Community Power: An Alternative Pathway to a Renewable Future

11/04/2012 14:25 | Updated 10 June 2012
  • Michael Townsend Founder and CEO of Earthshine, business transformation leader, writer, speaker and lecturer

The cost of heating and powering our homes has risen drastically in the last few years. Since 2008, domestic heating oil has doubled in price. Only slightly less dramatic, gas and electricity prices have taken since around 2003 to achieve the same notable feat. It is no surprise that fuel poverty is on the increase, up from one-in-five, to one-in-four households in the UK.

Sadly, this situation is likely to get much worse. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently considered likely scenarios for oil price increases of 60% in the short-term, and 200-600% within twenty years. The question is when, rather than if oil and fossil fuels more widely, become unaffordable.

The problem is that conventional sources of energy are declining in availability and becoming more expensive. Production from known oil and gas reserves will fall by around 40-60% by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. Furthermore, as WWF highlights, if we continue to depend on fossil fuels it will mean substantially higher and more volatile energy costs, along with increasing energy security issues including supply disruptions, accidents and disputes. Nuclear may be a part of the answer, but the investment is expensive and takes many years to deliver, let alone any concerns for safety, and dealing with the long-term effects of waste. Not much to look forward to, then.

But, there is some good news. Renewable energies are becoming more affordable, more widely available, and more popular, despite some of the noise to the contrary. Indeed, Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist, recently highlighted the fact that solar energy costs are reducing, on average, by 7% each year.

Given the upward cost trend of conventional, fossil fuels and the downward trend in renewable energy costs, it becomes a matter of when, not if, we reach the tipping point at which renewables, even without subsidy, become more affordable than dwindling conventional sources. Hopefully we will reach this transition before a rather more disturbing tipping point, where climate change becomes irreversible.

A great number of pioneering individuals are already taking the leap, investing in renewable energies, and reaping a range of benefits as they do so: with income from feed-in-tariffs (hopefully reasonably stable for a while), reducing whole life energy costs and long-term supply risks. And on top of that, they also get that satisfying feeling that one can only achieve through being a little more self-sufficient - less dependent on a creaking system. The only real downside, especially in these times, is the need for a degree of upfront-investment, drawn from one's savings, additional borrowing (not easy, these days), through the New Green Deal, or various other installer-led finance schemes. Going it alone can appear daunting, and initially expensive.

But there is another way; another approach to meeting the energy challenge, and one that generates a whole host of benefits - the community approach to energy production.

The Rough Guide to Community Energy (TRG2CE), written by Duncan Clark & Malachi Chadwick, provides an excellent introduction to this important topic, for all householders and community organisers alike. Sponsored by leading advocate of sustainable living, Marks & Spencer, its goal is to Influence at community level and enable thousands of UK households to come together and save money while securing energy supplies, and reducing carbon emissions. A worthy aim.

TRG2CE provides a good, concise explanation of the key concepts, including some essential context on energy in UK, and some charts and insights covering the various sources of carbon emissions, and the range of different renewable options available.

TRG2CE is full of good principles and sound advice: from the nitty-gritty of finding ways to reduce energy consumed by the community (draught-busting workshops, what a great idea), before exploring how to develop an appropriate scheme, that produces only enough energy to meet real community needs; an important reminder in our high-energy, gadget-driven lifestyles. Towards the end of the book, the authors outline a six-stage approach to making it all happen, including fundraising, dealing with planning issues, design and project delivery.

But TRG2CE is not just designed to explain what community energy projects are, and how people can set one up, but also to celebrate and showcase the pioneering schemes launched so far in the UK. Case study examples are found throughout: Low Carbon West Oxford sounds fascinating; as does Findhorn's biomass boiler, which provides renewable heat to a range of community buildings, through burning woodchip waste from a local sawmill, with waste ash added to compost to fertilise crops. Driving towards a circular economy; saving carbon and around £12,000/year on heating bills.

There is also a very good section on why and how to deal with energy at the community level, and one that inspires collective action. This is one of the key points highlighted by Clark & Chadwick; the opportunity that community level engagement really provides for influencing real change, perhaps better than fragmented individual efforts, or trying to influence politicians to act, with their inevitable short-term horizons. For me, aside from the useful summaries, this is the central magic of this Guide - community action feels like something we have almost lost in UK, but may actually provide a way to unlock the challenge of how we really get to a sustainable future. This Guide is all about people coming together, and sharing challenges and ideas, to define their own futures. This is a powerful message.

In summary, TRG2CE does a great job in raising awareness of the options available for renewable energy, and provides good case study insights on how others have been successful. It does cover a lot of ground in its 96 mini-pages, absolutely packed with useful explanations, tips, ideas, examples and signposts.

It would not be possible to cover everything within a small volume, and readers looking to go to the next level will probably want more guidance on the execution stage (in particular for dealing with supply markets and commercials), but within the space available Clark & Malachi do an excellent job; explaining key concepts so concisely, in a way that is readily understandable by the lay person.

For those starting out on their journey, or perhaps interested in becoming more aware in this increasingly important area, The Rough Guide to Community Energy is a must. It confirms that it is possible for people to do something, and inspires collective action - something that has been lacking from our landscape in recent years.

So what can you do? Well, for a first step, you can download or order a free copy of The Guide, then read, reflect, share and engage with others in your own community. The rest is up to you...