Well-attended by an audience of community activists, social entrepreneurs and academics, the event heard from a distinguished panel of experts in community energy. Patrick Allcorn, from the Department of Energy and Climate Change who have recently launched the ‘Community Energy Online’ website (http://ceo.decc.gov.uk/), began by stressing that the current Government has placed a good deal of emphasis on the community energy sector and aims to move beyond the provision of small-scale grants and experimenting with a handful of pilot projects, to create a broad enabling framework giving every community the opportunity to develop their own energy projects. At the same time, he emphasised the need for the community energy sector to gather robust evidence on its effectiveness, to be able to prove that across its enormous diversity it can offer a meaningful contribution to a secure and low-carbon energy system.
Mark Shearer, co-founder of Project Dirt (www.projectdirt.com) a community website linking together over 400 environmental projects from across London, then reminded the audience of the importance of people in community-based initiatives. The only way the community energy sector could realise it’s enormous potential, he suggested, was through making connections between projects to ensure common challenges were overcome collectively. Giving examples of two successful projects from London - Ham Hydro, a community interest company that has installed hydro power turbines on a weir on the River Thames, and Juice From Your Roof, a solar buyers club in Merton – he pointed out that as much as the individual entrepreneurs and innovators themselves, it was those they engage with, who support and encourage them, their wingmen, who were vital to their success. Developing such networks and connections is thus a key challenge, but also an enormous opportunity for the community energy sector.
Chris Church, chair of the Low-Carbon Communities Network (www.lowcarboncommunities.net) repeated this emphasis on people power, arguing that so many of the environmental and sustainability success stories we now take for granted, such as renewable energy, recycling or organic food, started out as small-scale grassroots initiatives that once struggled to be taken seriously. Refusing to rest on these success stories, however, he warned the audience not to fool themselves into thinking that community energy will succeed on its own. Despite the heroic efforts of small numbers of community activists, a key challenge faced by all projects is how to engage successfully with the rest of society, with policy makers and even, potentially, with big companies.
Simon Roberts, Chief Executive of the Centre for Sustainable Energy (www.cse.org.uk) then called for a move away from an attitude of ‘I Will If You Will’ and towards one of ‘We Have, Will You?’ Whilst stressing the value of ‘community’ approaches in strengthening social cohesion and trust and in developing a sense of common purpose, he cautioned against assuming that ‘community’ was always a good thing or that community groups were always best placed to achieve things. In particular, he argued that the successful growth of community energy will not happen for nothing, it will involve enormous amounts of time, effort and money from committed groups, but that this hard work is not currently accounted for or properly valued in the mainstream energy system. For community energy to fully succeed, therefore, will demand wholesale shifts in the energy system, something that cannot be achieved without wider support.
Finally, Professor Gordon Walker, from Lancaster University, reflected on the vital role of research and the academic community in providing evidence, evaluation and insight to the community energy sector and in asking critical and challenging questions at crucial times. Reflecting on his own research on community renewables, he highlighted the irreducible diversity of the community energy sector suggesting, on the one hand, that this was a key strength and ensured projects were locally appropriate and responded to local issues and needs, but on the other, that this diversity did not fit well with the efforts of policy makers and funders to standardise rules and procedures, nor did it make the replication of success stories an easy task.
These opening statements were then followed by a lively question and answer session in which the audience were variously concerned about: the future funding challenges faced by the community energy sector, and especially the challenges of winning funding right at the outset when it was most needed but when risks were highest and the future most uncertain; the need to look beyond ‘energy’ alone and to recognise that many successful projects span across several areas and issues; the challenges of reducing absolute levels of energy consumption rather than lazily relying on technological solutions whether at the community scale or otherwise; and the need to remember that for all the good examples and best practice case studies, there are many communities who are not being engaged and that these must not be forgotten.Overall, the evening celebrated the enormous creativity, diversity and innovation of community energy projects, but reflected realistically that such groups face enormous technical, financial, legal and social challenges that cannot always be addressed alone. Does the community energy sector represent a thousand flowers blooming? Yes, definitely, but its continued flourishing will demand careful cultivation.