Can we forget about energy?
18th November 2015

Amber Rudd’s speech today was nothing if not politically shrewd. A phase-out of coal-fired generation is very welcome news; the backtracking on renewables has been announced in several waves over the last few months, and is no surprise at all. So reaction to Rudd’s announcement has been surprisingly positive.

But yet again, we’re playing the technology game. Coal v gas v renewables v nuclear. It’s all about kit, and not about people. In fact, Rudd emphasised this, by saying straight out that “energy policy shouldn’t be noticed”. We should be able to go about our daily lives without so much as a thought for how it’s powered. I think that is fundamentally misguided. Energy is a public good, not a private commodity. It shapes our lives, and we need to think more, not less, about energy if we are to meet our energy challenges.

Here’s a piece I wrote a little while back, which explains that asking people to forget about energy is deeply misguided. It was originally published in this Green Alliance collection.


Energy for the public, not the market

It’s a sunny spring afternoon in the Lake District, but residents of the small village of Coniston have headed to the indoor gloom of the village hall. They’re gathered round a beautiful architect’s model of an English town, complete with little foam trees and tiny bicycles. Look closer, and you’ll see that the model also shows every sort of renewable energy technology: heat pumps on houses, solar panels on roofs and a wind turbine on the skyline. The model, created by the Centre for Sustainable Energy, is designed as a prompt to help communities talk about energy options.

 A man wanders in, and begins with a gruff comment to the facilitator. He doesn’t like wind farms, he says, and thinks they ruin the landscape. He doesn’t think climate change is anything to worry about either. But his eye is drawn to the model, and within seconds he’s looking at the tiny hydro plant and talking to other locals about ways that they could work together to build a lifesize version on the beck that runs through the village.

 That conversation in Coniston shows how we should be thinking about energy. Not arguing over bills or the aesthetics of wind farms, but rolling up our sleeves, thinking local, and working out what energy we need to power our lives. Coniston is one of a growing number of communities which is taking energy into its own hands. Many now own co-operatively owned solar panels on the roof of Nayland School in Suffolk, to large ones like the four turbines of the Neilston Community Wind Farm near Glasgow. Meanwhile, the phenomenal success of Brixton Energy Co-operative in one of the most deprived areas of London shows that this is not just a hobby for wealthy country folk. In Brixton, an apprenticeship scheme means that young people get valuable work experience with the co-operative, fitting solar panels and home insulation.

 These schemes turn the conventional politics of energy on their head. Politicians assume that energy markets are about providing as much energy as people need, at a price they can afford. But that’s a very one-sided view. It assumes a passive consumer, whose only role is to flick the switch and pay the bills. But as both costs and carbon emissions rise, we can no longer make these assumptions. If we put the individual at the centre of energy policy, we could start to tackle the real issues: how to make the most of a scarce resource, how to focus as much on energy demand as on supply, and how to build a resilient, networked energy system.

This isn’t just a pipe dream (with community-owned pipes). Hop over the North Sea and you can see it actually works. In Denmark, you’re not allowed to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity unless you capture and use the waste heat. Heat can’t travel far. So rather than remote, centralised plant, owned by the municipality or a local co-operative, producing electricity and heat for residents. This model has proved remarkably adaptable: many of these plants were using fossil fuels, but now they have diversified into wind or wood fuel. And, if a commercial company wants to build a wind farm, they have to offer part-ownership to local people. A clear, predictable framework with an emphasis on local supply and community control has led to a robust, adaptable energy system.

In the UK, by contrast, the privatisation of electricity and gas in the 1980s and 1990s led to a centralised, commercialised energy system, which doesn’t provide the best starting point. That is why we need a clear three-point battle plan to bring energy back to the people.

 The first would be to see land use planning and energy policy as one and the same thing. Planning should focus on creating carbon efficient settlements, with localised heat supply and electricity generation.

The second would be to mandate community ownership. Much opposition to wind farms is caused because local people see them as a commercial imposition on a much loved local asset. Change the ownership structures, and perceptions change too. All generation schemes should be owned in part by local people, and it should be much easier for communities themselves to initiate schemes.

The third would be to put as much emphasis on energy demand as on supply. We need to stop assuming that our energy dilemmas will be solved by expert technical interventions. Instead, we should ask the fundamental questions about what we need energy for and how we could use less of it. In policy terms, this would translate into clear, long term incentives for demand reduction, in households and businesses, as well as transport.

Above all, we need to see energy not as a commercial commodity, but as a public good. The government needs to play a role in shaping energy outcomes, in the same way that it shapes education and health outcomes. This means policies and incentives to shape the way that people use energy, and to encourage communities to see themselves as active participants in the energy system. It only takes an afternoon in a village hall with an architect’s model to see the potential of people-powered energy. But bringing that model to life requires a very different sort of energy politics to the one we’ve grown accustomed to.

Originally published in this Green Alliance collection, September 2013



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Rebecca Willis

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