Corbyn's Plan For Local Renewable Energy Could Raise Community Energy To A New Level

14/09/2016 09:10
Jane Barlow/PA Wire

New Labour kicked off Britain's journey to a low carbon economy in earnest with the Climate Change Act in 2008. It approached this transformation as primarily a technical, managerial challenge. This was a terrible miscalculation. Treating energy transition as a conversation between government and big business ignores the critical role the public must play in this epic project. Yet the scale and speed of the necessary transformation means involving the public in ways that go well beyond mere consent; we need to be active participants in this process.

We're not just talking about changing light bulbs and loft insulation here. An energy system dominated by renewables will be a decentralised one; giant, distant thermal power plants will be a thing of the past. This means far more of us will have to live alongside the equipment that is generating the power we all need. A shift to renewable energy supply will also need to be mirrored by a shift to smart demand, using more power when it is abundant and less when it isn't. These and other coming changes represent a fundamental shift in the public's relationship with the energy system, and far too little thought has been given to this by most politicians.

A key part of the challenge for Government here is finding sensible ways to share the rewards - as well as the costs - of this transition with the people. At the moment we all pay to subsidise renewables via levies on our energy bills, but most of this money flows out of our neighbourhoods, regions and ultimately the nation, to end up lining the pockets of remote shareholders of multinational utilities. Britain's proud status as the global market leader in offshore wind masks the fact that most of this infrastructure is built and owned by far-sighted Scandinavians.

Denmark and Germany's decarbonisation experiences show clearly that an effective and successful energy transition must be bottom-up as well as top-down - and that local energy co-ops can be an ideal way to drive this. Because of their close involvement in Germany's 'Energywiende', a staggering 92% of Germans continue to support their transition to renewables. Polling here consistently shows that the British public love renewable energy too and generally want to see more of it; if it's community owned, then we're also happy to live alongside it (including wind farms); and if it will lower our energy bills, then we are even keen to invest in it ourselves.

Whilst I am delighted to see Corbyn's recognition that fracking is not an appropriate solution to Britain's energy problems, in a world where local people are in control of development in their own neighbourhoods there would be no need to ban it: no British community will ever volunteer to be fracked. As 10:10's work with trailblazing Sussex energy cooperative Repower Balcombe has shown, when communities are given the choice of how to meet their own energy needs, they choose renewables.

But Corbyn's plan to help local renewable energy cooperatives supply power directly to local people could raise community energy to a completely new level. Imagine if the more renewable energy you had in your local area, the lower your energy bills became; who wouldn't want to live near a community wind, solar or hydro plant then? Furthermore, balancing local demand and supply in this way has wider system benefits, relieving pressure on the grid and helping smooth out the bumps on the road to a fully renewable future.

The renewable, decentralised energy future described in Corbyn's manifesto was once considered a pipedream, but it is now the mainstream view of where we are headed, endorsed by establishment voices from the National Infrastructure Commission to the National Grid to Energy UK - the trade body that represents the interests of the Big Six. But to realise this future in a way that citizens and consumers will accept and welcome, Governments need to do much more to include us on the journey. Corbyn's dream of 1000 new energy co-operatives and 200 local energy suppliers is the boldest pitch yet for how to start doing that.