News and Comment

The community energy revolution has already begun

Friday 14 June 2013


Ed Davey, The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, announced recently that he wants to start a community energy revolution, and he’s commissioned some research to find out how. A call for evidence asks those with an interest in, or experience of, community energy projects to tell the government what they believe motivates people to get involved.

This research is important because delivering any kind of community project is hard work: individuals argue, equipment fails, and people don’t usually work for free. There’s a considerable administrative burden which is tough for volunteers alone to cope with; you need a range of skills and legal, financial and technical knowledge, which take time and effort to scope and secure within a community. And you rely on collaborative working between many individuals from different organisations and backgrounds.

So how do you start a community energy revolution? In 2010, Dialogue by Design worked on a DECC-led project which tried to answer a similar question. The Low Carbon Communities Challenge – a research and delivery programme providing financial and advisory support to 20 ‘test-bed’ communities across England, Wales and Northern Ireland seeking to cut carbon emissions – focused specifically on the experiences and challenges encountered by communities seeking to implement low carbon initiatives and technologies.

The main finding was that community results trump carbon results, particularly when it comes to getting people involved in delivery. In practice this meant that several groups favoured solar panels on roofs because of their visual appeal, even though other less visible measures would have had a greater carbon saving potential. Since project delivery requires community support, it’s these ‘showpiece’ projects that have a much greater chance of implementation.

Furthermore, communities preferred opportunities which gave them a return on their investment over and above other ways of cutting carbon, such as energy-saving measures. Feed-In Tariffs, which pay people to generate their own electricity, provided such an opportunity. Even though the income generated was small (too small to fund other energy-generating projects in the short-term), the appeal of generating some return for the community from an initial community investment was psychologically important.

Participating communities included Cwm Clydach in Wales, Glencraig in Northern Ireland And Ladock in Cornwall,England. The communities successfully implemented a range of measures, from renewable electricity generating installations, right through to car sharing and community allotments. Their success reflects the best outcomes and ideals of the localism agenda despite the fact that they were delivered at a time when the practical carbon reduction guidance issued to communities was still vague. It is good to see that these experiences, and those of other community energy initiatives across the country, will be taken into account through this call for evidence. After all, the Secretary of State isn’t starting a community energy revolution: it’s already begun.

Fionnuala Ratcliffe is a Project Manager at Dialogue by Design, OPM’s sister company and part of the OPM Group.