Think for a moment about the energy debates that hog the headlines. Will the lights go out next winter? Can renewables provide reliable power, or are wind farms just a blot on the landscape? Just how much will the new nuclear station at Hinckley Point cost, and who’s paying?
There’s something missing from these headlines: people. The debate rages about whether to opt for nuclear or renewables, or whether shale gas can save us. The people who are using and paying for this energy – that’s you and me – are barely mentioned, except as recipients of the dreaded energy bills, passively paying for the power that comes from far away.
But people aren’t just passive consumers of energy any more. In recent years, the UK has seen an upsurge in local solutions to energy. In Brixton, residents have worked with Lambeth Council to turn roofs into power stations, installing solar panels on flats in the neighbourhood. In the process, they’ve raised capital from local investors, helped tenants to cut their energy bills, and provided apprenticeships for young people in the area. In the Brecon Beacons, a group of hydro power pioneers have set up a community-owned company to help other local areas set up their own schemes. In Denmark, it’s long been assumed that local people are responsible enough to sort out their own energy. Small stations, producing both electricity and heat, and owned by the municipality or a committee of locals, are commonplace.
Given my longstanding interest in community energy, I was really pleased to be asked by the British Academy to research some international case studies of community energy. Working with Neil Simcock and Pete Capener, we spoke to projects from countries as diverse as the UK, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Chile and South Korea, to look in particular at the cultural factors influencing community energy.
We asked what motivates people to be part of a community energy project; and how local circumstances affect that project. We investigated how national institutional and political cultures affect the way we produce and use energy, and whether the UK could learn from other countries whose political culture is more conducive to small-scale energy solutions. And it we asked whether these community solutions in turn affect local cultures, perhaps improving people’s understanding of where their power comes from, and what they can do to save energy and cut carbon.
So, to find out about how South Korean activists installed solar power on the roof of a Buddhist sanctuary; the wind turbines on the Isle of Lewis which provide an income for local community projects; and the German village which has become self-sufficient in renewable energy, have a look at our report, and judge for yourself whether all this could add up to a viable alternative model for our energy future, or whether we’re stuck with those same headlines for some time to come.