We can do more to make community energy more mainstream

Opinion piece by CSE’s Harriet Sansom

3 May 2018

Harriet Sansom recently authored a report that looked at how more lower-income communities could benefit from local energy projects. It's an issue close to CSE's heart. Here she explains how moving community energy out of its middle-income niche might be achieved ...

In low-income communities, community energy activities rarely emerge directly from the grassroots – that is from, residents coming together to start a initiative, be it a solar project, a collective buying scheme or similar.

Instead, what we tend to see is  intermediary organisations - often very local ones, deeply embedded in the immediate neighbourhood - who provide the catalyst for this activity. Two good examples of these, local to us at CSE, are Ambition Lawrence Weston and Knowle West Media Centre.

The contrast with more affluent areas is significant. Here, the greater levels of skills and resources – including money and time – mean that these communties can more easily generate their own energy projects, often quite complex, involving considerable amounts of cash and taking several years to come to fruition. It was mainly these kinds of groups, rich in community-level capacity, who were ready and able to take advantage of the policies and subsidies which ushered in a 'golden era' of community energy schemes from 2008 to 2016.

And where, alongside these policy and fiscal mechanisms, there were local and national support programmes to encourage community energy – such as those that CSE ran, like UCEF and Green Open Homes – this has also relied on community-level organisational capacity and awareness to take advantage of the opportunities offered.

None of this is to say that there aren't community energy initiatives in low-income areas - our report lists a dozen great examples. But it does mean that a different approach is needed to make community energy more attractive in low income communities.

And this is why Rachel Coxcoon, our Head of Local & Community Empowerment, has been spearheading the development of action research projects like Powering Up in low-income areas, so we can begin to break down these barriers.

I believe the first step is to make community-based organisations and businesses more aware of the range of benefits community energy activities can bring, so that they might consider such a project where before they may not have done. The community energy sector has an important role in this communication. And in parallel to this, support programmes need to be designed such that dedicated capacity is directed towards low-income communities so these organisations are more able to take advantage of emerging opportunities.

There are two good conduits for this support. The first is community development and regeneration organisations who are well placed to ensure that projects address community priorities and build long-term social capital. They are embedded in and trusted by the local community, so better able to engage residents than outsiders and able to counter the idea that low-income areas ‘have bigger things to worry about’ than local energy. And the second is local community businesses who are invested in the vibrancy and success of their local community, which community energy initiatives can help build.

We'll be tweeting about this issue in the weeks and months ahead under the hashtags #CommunityEnergy

Harriet Sansom is a project manager in CSE's local and community empowerment team.

Click here to read the report on CSE's research into community energy projects in low-income areas, supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust.

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