While leaders debate, community energy is tackling the climate emergency
This post is by Emma Atkins of Repowering London.
“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I want you to act.”
When 16 year old Greta Thunberg spoke to the World Economic Forum in January 2019, it was five months after her first school strike to protest the inaction around the climate emergency outside the Swedish parliament. Millions of school children followed in her footsteps, sparking the movement Fridays for Future. Last Friday was the world’s biggest climate strike ever; and, this time, the adults were there too.
Now the strike is over for the time being, the placards have been set down and business has returned to normal. But what immediate and tangible action can people take to get the low carbon future they want?
Community energy is system change
One powerful solution is community energy. Green Alliance has previously outlined how community energy can play an important role in managing more flexible supply and distribution for the grid, among other crucial services. But the benefits are also felt locally.
Community energy embodies the sentiment ‘system change, not climate change’. Not only do community energy projects generate clean, green electricity, but they are often democratically run and produce financial, educational and social benefits for the local community.
The model established by Repowering London, for instance, includes paid internships, home energy audits and a community fund into the projects it helps to build. This means that young people in the area of a project can benefit from work experience, residents save on energy bills, and tens of thousands of pounds are returned to the community for their use. As projects are situated in deprived areas of London, this model is an example of how community energy can foster social equity for a just energy transition.
It could play a bigger role
The Committee on Climate Change’s report in May emphasised the urgency of expanding the UK’s renewable energy generation capabilities to meet the 2050 net zero target. But this has yet to be translated into a concrete plan. The much awaited energy white paper, expected to draw out a more detailed roadmap, now appears indefinitely delayed. Community energy could play a much bigger role in decarbonising the economy but it needs government support. Unfortunately change has been slow, and even regressive.
Back in March, the government closed the feed-in tariff (FiT) which offered owners of renewable energy installations a specific tariff for supplying energy to the grid. This spelled disaster for many community energy groups, for whom FiTs were vital for project feasibility. Since 2015, the sector has seen a staggering fall in new projects.
Nevertheless, some organisations are still thriving. Thanks to falling prices of renewable technology like solar panels and batteries, some community groups and citizens are taking matters into their own hands and installing low carbon energy assets.
Everyone can get involved
The UK is gradually stepping away from fossil fuels towards a low carbon future. It is crucial that everyone feels like they have a part in this new energy system and that it doesn’t just emulate the system of the past, with a handful of corporations dominating the generation and distribution of electrical power.
But not everyone can afford to buy solar panels, heat pumps or electric cars. The upfront costs are high, and it can take decades to start seeing a return on investment. With community energy, the less wealthy can participate in and benefit from clean energy.
Projects run as co-operatives, like community benefit societies, enable people to become a member after investing as little as £1. There is a policy of one member, one vote, regardless of how much a person invests. Each member has a say in how the project should operate, who should direct it and how the community fund should be spent.
A solution that isn’t waiting for politicians to act
While the international debate rolls on, community energy groups are acting now. Lambeth Community Solar, for instance, is building solar installations on two schools in south London. While their students were striking for the climate last Friday, the share offer for investments opened to anyone that wants to invest in their future and the future of the planet. This is one climate change solution that doesn’t need to wait for politics to catch up to make a difference.
[Image from Repowering London’s Banister House solar project in Hackney, east London]