New models of community energy

Credit: Bristol Energy Cooperative
North Yorkshire County Council’s recent decision to approve Third Energy Ltd’s application to begin exploratory fracking in Kirby Misperton (by a majority vote of seven councillors to four) was seen by some as riding roughshod over the democratic process – 36 individual representations were made in support of the application, while 4420 were made against.  
On the same day, closer to home, there was news that Bristol Energy Cooperative would soon become the largest generator of community energy in the UK with the development of a 4.2 MW solar farm in Lawrence Weston.
The two organisations could not be further apart. While Third Energy Ltd is a recently registered private equity company with all shares held in house and likely backed by a parent oil and gas company (Third Energy UK Gas Ltd), Bristol Energy Cooperative is a community owned cooperative that has financed solar developments through community share offers, funding from the local council and ethical banks. Although at this stage we don’t know how Third Energy would finance any fracking activities – there is no reason why it couldn’t make a community share offer – Bristol Energy Cooperative has demonstrated with its existing solar developments a way to generate new electricity generation that is participative and engaging rather than exclusionary and remote.
That is not to say that the cooperative model provides all the answers; questions over who has money and time to invest/participate remain. Given the explosion of energy cooperatives and community benefit societies over the last few years, such models are clearly striking a cord with communities around the UK. Nevertheless, as a result of recent cuts in subsidies, we are now entering a period of uncertainty. Many community energy groups are waiting for prices of technology to fall and/or major planning decisions to be made. However, it is unlikely that that is the last we see of community energy organisations, many are working hard to function in the new harsher environment; devising novel models to develop renewable energy in ways that give communities more say.
What these new models might look like is still very much up in the air. With the introduction of Bristol Energy Company and Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, it might be that we see more collaboration between community energy groups and local councils (or their energy companies) drawing on both their relative strengths to leverage the necessary finance and public support, or we might see larger community energy organisations refocus their efforts by offering direct energy connections (private wire developments) to high energy consumers. There may also be a trend towards scaling-up and turning themselves into energy supply companies or cooperative services providers, and then there are partnerships taking place with traditional energy supply companies.
Whichever models come to thrive in the coming years, there is a growing acceptance that communities should have more, not less, say over how energy is generated at the local level. And with the introduction of Neighbourhood Plans (through the Localism Act 2011) there is a potential regulatory channel that local communities can employ to continue to pursue transparent and open decision-making. If such devolution continues, it seems likely that we will see more active, not less active, communities in all things energy in the years to come.

This blog has been written by University of Bristol Cabot Institute member Jack Nicholls, a PhD student in Law and Sociology, Policy and International Studies (SPAIS), who researches renewable energy development at the local scale. He has no financial interests in either Bristol Energy Cooperative or Third Energy Ltd.  

Jack Nicholls

This blog has also been featured on the Big Green Week blog.   Big Green Week runs from 11 June in Bristol and there are lots of exciting events to attend.  Check out the official website

The Cabot Institute is hosting a special Big Green Week event on 15 June on Nicaragua’s progress towards 90% renewable energy. Full details and tickets can be found online.

Poverty, energy and social justice

On June 18th, as part of Big Green Week, the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute hosted an event entitled ‘Poverty, energy and Social Justice’, at Hamilton House in Stokes Croft.

‘Social justice’ relates to making sure that current and future generations can fulfil their needs, whatever they may be, to live life to an acceptable standard. The term is often linked to ensuring that human rights are maintained and that equality is promoted within society. ‘Energy poverty’ is “a lack of access to modern energy services, defined as access to electricity and clean cooking facilities” (International Energy Agency).  In the UK, a household is said to be in ‘fuel poverty’ “if more than 10% of its income is spent on fuel, to maintain a satisfactory heating regime” (Department of Energy & Climate Change, 2013).

Definitions covered, the first part of the event involved presentations from three speakers which provided an overview of poverty, energy and social justice at a variety of scales, introduced various interesting themes and shared some surprising statistics.

Simon Roberts, CSE

Firstly, Simon Roberts, Chief Executive at the Centre for Sustainable Energy, provided a national perspective on poverty, energy and social justice. The presentation brought up some interesting comparisons between the highest and lowest income households in the UK. It turns out that households with the top 10% of income emit around 16 tonnes of carbon per person per year, with aviation being a major contributor to that, whilst households with the lowest 10% of incomes emit just 5 tonnes of carbon per person per year, almost entirely from fuel and energy for their homes. It was pointed out that the lower income households emit so little largely because they can’t afford the fuel rather than because they have chosen to live low carbon lifestyles.

Energy policies, such as ‘feed-in tariffs’, in which energy companies will pay you and reduce your bills if you produce renewable or ‘green’ energy in your home, do not consider social justice or energy poverty, in that it is only the reasonably well-off – those with investable capital, that can afford such schemes. This has lead to the lower income households emitting less carbon, contributing to the cost of energy policies (like feed-in tariffs) through their bills and benefiting from the policies the least.  In fact, it has been found that current energy policies have lead to the highest income households receiving reductions in their energy bill of around 12%, whilst the lowest income families are only receiving reductions of 7%. Considering how much more the lower income households could benefit from those reductions, it seems incredibly unfair that current energy policies end up benefitting those that need the reductions least. I didn’t get the impression that this outcome was aimed for by policy makers, but rather that energy policies really do need to be re-assessed so that they benefit those that need it most.

Next up was Mareike Schmidt, the Strategic Energy Programme Manager at Bristol City Council, who provided a more Bristol-centric view on matters. Mareike highlighted that, whilst there is no obligation for councils to engage with energy policy, Bristol City Council is very much eager to do so. Although funding is limited, BCC specifically would like to decrease energy bills in the city, increase jobs in the environment sector and keep energy-related money in Bristol – hopefully addressing both energy poverty and social justice in the process.

The final presentation of the evening was given by Dr Karen Bell, from the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, who provided us all with an international perspective. Dr Bell argued that energy prices cannot rise as this would not only make getting electricity even more unattainable for those that already don’t have access to it, but it would increase the number of people, globally, who live without energy by making it unaffordable to a greater proportion of the population. Some of the options left for dealing with energy poverty then appear to be the uptake of renewable energy, the reduction of energy consumption (by decreasing emissions from non-essential things, rather than making the poor reduce their consumption) or the redistribution of wealth amongst society – moving towards a more equal and ‘just’ society.

Dr Bell explained that inequality in society leads to greater consumption, as the people with the least want to have the same things are those in higher income households, leading to more consumption, more waste, and increases in behaviours such as the consumption of meat and flying around the world. By redistributing wealth within society, perhaps consumption would decrease as people may feel that they ‘need’ fewer material things when they compare themselves to others, more people would be able to afford adequate fuel to achieve a reasonable standard of living and it would even benefit the environment.

This idea of addressing inequality, rather than energy poverty directly, was one of the most memorable ideas of the evening for me; a number of other members of the audience commented on this as well.

Having gone in with very little knowledge of energy policy, poverty or social justice, I came out much more aware of all three and feeling quite enlightened, with a new perspective on problem solving in the context of society – sometimes the seemingly obvious solution (energy policy) is not the most appropriate way of going about dealing with an issue in society (e.g. energy poverty). Sometimes we need to go right back to the cause of a societal issue (inequality) to fix the symptoms.  Hopefully we will begin to see change in this direction over the next couple of decades.

This blog has been written by Sarah Jones, a Geography PhD student at the University of Bristol.

Sarah Jones, University of Bristol