improves security of supply; it is more environmentally friendly; and increasingly it is cost-effective despite the persistent bias towards subsidising fossil fuels. And yet the shift in energy supply is not simply a tussle for control between fossil fuel giants and energy newcomers. Instead, a more fundamental shift in attitude and decision-making is happening, from hierarchical central planning and command-and-control to local empowerment and a sense of ownership in how our energy is generated.

The true power of renewable energy lies in its potential to empower local communities. We are part of a virtuous cycle: empowerment leads to more people switching to renewable energy supplies, that accelerates greater decentralisation of power generation, that results in more empowerment locally. As researchers Burger and Weinmann have observed, producing energy locally generates more than financial returns for city coffers:

Energy moves away from an abstract flow of invisible particles to an issue of personalized identification. As much as locally harvested food is more satisfying for consumers than apples and strawberries produced in a different hemisphere and transported across oceans, locally produced electricity and heat offer the notion of self-determination and ecological consciousness.

As residents, we are not only energy consumers but can also be community supporters and investors in local energy co-operatives as well as energy producers if, for example, we have solar panels installed on the roof of our house or on our block of flats. Community power and local energy are two sides of the same coin. Take Repowering London that installs community-owned renewable power on social housing blocks and community buildings, as well as providing internships which further the community’s knowledge and belief in the power of renewables. Its collaborative approach ensures the community is at the heart of their projects to such a degree that community power and local energy become interchangeable.

This newfound attitude towards taking back control is the antithesis of NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) opposition, characterised by locals’ resistance to any new development close to where they live. Zero-carbon energy supplies will become more diverse, distributed and downtown. Signs of eco-technology – from local solar panels to nearby wind turbines to neighbourhood geothermal stations – are signs that we are turning the corner rather than turning our backs.

Renewable energy means more than cheap electricity and heating. It is a means for individuals and communities to use their power, take back control and become more resilient.

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