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12 June 2024

Sustainable energy: the power of community

Dr Anna Rebmann, Lecturer in Social Entrepreneurship

Community energy could be the key to creating a more sustainable future. Dr Anna Rebmann explains how.

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This Great Big Green Week 2024, the UK's largest celebration of community action to tackle climate change, I'm reflecting on how community energy can offer an alternative approach to creating a sustainable and equitable energy transition.

My ongoing research explores how co-design can bring more people to actively participate in the energy transition through community energy. In this article, I share my insights on community energy, the challenges of inclusivity, and solutions emerging from cooperative efforts.

The challenge of a just energy transition

In 2020, the UK National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) published a report that said to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2020, "immediate action across all key technologies and policy areas, and full engagement across society and end consumers is required". Our electricity systems must undergo major transformations to decarbonise and respond to the climate crisis.

However, there is a crucial challenge in how to engage the public in supporting the transition and ensure we reduce, rather than reinforce, current inequalities. Encouraging and enabling more diverse and more inclusive participation is central to enabling a more democratic, just and sustainable energy system.

A crucial challenge lies in how to engage the public in supporting the transition."

Community energy – challenging who gets to shape our energy system

Community energy initiatives involve local groups working together to take ownership of the future of their energy solutions. They bring local communities on board for the changes needed to transform the energy system through participatory processes, non-market ethics and a local focus, which enables societal transformation to meet climate targets in a fair manner. In doing this, community energy can challenge who gets to shape our energy system. 

By focusing on a specific location, the community energy groups can ensure as many local benefits are generated as possible through their projects. For example, Repowering London works with community energy cooperatives to install community-owned solar panels on buildings, schools and council flats, providing cheaper electricity and reinvesting any profits back into the community. In the process, locals can run their own community energy cooperative and develop skills and knowledge which can spill over into other community projects.

Community energy highlights how the energy system can be organised by different principles; those of community cooperation and ownership, social inclusion and redistribution of profits to benefit the local community. They show how our transition to renewables is not determined by the technology we use, but is shaped by our social systems and our values.

Community energy groups show how our transition to renewables is not determined by the technology we use, but is shaped by our social systems and our values."

Promoting diversity through co-design

We need to create opportunities for locally-owned renewable energy projects to generate shared benefits at ground level. However, it’s important to be mindful that many of England’s communities are underrepresented in the community energy sector, in particular people under 50, minoritised ethnicities, and people who haven’t graduated from university. This poses a significant challenge, as it leads to the needs of some groups being unintentionally prioritised over others, reinforcing existing inequalities.

Co-design is an approach that involves bringing people from all backgrounds, experiences, and demographics as equal and valuable partners into the design process. It can foster inclusivity in community energy, and is based on an understanding that everyone can play an active role in solving their own problems. Furthermore, by including everyone in the problem-solving process, we can often find viable new solutions.

Engaging communities: co-design workshops and toolkits

My research with Dr Charlotte Johnson, Dr Irma Allen and Dr Alessandra Palange explored the potential of co-design by delivering workshops in London to diverse community groups. We wanted to explore how collective energy projects could generate local value.

Starting in 2022 and funded by CREDS, we engaged 60 participants from diverse backgrounds: different ethnicities, mainly aged between 25-64, and 60% being women. This diversity brought vastly different perspectives, as demonstrated by their different goals when developing their energy projects: some wanted to save money, others focused on transitioning to renewables, whilst one group wanted to enhance community cohesion. 

From our research, we were able to develop a Co-design Toolkit for Energy Democracy. The toolkit aims to help community organisations to engage diverse groups in thinking what local energy could mean for them and is free to download and use. 

We are now building on this work with Repowering London to explore how co-design could be used to develop more inclusive membership offers and make participation in energy cooperatives more attractive and more accessible to a wider range of Londoners.

Future directions and final thoughts

Community energy initiatives and social entrepreneurship offer powerful pathways to address sustainability challenges. By leveraging co-design and building on community assets, these projects can foster a sense of agency and empowerment among community members, paving the way for a more sustainable and equitable energy future.

Looking ahead, it is hoped we can promote co-design as a key strategy for encapsulating more diverse aims and goals for many other sectors, not just renewable energy.

How to get involved

If you’re looking to get involved in community energy, there are lots of existing groups in London and around the UK. Have a look online for active cooperatives in your area. For more information on community energy, visit Community Energy England

This article was written by Dr Anna Rebmann on behalf of the Centre for Sustainable Business

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Anna Rebmann

Lecturer in Social Entrepreneurship