Start small to power up ...

16 May 2019

Ellie Stevens reflects on how offering an easy-entry, hands-on activity – like turning old tights into draught excluders – makes community energy more accessible ...

When we last reflected on progress so far in Powering Up!, we were just getting started in our efforts to spark the interest of the three communities in a possible energy project. We learned the hard way that there is little point asking residents to conceive project ideas when many of them had never heard of community energy before. We realised we needed to change tack and demonstrate what community energy action could look like in a hands-on way. This has helped to build genuine interest and motivation in each of the communities.

Three ideas we’ve tested include:

Slow cooker workshop: While people waited for their free hot meal, we had plenty of time to talk about energy. The informal nature of the event and the setting, in a local community café, meant people were happy to chat in groups. Dispersed amongst the tables, local residents talked about getting to grips with smart meters,  shared their tips for thrifty energy use and their gripes about single glazing.

Draught-proofing workshop (photo): This had a great turnout. Everyone enjoyed our crafty activity of making your own draught excluder, and were intrigued by some of the more novel low-cost ways to make your home warmer "chimney sheep" anyone? We made a real effort to promote the workshop – and sent round an extra reminder to come along on the day. And it worked: they  came, they talked about energy and they left enthused.

Household thermal-imaging surveys: These proved to have a narrower appeal, mainly to local energy experts and professionals. Two residents had their homes surveyed. They found the visual results from the surveys empowering  – one showed the results to the council (her landlord) and got them to do some improvement works to her home. But the outputs proved too technical as a means to build wider engagement in the community. The activity requires  thermal imaging kit and some specialist knowledge so it felt harder for local residents to take it on as an activity to do themselves.

By contrast, the slow cooker and the draught proofing kit are low cost, the activities easy to run, and the outputs offer immediate satisfaction, which made them more appealing to local volunteers.

In conclusion, we found that offering a simple, hands-on activity makes community energy more tangible and accessible and is an effective way to get people talking about collective action on energy. It helped individuals rethink their assumption that you need to be an expert to do this stuff. It really is easy for anyone to turn a pair of old tights into a draught excluder!

Overall, a more delivery-focused approach to initial engagement has led to increasingly meaningful and wide reaching energy conversations, though it does bring about its own challenges. There’s a constant tension between our attempts to build and keep the momentum up and our aim to build capacity amongst residents, so that they increasingly take on leadership roles for activities in their own community.

Co-delivering an event has proven a promising way of shifting the power dynamic. We recently ran a stall at a local eco-festival alongside a resident volunteer (see photo). Being surrounded by stalls run by other voluntary groups with a similar mission and realising how simple it can be to set up and run a stall meant the volunteer’s confidence grew noticeably. Since the event she’s taken things into her own hands, posting to the project Facebook page, exploring project ideas and talking to stakeholders. The event was a real turning point, so keep an eye out for more news ...

Harriet Samson blogged about Powering Up back in November last year.

This project is being funded by the Friends Provident Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

You can contact CSE's community energy team here.

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