Making people feel part of the solution by Josie Phillips

All photos by Julian Preece

Community-owned energy generation accounts for less than 1% of the UK’s total renewable energy capacity. But the potential of this small and mighty sector to engage people in finding solutions simply isn’t captured in the data. Decarbonising, creating new green jobs, alleviating the cost of living, empowering communities to act on climate change: these are just a few of the solutions that community energy is already delivering. So why are the odds so stacked against the sector?

 

The sense of excitement at last week’s Energy Transition Conference in Bristol was clear. Co-organised by Community Energy England (CEE) and Bristol Energy Network (BEN), this was the sector’s first in-person event since 2019. It was a great opportunity for sector newcomers to get to grips with the many acronyms of community energy and explore some of its more complex themes, such as low carbon heat infrastructure and smart local energy systems. Delegates also celebrated the opportunity to reconnect and share learnings over the past few years.

 

Kicking off the day, Philip Coventry, Acting Co-CEO of Community Energy England (CEE), highlighted findings from the recent annual State of the Sector report, and emphasised the impact that community energy organisations are having. Energy efficiency continues to play a key role in the sector’s activities, with 123 organisations delivering services such as building improvement, advice and education, and the distribution of direct funding for energy efficiency. What’s more is that 71% of these organisations

provided these services free of charge, demonstrating the power of community energy to respond to the energy price crisis and rising levels of fuel poverty.

 

It’s no secret that Bristol City Council has been far more supportive of community energy than other local authorities. Labour councillor Kye Dudd spoke of Bristol’s strong record in developing partnerships with community energy groups and Bristol Energy Network, as well as the Council’s commitment to supporting policy and advocacy. In Bristol, the first city to declare a climate emergency, the One City Climate Strategy underpins the Council’s efforts to make the area carbon neutral by 2030. This includes the ambitious City Leap project, which aims to stimulate £1bn of private investment through green infrastructure like heat pumps, electric vehicle charging, smart meters, insulation and solar panels.

 

In March 2022, the Council partnered with leading American energy services company Ameresco and Swedish-state owned Vattenfall to deliver £424 million over the first five years of the City Leap project, including £4 million for community energy engagement. Speaking of the ongoing developments in Bristol’s decarbonisation plans, BEN’s Dave Tudgey highlighted that “without the commitment of the Council, we wouldn’t be where we are today.” 

 

The plenary session was closed with a powerful message from Gnisha Bevan, from Black Seeds Network – an environmental social justice network which provides a platform for environmentalists of colour to connect and grow. Gnisha explored the historic and continued leadership of people of colour in frontline environmental activism and urged attendees to consider how systemic racism and oppression have “erased the voices, bodies and stories of black, brown, and indigenous people.” Her clear call to action was to address the lack of UK environmental justice research, which is urgently needed to grow racial equality within the UK environmental movement.

 

 

Workshops delivered throughout the day gave participants the opportunity to explore some of the needs and challenges facing the sector. Some consistent themes were the sectors’ dependence on voluntary work, and how to create opportunities to share skills and knowledge. Approximately 70% of the sector is supported entirely by volunteers, so for many organisations, capacity is an ongoing and significant barrier to scaling up. It’s also one of the most common reasons for incomplete projects.

 

 

Speaking to workshop participants, BEN’s Rachel Moffat asked: “how can we expect people to share their skills for free? And how can we build capacity without funding?” While there are no obvious answers (since funding to bridge the skills gap is majorly lacking), knowing who to ask for support is key. This was echoed by Shannon Jackson, CEE’s Networks and Learnings Officer, who emphasised the importance of collating knowledge and leveraging existing networks. She signposted participants to Lumio, an online forum and chatroom for CEE members to connect and share their experiences. “It’s so important for us to keep challenging our own perceptions of what we think our skillsets are, and not be afraid to share our failures,” said Mark Gale, Member Director of Low Carbon Gordano.

 

 

The afternoon’s keynote speech came from Darren Jones, Labour MP for Bristol North West, who stated that the “continued lack of support from Government is a major challenge,” but that progress made “represents the sheer determination of the community energy sector.” As Chair of the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee, he has a key role to play in the decarbonisation of the energy sector. Darren Jones supports the Local Electricity Bill, which would enable electricity generators to become local electricity suppliers and overcome another key obstacle facing community energy. Darren explained that the Government hasn’t given enough time to push this Bill through, but instead highlighted that the Energy Security Bill, which was announced in May as part of the Queen’s Speech, represents the “last major opportunity for energy debate before the next general election,” and that it will be “imperative for the Government to get it through this Parliament.”

 

The event closed with an expert panel discussion chaired by Helen Seagrave, Interim Chair of Community Energy England. Panellists shared their concerns over the need to act on the climate emergency and honoured the success of community energy in catalysing action and innovation. Kate Gilmartin from the North West Energy Hub emphasised the many strengths of the community energy sector, including “convening people to collaborate and share knowledge,” as well as “circumvent barriers” and “develop replicable and scalable solutions.” Dr Andrew Garrad CBE, a pioneer of modern wind energy, stressed the need to act quickly on climate change and make a transition to renewables. Dr Garrad spoke passionately about how community energy has a unique role to play in our converging crises, and described the powerful story of Ambition Lawrence Weston, which is revolutionising community agency through onshore wind.

Political decision-making in favour of community energy would make a huge difference, but it seems the Government’s focus is not on supporting the sector. The panel praised participants of the Conference for sharing, over the course of the day, their diverse knowledge and understanding of the barriers and how to overcome them. Louise Hosegood of South West Energy Hub highlighted how the community energy sector is funding the regeneration of communities “through community benefit funding and building local networks capable at working at the intersection of our issues”. Capping off, she said “community energy is about making people feel they can be part of the solution.” As the Prime Minister of the UK changes, we hope the new leader will help create a legislative framework that does exactly that: allow individuals and communities to be part of our energy solutions.

 

Dr Josie Phillips is an independent researcher and writer based in Bristol. Her work covers global policy on tropical commodities, supply chains, climate and consumption, among others. Josie has over 10 years experience working with NGOs, academia and industry. She firmly believes in community energy as a solution to many of our societal problems.  

 

Here is my linked in for an enquiries: 

https://www.linkedin.com/mwlite/in/josie-phillips-068980106