We need to thank the people with ‘lousy timing’ who saw the future way before the rest of us. I admire Amory Lovins for not saying, ‘I told you so’ but rather continuing to support the conversation even though it must feel awfully slow because he started talking about this energy transition in the 70’s. In many ways these far sighted individuals play in bringing everyone along to share the vision they have and fill in the details.
Every project has leaders who have stepped up to create the community energy institution or community-led change. The motivations to make a difference vary enormously. They can be grounded in the local economy, the need to tackle climate change or the promise of new technologies. There’s no doubt everyone is driven to make things better and in some cases these leaders have an inspiration and impact far beyond their local community.
These people are the gold of the community energy movement and their stories are inspiring new communities every day.
We need to tell our story because it explains why we will find the best ways to manage our energy transition for our place. Everyone I met reached back beyond the immediate decade to explain their energy transition story, their community’s story and their uniqueness. Even those explaining energy transitions from the outside seek to explain the unique culture of Germany or Denmark, for example, that has given them the distinct advantage in reforming their energy systems.
In some cases we are reaching back to remind ourselves that we have benefited from our local energy resources in the past and will do so again in the future. We have made decisions together as a community in the past and will do so again.
South Australia’s story combines its make-do handiness with its socially progressive and utopian ideals. We are a place that has done quite well on very little and we find ourselves leading the country in renewable energy without having over-invested to be the leader.
In Japan and Germany, industry has been largely exempted from rising energy costs. A clear policy mind set that globally competitive industries underpin the economy and should be given the cheapest energy possible.
In places with good energy efficiency programs the delivery of these to low income consumers is seen as a way to mitigate rising energy costs. Affordability of energy is one of the big brakes that is applied to any notion that we need to change our system as fast as possible to tackle climate change. We also know that anyone on a low income is less resilient to climate change and more likely to experience the impacts if we don’t transition fast.
And as we adopt new technologies, those who can afford rooftop solar are likely to have cheaper energy than those who can’t.
An energy transition offers the possibility of a fairer energy system where the benefits are experienced locally by everyone – this is the concept behind the term energy justice. But we will need to make an enormous effort if that is truly what we want to achieve.
We need to ensure an energy transition is equitable but there are no right answers. These are big questions that go right to the heart of the conversations we need to have as a community.
There is a tension between the speediness of markets in delivering change (and enormous profits) and the work of communities to make well-informed deliberative decisions about the energy assets they rely on. The theme of democracy was repetitive throughout my journey but I saw more models of advocacy than democracy. Maintaining democratic principles is a challenge for the community energy sector as it offers the traditional energy system new ways of operating.
Australia doesn’t tend to talk about local economies and the importance of delivering energy locally, creating profits for the community and capturing the energy spend within the local economy. I was therefore surprised how consistently people raised the local economic advantages. Many people could tell me how much was spent on energy in their community. Capturing some proportion of that locally was their goal. I was particularly impressed with the statistic that for every $1m spent on solar in the USA one job is created, but spending $1m on energy efficiency creates ten jobs.
Local currencies were in place in a number of places I visited. Dresden, Totnes, the Wadebridge WREN, the Lewes pound. The most successful initiative was Bristol. You can use the Bristol pound on the bus and the former mayor took a proportion of his salary in Bristol pounds. Buy in from local businesses is key. In Dresden we talked about the different models to help businesses adopt the currency without finding themselves stuck with money they can’t use to import stock. Local economies expert Michael Shuman does not believe the local currencies model has proven itself successful yet. Nevertheless it provides a good trigger for a conversation about where your money goes and how much stays in the local economy you wish to support.
Change starts with the individual.
Making an effective difference in the system relies on understanding that there are different roles and effects. Activists need to be committed to measuring their work against the impact they are having and being prepared to try different approaches. They also need to understand that the effort can’t be sustained unless it is fun and you are working with people you care about.
But if you want to get stuck into designing the energy system of the future you have to be prepared to work with all sorts of strange bedfellows and build the relationships to work together. This requires everyone to dig deep, find ways to trust each other and to understand other perspectives.
Every change needs an institution of some form. I was struck by this in my second week when Alice Laird and I talked about the resources needed to deliver programs and the organisations and authority that needed to be constructed at the time commitments were made.
I was quite interested in self-organising forms of community interactions but despite my enthusiasm, all the community energy systems I looked at relied on firstly building a traditional organisation.
The governing forms vary, but most are solidly grounded in community decision making. The authority is built through the early successes and the relationships built with existing formal partners. And the resources flow – at the start in volunteer time and effort and then from Governments as grants for community energy, through loans because the projects are bankable and through various forms of community shares and crowdfunding.
Building the institution in the form of an organization, a partnership or other network structure is an important early step in making change happen.
I’ve returned from my Fellowship particularly interested in mapping and working at the heart of South Australia’s energy transition.
I believe there is a spectrum of activities and roles for individuals inside and outside the energy system. Activism is important to create a groundswell of community support and to lobby politicians for changes. Champions within the system are important for understanding the improvements they can make within their sphere of influence.
In the middle there are numerous examples of practical activities that build relationships across the sector and create opportunities for everyone to learn:
- The Rocky Mountain Institute runs its eLab program specifically to create the neutral space and convene workshops designing electricity systems of the future.
- The town of Schonau holds its annual general meeting at the same time as a public conference discussing energy transitions.
- The various energy academies and energy shops provide community buildings and gathering spaces as well as telling a story to the outside world and providing a welcome for visitors.
- The Bristol Energy Network brings the alternative energy sector together with community groups and they share intelligence on the energy activities of the city.
- The State of Green showcases Denmark’s clean energy sector to the world.
Below is an early attempt at the jigsaw of actors. The promise of the middle spaces is that here we can co-design the energy systems of the future. I’ve written about the importance of broadening the voices in the energy transition conversation on my blog.
Jigsaw of energy sector ‘voices’
I haven’t solved the dilemma of scale. It is clear that some ideas work best at the local scale. Small scale energy technology, such as rooftop solar, lends itself to a locally scaled solution. Microgrids offer resilience if they can hold up during a blackout and this is more likely to happen at a small neighbourhood scale. It seems likely that we will continue to build large scale renewable generation and large scale loads for some time to come.
The scale of the community involved in our energy decision making is best matched to the scale of our energy solutions. Will Australian communities step up to this challenge when we don’t have the tradition of village owned power plants?
The bicycle, the car and the aeroplane are all suited to different scale activities and for many years we have been using cars to do the bicycle’s work and maybe this is the best analogy to argue that there needs to be a greater appreciation of the local scale although it will not replace every energy system activity.
While I was on my Fellowship, South Australia closed its last coal-fired power station. In some senses we were lucky that the big decisions on extending the life of the mine or the powerstations came at a time when the economic conditions didn’t favour extension. Some communities cannot yet imagine how to bring their political conversations toward power station closure. Others are well ahead of us.
In Dresden we had representatives from Genk in Belgium, a region hard hit by the closure of coal mines and the auto industry but actively creating sustainable transitions for itself.
In Germany I was reminded that the issue has been brushed under the carpet – the system still relies heavily on coal fired power from former eastern bloc countries but most people don’t talk about it.
In Japan activists are disillusioned by plans to build up to 48 new coal fired power stations as it becomes clear much of the nuclear fleet will not be turned back on.
In Fort Collins, the city part owns a coal power station and a coal mine. This is at odds with their climate change strategy and they are actively starting the conversation about changing their energy mix. In a well-functioning market, theirs would be one of the last coal power stations to leave, being relatively new and clean. It is not clear whether the national or state system will create flexibility or whether this will hinge on the community’s decision about its energy assets and sunk investment.
The end of coal is happening, but it is not easy.
I didn’t set out to find a counterpoint to nuclear energy but it is probably unsurprising that community energy and energy movements often exist due to anti-nuclear decisions and sentiments. After all, no nuclear power stations exist at the community scale and are fully embraced by the communities in which they are located.
Denmark made its decision to diversify its energy mix in the wake of the 70’s oil crisis. A vote against nuclear at that stage was a ‘fork in the road’ decision and led toward the distributed and local energy path that the country has taken. The oldest wind turbine in the country is now painted red and white, still operating and serves as an icon of that period. A group of teachers and students built the turbine themselves to prove the country didn’t need nuclear and if the aerospace industry wouldn’t fix the problem, citizens could.
The German Energiewende (energy transition) was a response to the decision to decommission nuclear power plants. The policy appeared to be faltering but in 2011 the Japanese tsunami sealed its fate and bolstered the country’s anti-nuclear sentiment.
Japan turned off all its nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 tsunami. The graph to the left shows a seeming permanent drop in peak demand as the country has coped with the loss of almost 20% capacity overnight. The decision to re-energise some of the nuclear fleet has been met with community opposition. The decision has been taken at a national level but provincial governments are required to provide operational approval and have been withholding this. At least one Mayor has been voted out on the basis of support for nuclear energy. Most community energy initiatives in Japan exist to provide an alternative to nuclear which many now think is unsafe.
Burlington, Vermont made its decision to build and contract renewable energy plants almost 20 years ago when it took an opportunity to get out of a nuclear contract. It is now powered by 100% renewable energy and has made the transition affordably.
And the biggest anti-nuclear statement comes from the energy rebels of Schonau. In response to the Chernobyl disaster, this small town decided to buy back its electricity grid and gain some control over where their electricity was sourced from. Many years later in the mid 90’s, after numerous local votes and a last minute crowdfunding campaign they were successful. They are now considered the pioneers of the movement.
South Australia’s community is currently in a conversation about providing a dump facility for the nuclear waste from the world’s power stations. Many overseas activists don’t appreciate that we haven’t relied on nuclear power but rather on an abundance of fossil fuels. We have an important history as a community in opposing nuclear power, opposing but then accepting uranium mines and opposing nuclear waste dumps over the past 20 years. In general the response from the people I met was, “who would want a nuclear waste facility – you must fight that proposal”. However in Japan one of my contacts commented that Australia was a much more appropriate place to put the world’s nuclear waste. This reflects the instability of Japanese geography. With frequent earthquakes and sitting on the ring of fire, the Japanese are aware that nuclear on their islands is so much more risky than in other places around the world.
 Within renewable technologies this frequently happens with large wind farms as well and Denmark provided clear evidence of the loss of community support when proposals are oversized in contrast to the communities nearby. Feldheim in Germany has benefited from being co-located within substantial wind farms but a nearby village includes anti-wind protest signs