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Power By The People, For The People


Energy democracy is an exciting international movement which has been steadily gathering momentum, and is having an increasing impact in the UK.

Its revolutionary premise is that energy users should share control with producers over how our energy system works – a massive shift in the current balance of power away from (mostly fossil fuel-based) global companies towards local communities.  Interpretations of the term vary, but the majority share four common strands:

What does energy democracy look like in the UK?  As Emma Bridge, CEO of Community Energy England, says in Carbon Copy’s recent webinar Shining a Light: The Power of Communities, “Whatever kind of community energy action we take, at the heart of it is community leadership, ownership, accountability and benefit.”

UK communities which have already taken the plunge have enjoyed remarkable payback.  Emma again: “Community energy creates a wide range of economic benefits, such as jobs and cost savings; social benefits, including resilience building, education and fuel poverty reduction; and environmental benefits like CO2 reduction, habitat improvements and waste reduction.”

This webinar showcases some fascinating case histories with lots of practical advice: Whitby Esk Energy, a hydro-electric generation scheme on the North York Moors; the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN) in Cornwall; and Repowering, which works with London communities to fund, install and manage their own clean, local energy.

WREN’s Technical Director, Chris Coonick, summarises the widespread benefits that localising Wadebridge’s energy economy has delivered: “It’s given us greater economic resilience, improved quality of life, enhanced future job prospects for our children, as well as a big step towards reducing our impact on the climate.”

To date, WREN has installed enough solar PV to power 1,120 homes (and influenced a further three times that number of installations) and delivers renewable heat to 279 homes.

Now that the team has mastered effective systems for generating power and energy and offering conservation advice, says Chris, WREN has turned its attention to the social dimensions: “We’re looking at energy equality in our community, and how we can help to alleviate fuel poverty.”

Mike Ford, Technical Director of Whitby Esk Energy, talks about a more unusual community energy scheme, generating power from a 50kw hydroelectric turbine, using a ‘fish friendly’ Archimedes screw, on the River Esk near Whitby.  The aims of the scheme are two-fold – to produce ‘green’ energy for the community, directly reducing carbon emissions, and to produce a regular income to finance other carbon-reducing projects and education programmes.

The scheme is run by volunteers through Esk Energy (Yorkshire) Ltd, a registered society set up in 2008.  Mike emphasises the importance of ‘mining’ the local community for specialist talent, which is often surprisingly available: “We managed to assemble a really good cross section of skills to tackle all the start-up issues: accountants, architect, tax lawyer, planning officer, civil and mechanical engineers, and a really good administrator.”  Later they added residents with design and education experience.

Another essential piece of advice from Mike concerns the importance of longevity.  To have the courage to switch to locally-generated energy, communities need to be sure these new schemes will be there for the duration.  “Succession planning is vital,” he counsels.  “The people who set up these projects need to ensure that they keep running in the future, by keeping up community involvement once they’re commissioned.”

Agamemnon Otero OBE, founding director of Repowering, offers an insightful perspective to newcomers wanting to start their own community energy scheme: “All of the advice and the technical stuff exists – there’s nothing we can’t do now in this sector.  But what everyone is struggling to do is to come together and have a clear voice for what they want.”

That’s why listening is fundamental to success, he suggests: “Developing listening is one of the most profound requirements in community energy projects.  The communication channels get clogged up with technical and legal issues, but the root of what we’re all doing here is well-being.”

Since Agamemnon set up Repowering in 2011, it has helped raise over £600,000 in capital finance, funding solar installations generating more than 500 kWp which save well over 100 tonnes of GHG emissions every year. But for him, it’s not just – or even mainly – about the technology.  “Community energy can be a powerful medium for delivering large-scale social change,” he observes, “and the most important requirements are not technical – they are listening and developing trust.”

As Ric Casale, founder and trustee of Carbon Copy noted recently, “The climate problem is an energy problem.”  It’s also a social problem.  As the panellists in this webinar make clear, that’s why energy democracy is a fundamental part of a carbon-zero future.

Image courtesy of Hackney Energy.

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