Power for the people, by the people

Sensemaking / Power for the people, by the people

The rise of community scale renewables is transforming lives and livelihoods across the world, reports Martin Wright.

13 Mar 2012

The rise of community scale renewables is transforming lives and livelihoods across the world, reports Martin Wright.

High on a Cumbrian hillside, a line of elegant windmills is turning slowly in the breeze. You might think local people would scowl at the sight of them. Instead, many are smiling – for the simple reason that the turbines are theirs, and are making them money as well as power.

In a valley in the far south of Brazil, a group of farmers are celebrating. They’ve just switched on a new hydro station, harnessing the free flow of a stream as it races down the slope. At a stroke, they’ve won their energy independence: no longer at the mercy of power cuts and price hikes, no longer reliant on oil-fired electricity from a distant plant beyond their control.

On a low-lying island in the Bay of Bengal, a woman expertly wields a soldering iron, putting the finishing touches to a charge controller. She’s one of a group of ‘solar entrepreneurs’, helping bring clean, affordable electricity to remote communities.

And in a not-quite-so-remote village in Suffolk, a bunch of school kids are pointing excitedly at the shiny new solar array on the roof of their classroom.

Just four examples of a wave of community-scale renewable schemes that are transforming lives and livelihoods across the world. Not all of these are co-operatives in the strict sense of the term, but all embody the essential elements: local people coming together in an enterprising fashion, taking practical action to improve their future – and even making some money, too.

Renewable energy doesn’t have to be community-scale, of course: there’s undoubtedly a role for mega-projects which are run as conventional businesses. And, at a time of rising oil and gas prices and growing concerns over climate change and energy insecurity, there’s an urgent need to get more renewable capacity in place – and fast. In 2011, The Co-operative made a public commitment to invest £1 billion in renewables by 2013, and it is already over halfway towards that goal. Of this sum, £100 million has been set aside specifically for community renewables.

In a country like the UK, where energy simply comes into our homes down the wire or the pipe, it can be hard to recall that it’s generated at all – let alone feel that how it’s generated is something over which we can have any control. That can leave people feeling impotent: you can read about the energy crisis and soaring prices – but you can’t do anything about it for yourself.

Unless, that is, you make your own. For many, that’s an increasingly alluring prospect: the chance to take control over one of life’s essentials. Small wonder, perhaps, that the single most popular business for the UK’s burgeoning array of community investment schemes is renewable energy. Much of this has been organised through the Energy4All initiative set up by Baywind – which owns those Cumbrian turbines, and was itself the country’s first energy co-op back in 1997. And interest continues to grow: over 30 new renewables co-operatives have been registered since 2008 alone.

The appeal of community energy doesn’t just lie in a sense of independence and the chance to earn a few pounds. Schemes can be designed to prioritise the needs of people suffering from fuel poverty, and provide training and jobs for locals in a sector which is widely seen as one of the big growth areas for the coming decades.

There are, of course, some pretty hefty barriers to making it happen. Finance, for one. Renewable ‘fuel’ may be free – at least in the case of sun, wind and water – but the capital costs in capturing it can be prohibitive without the backing of a large company. The UK Government’s recent cut in feed-in tariff rates has made solar in particular a lot less attractive – at least in the short term – and has sown seeds of uncertainty for the renewables industry in general.

Then there is public opinion. While many people love the idea of having their own wind, solar or hydro plant, others are horrified at the thought of any change to treasured landscapes. In the UK in particular, efforts to harvest one of the best sources of wind power in the world have been repeatedly thwarted by the ferocity of local protest.

But these needn’t be insurmountable obstacles. The capital costs of most renewable technologies may be daunting, but they are also falling – at a time when energy prices look set to rise for years to come. So the economic logic remains strong.

Public opinion is in some ways a tougher nut to crack. In an effort to find common ground, Forum for the Future, Carbon Leapfrog and The Co-operative brought together representatives of some of the UK’s leading bodies with an interest in and influence over the countryside, including the National Trust, the Church of England, the Women’s Institute and the Council for the Protection of Rural England. As Forum for the Future’s Will Dawson points out: “Together, they have around 12 million members: many groups that have campaigned for or against renewables in the UK will carry one or more of their cards.”

A group of these representatives convened by Forum for the Future visited a range of community renewables projects in Germany – where enthusiasm for local energy runs high. They are now working on a shared vision for community energy. “Germany showed us communities offer a really serious and cost-effective route to renewables”, says Dawson. “If we get it right, we could unlock a huge amount of support for local renewables. We could see thousands of new groups of people coming together to generate their own energy, investing hundreds of millions of pounds in schemes which will have a much greater chance of gaining planning permission because they win the support of local people.”

There’s some evidence that community schemes have a better track record of doing just that. Research by Valley Wind, a local group hoping to develop a 6MW wind farm in Yorkshire’s Colne Valley, found that people were much better disposed to a scheme drawn up by their neighbours – with clear community benefits – rather than by a distant energy company. The group set out to talk directly to those who most worried about wind energy: “We invited them to a meeting. We said: ‘We know you have had concerns about this, why don’t you come and find out more about it?’ And they did!”

But there is one form of local opposition to energy which could actually boost the appeal of community renewables. The last year has seen rising concern over the potential impact of shale gas – arguably one of the world’s least sustainable fuel sources. The Co-operative has already started supporting local groups campaigning against its development in their areas. For Paul Monaghan, Head of Social Goals and Sustainability, that creates an opportunity for an alternative energy narrative. “Say you have a situation where local people are alarmed about the possibility of a shale gas fracking rig turning up on their doorstep. You can use that to open up conversations about other possibilities, one of which might be community renewables.” Though, he adds, you need to be sensitive. “People have been fed a series of lies and myths about the shortcomings of renewables. So you’d be naïve if you simply expected a reaction along the lines of, ‘Oh great, I don’t want a well pad but I’d love a windmill!’ It’s more a case of saying: ‘We agree with you; we don’t think shale gas is the way forward; would you like us to help you look at alternatives?’”

“You find yourself looking for the ‘lightning rod’ issue which can catalyse action on renewables”, says Will Dawson. “In Germany, it was Chernobyl. In the UK, it could be shale gas.”

But the simplest argument for community renewables is probably that straightforward sense of ownership. As one of the supporters of Green Energy Nayland, the group which came together to put solar panels on the roof of that Suffolk school, says: “The children are very aware of the fact that the money to do this came from in and around Nayland, not from some big company somewhere else. If you own it, you care about it; you want to stick up for it.”

“It’s the difference between having something done to you, and choosing to do it for yourself.”

Martin Wright is Editor in Chief of Green Futures.

A new report, Co-operative renewable energy in the UK: a guide to this growing sector, by Rebecca and Jenny Willis, is available as a free download from Co-operatives UK.

Top photo: Martin Wright

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