Changing the way communities use energy – 3 examples (and a lesson from Ryanair)

This is a guest post by Prashant Vaze, Chief Economist of Consumer Focus and author of ‘Repowering Communities’ and the ‘Economical Environmentalist’.

How many airlines can say they have induced most of their customers to check in on-line, print off all their paperwork, board punctually, and curtail the holiday-goers natural inclination to pack their kitchen sink? This exemplar boot camp of behaviour change is also regarded, at least by its own estimation, as the country’s most popular airline.

As an environmentalist, albeit an economical one, it gives me little pleasure to reveal Ryanair as the firm. But the company gets the basics right. The planes are rarely late, its megaphone PR is clear in setting out its no-frills stall and its website is actually surprisingly clear about its nitpicking charges. And though its chief executive is rude its staff are friendly.

Policy wonks like nothing better than pulling policy levers to deploy sustainable energy technologies. But policy and technology cannot by themselves deliver sustainable energy use. The missing piece from the jig-saw is people: without people’s acquiescence no democratic politician will enact the new law, and new technologies will be poorly implemented.

In our book Stephen Tindale and I look around the world and to find out communities and projects which have succeeded in getting large numbers of people to use energy more sustainably.

Intelligent energy efficiency
In Sacramento California the local energy company SMUD has convinced an astonishing 16 percent of its customers to take out loans to finance the reduction of their energy use. This is even more remarkable when you consider that SMUD’s interest rate is unsubsidised. But SMUD gets the basics right. It is a municipal company run by a board that represents the customers and is trusted. It has developed intelligent programs to reduce electricity demand: Shade Trees and Cool Roofs (roof tiles that look like normal tiles but reflect sunlight) to reduce air-conditioning. It ensures that local tradesmen have the appropriate training in energy efficiency skills, offer 2 year warranties and correct licences enhancing customer’s confidence in the technologies. These tradesmen have become a motivated sales force for the programs.

From suspicious communities to ardent supporters
Adopting sustainable energy behaviour isn’t just about doing stuff, it is also about not obstructing others. Our society needs to construct wind farms and apply insulation to leaky old buildings. But one of the biggest obstacles to low carbon technologies is the opposition of vocal minorities through planning. BBC’s documentary Windfarm Wars is about the construction of the 18 MW Den Brook Wind Farm in Devon. The planning process has gone on for seven years – longer than the Second World War – greatly adding to the cost.

However, suspicious communities can be turned into ardent supporters if they can be taken through the journey themselves. When Hockerton Housing Project (a group of green residents) in built a small 5kW wind turbine it took them five years to clear planning. They decided to do things differently the second time. They leafleted each of the 55 houses in the village to invite them to a meeting to look at ways of reducing the village’s carbon footprint. Rather than going to their community with their solution they went with a shared problem. Most people instinctively want to do things to help the environment and simply engaging the community on this shared objective meant the discussion started on a better footing.

The community devised a number of ways of making the village more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable including the erection of a second larger wind turbine. Support for the new wind turbine wasn’t unanimous but only four of the villagers opposed the plan and it cleared planning in just eight months. Many of the villagers invested in the project themselves.

Laying down the law
Not all energy technologies are sufficiently local that the affected parties can gather together in the village hall. Sometimes the most effective scale of deployment is across the whole city. Most Danish cities rely on district heating systems to warm their homes and offices. These city-wide networks of pipes require city-wide planning and investment.

Even though it’s in everyone’s best interest to make the switch eventually, how do we ensure that someone who’s just bought a new boiler or is not interested in the idea and wants to avoid the nuisance of digging up the streets, doesn’t hold up plans? Instead of relying on voluntary behaviour change Denmark introduced a tough law in 1979: the Heat Law which allows local authority to plan and then arrange for the delivery of its heating needs.

This bans the use of electric heating and means that customers have to connect to the heat network within ten years of it being laid. Because the heat authority is a monopoly there are tough rules on the heat network to ensure that it does not charge consumers excessively, or operate inefficiently. In practice most heat network companies are either co-operatively owned by customers or by the municipality itself.

Moving to a sustainable energy system is about change.  Not just change in the way we use energy but a change in how communities make decisions. Through courting people’s enthusiasm for making a difference, for making things better, this change can be a seen as a virtue and not a burden.

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