Energy How to Motivate the Transition to Community Energy

How to Motivate the Transition to Community Energy

Karl Dickinson
Enthusiastic about real change that impacts real lives. Believer in the power of the individual; it can make all the difference. I enjoy connecting with people who have the wildest ideas and the enthusiasm to bring them to life.

Community energy is an agent of decarbonisation. Transition in the sector is gaining momentum. How can we motivate people to get involved and maintain that trajectory? We asked Éva Goudouneix, Community Development Manager with Repowering London, how she approaches her work with London’s locals.

Stakeholder Engagement – Advice from the Expert

Currently, Éva coordinates seven community energy (CE) co-ops across London. It’s down to her to get people on board, “whether it is as investors in the projects or as directors or volunteers”. But these can often be disparate individuals; so how does our expert advise we get community members engrossed to create that all-important co-op?

Choose Your Moments

Éva’s job, she says underplaying it somewhat, is to chat.

At “markets and fairs and neighbourhood meetings and tenant residence associations and festivals and community events”. Basically, anywhere there’s a chance to encounter and talk to people and create “a movement in the borough”. Taking any chance to make noise, attract attention, increase public interest: that’s how Éva engages others. And that’s when community-based energy projects get off the ground.

“In very practical terms, that means finding an exciting way to talk about the projects, for people to get involve, and finding a site to install solar panels on.”

Share the Energy

When the project comes to fruition, locals will see the rooftop solar PVs pride of place in the neighbourhood. They may even have helped install them. It’s tangible, but that’s at the end. What about the start?

For some, the tangible angle is fulfilled by giving them a chance to “own and generate energy themselves”. Éva says it is one of the most effective ways to “bring them on board”.

This is why CE programmes usually include a share offer, which promises a small return for investors – about 3%. But this option is restricted to those with disposable income. What about the marginalised groups: low-income households, and those deep in energy poverty?

The Community Benefits

At the heart of the community energy transition is a social benefit beyond just decarbonisation. It’s the collective coming together to fund local projects that level equity, feed the hungry, and provide energy for those outpriced of this essential resource for a comfortable and dignified lifestyle. Those unable to bankroll the project have the chance to do some good, whether they personally gain or not. That motivates.

We’ve got the social benefits of community energy covered in more detail in our Notable Cities article on London.

Reassurance

Making the necessary advice, guidance, support, and expertise easily available gives community energy newbies a feeling of security. Advocate groups like the members of Community Energy England provide exactly this.

Being able to rely on tested systems and templates and workflows, and the people and professionals who have the skills and experience to hand, gives energy ‘civilians’ confidence in the process. It ensures they are not fully responsible or making the transition in isolation. Therefore, they are more likely to make the step.

We Are the Champions

Volunteers are the cornerstone of the programme. It’s important for project managers to recognise this. This appreciation could be what makes them see the project through to the end, even when the process gets protracted and challenging.

Location, Location, Generation

So, we’ve nobbled a handful of people to form a co-op. Next, we need a suitable site. When the group agrees on one, they’ll need to convince the property owners to allow the project to proceed. What’s the secret to success?

Ask Around

When you have a site or public building you want to target, ask if the co-op members know someone involved. Maybe they work there, live there, or the owner is a family friend. Use them as a conduit to establish a connection with the site’s decision-makers. Their involvement acts as a testimonial; it builds two-way trust between the co-op and the property. This facilitates communication and progress.

The fact that Community Benefit Societies like Éva’s even do all the hard technical work is a good piece of leverage.

Protect the Public Purse

“Because the panels are funded by the local people, or all the investors”, Éva says, “the fact that it doesn’t cost anything must be a good selling point”. It makes sense. These places need electricity, so they may as well make use of the 5% or 10% discount CE schemes offer.

The fact that solar panels or wind generators are pre-paid by the community can be an issue. “Sometimes the problem is it sounds too good to be true.”

Arms-length contact can sometimes attract enough attention: unsolicited emails and sending flyers. But follow up with human contact as soon as possible to prevent this from being dismissed as spam.

The Site-First Approach

“Community sites and schools, they are all so pressured to take steps to do things about energy and climate change”, Éva is aware. CE offers an opportunity to meet climate protection targets.

So, what if we start with a foot in the door? The conversion to community energy may be a passion project for a school governor, for example. Or someone on a resident’s committee that learnt of another board that benefitted from the transition already. Or possibly the council has a building they’re keen to upgrade (and save money on – city administrations do love that).

‘What If…?’ – A CityChanger’s Final Words of Advice

Image credit: Éva Goudouneix

We asked Éva for her other insider’s tips, especially for people that are interested in community energy but don’t know where to start.

Look Local

First, find something suitable. “There are a lot of projects out there.” She suggests getting “involved in something that’s nearby”. It’s easy to access and it benefits your community.

For option, “look up on the Community Energy England website, alternatively Energy Scotland” for a list of existing organisations. For the capital, “there’s also Community Energy London”, with this easy-to-use point-and-click map. “I would just recommend getting in touch with them.”

For more jumping-off points check out:

Be Patient

“So many people are just doing it for free because they believe that it works.”

 “A lot of groups are mostly set up by volunteers. So, it might happen that they don’t always have the time to get back to people quickly.” But you can be sure they’ll appreciate your enquiry.

Think Before You Leap

“I would recommend,” says Éva, “if you want to volunteer for a project, it’s good to go with a little idea of what you could do to help”.

The following pointers will help you get the most from playing your part:

  • Read up on the project before you contact them – does it seem a good fit? Does it match what you want to achieve?
  • Consider what you’re capable of – what skills do you possess? These can range from anything technical to soft or communication skills. Be ready to tell the team when asked where your strengths lie.
  • Be honest. Your tasks will be tailored to match your skills. It’s important to get your role right so you enjoy it and stick with it.
  • Think about time, too. “It’s important to know how much you can commit and really try and commit to that.” Coordinators understand you have work, family, and other responsibilities, and that’s fine.

Stick to these steps and “you become a very helpful force in the group”.

The Community Energy Transition in a Nutshell

Taking any opportunity for public engagement and keeping a focus on the clear and very real social and environmental benefits sets the stride for a successful community energy transition. Getting the site right and players on side early on paves the way. Ensuring stakeholders are aware of the importance of their role, the extent of their commitment, and know they are sufficiently supported will motivate them even in troubling times and keep team retention high. Put all this in place and even the staunchest climate change denier would struggle to keep clear of this innovation in energy.

Community Energy England has a very helpful how-to that provides an introduction and useful links to topics we’ve not covered here, including governance, ethical issues, and the role of data in community energy. Feel free to check it out.

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