We’re hearing a lot about the ‘green energy revolution’. Politicians love the phrase (here’s a good example.) Four years ago, when I published this report, Grid 2.0, community energy was a rare and exotic pursuit. Now, it seems that every community worth its salt is investigating ways to grown their own power. Revolutionary stirrings are in the air.
But community energy is still not an easy thing to do. I’ve seen plenty of schemes founder, because of problems with permitting, planning, finance, land ownership and lack of specialist expertise. Feed-in Tariffs mean that many renewables schemes can now turn a profit – but they need to be built first.
That’s why I’m really pleased to be part of a new project, Community Innovations in Sustainable Energy, a joint initiative between the Universities of Sussex and East Anglia (both of whom have formidable reputations in this field). Over the next three years, the team will be surveying as many communities as they can get their hands on, and doing some detailed case study work to find out what makes these projects tick. More on their work here.
I’m not sure how optimistic I am. I don’t think community energy will become mainstream without a fundamental change to energy markets. As I wrote in Grid 2.0, energy markets are not free, competitive markets – they are closely regulated to offer a very limited set of choices to producers and consumers. At the moment, they are structured to favour large-scale, pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap energy, dominated by the ‘big six’ energy companies. We could restructure the system, to encourage a very different model of energy generation and use – but it would be a big change, and the incumbents would have something to say about that. (Catherine Mitchell’s Guardian article says some great stuff about this).
The innovation theory approach that features in this new project is a really good way of analysing this tension between innovations, which start as a ‘niche’ and, if allowed to develop, gradually take over from incumbents – think Ikea and furniture. I wrote about this in a Nesta report, The Disrupters.
Politicians may herald the ‘energy revolution’, but as any decent political scientist will tell you, a revolution is about the overthrow of the old as well as the emergence of the new. I wait to see whether the government throws their weight behind the revolting peasants or the ancien regime.