With the climate crisis growing in urgency and December’s COP26 summit in Glasgow capturing headlines around the world, the community energy sector has an opportunity to win support for its model.
Representatives of the sector were at COP26, working to gain the attention of policymakers, press and public and this week they gathered for an online conference to discuss their experiences from the summit. The meeting, hosted on Zoom by sector body Community Energy England, showcased a number of lessons in how to drive public engagement – with useful ideas for the wider co-op movement as well as the clean energy sector.
Speakers included Prina Sumaria, local energy coordinator at Regen, which held a series roadshows in the south west of England while the summit was being held. The roadshows offered direct, physical engagement on the issue of climate; and they showcased community energy activities to local residents, press and investors who were unable to travel to Glasgow.
“People are interested in this,” she said. “With climate action they don’t know what to do, that’s why they come to events like this … but community energy groups are in a perfect place to engage these people. It’s important to local groups that they’re visible, that you can search for them online.”
Case studies are a vital engagement tool, added Ms Sumaria, offering a narrative of the good work community groups do. She said initiatives such as Faces of the Energy Transition, a digital showcase of individuals and projects in the clean energy campaign, which was presented at COP26.
Ambitious grassroots community action is also crucial, she said, because the “people in power alone are not going to solve the crisis”.
Among the community energy representatives who attended COP26 in person was David Tudgey, from Bristol Energy Network, where he networked with policymakers, and gave presentations and led street events to promote the sector.
In his presentations to delegates in Glasgow, he discussed the Bristol Community Strategy for Energy, which involves increasing the number of grassroots projects – which hopefully offer equal access across the city to ensure that citizens are empowered and fuel poverty is tackled.
The goals of the strategy include an emphasis on energy-efficient lifestyles, low-carbon technologies and a more diverse energy system, where people are less dependent on a centralised supply. With local ownership of energy assets, it is hoped there will be more training and employment opportunities, and more money stays in the community.
“Where politicians are failing to deliver on net zero, we can take action and demonstrate ways in which we can progress,” he said.
For instance, if community energy is left out of a policy document, it is up to the sector to try to put that right, he argued. “Whenever you come across a sustainability manager or adviser, ask them – are they aware of community energy, and if they are not, start informing and describing to them what’s going on. Unless we educate people and make sure they are aware of this amazing tool that is community energy, it won’t be in their plans and strategy.”
Mr Tudgey said he was feeling more hopeful after meeting so many like-minded people at COP26, and noted that corporate actors who were “perhaps asleep at the wheel for a long time” are now aware of the challenge. “There is no hiding from climate change,” he added. “This is all of our agenda now.”
To gain influence, he said community energy groups should “look for the people who are engaging with you – focus on those people, and leave those people behind that aren’t interested in what you have to say. Keep moving forward.”
It’s also important to cultivate contacts who are actually positioned to make a difference, in terms of power or influence. At local level, community energy representatives have even stood for their parish council to ensure their voice is heard, he said.
Community energy has an advantage in terms of capitalising on the climate change narrative in that it is ahead of the game on the issue, added Mr Tudgey; and its message – that it can give people agency in the push for net zero – is a powerful one that can be taken around the world.
Gemma Knowles of Plymouth Energy Community (PEC) and Chloë Uden of Art and Energy Collective also attended COP26, where they presented the Moths to a Flame art project. An installation of 20,000 moths and related audio messages, created by 59,000 participants was displayed at Glasgow Botanic Gardens during the summit.
Ms Uden previously worked at Regen for 13 years, where she started to develop art and energy practice. She decided to launch the Art and Energy Collective to give people more ways to connect to the energy transition.
She said: “Community energy is a sector that is doing something extraordinarily important and valuable … and the culture sector is a sector that every community energy group should be trying to form relationships with. There are all sorts of ways of working with artists that will uplift what you’re doing and help you to create more interesting narratives that help people feel excited about being able to join win with responses to the climate emergency.”
The Collective has developed a guide to working with artists, Our Compass – which shows how artists can bring community energy groups and the public together, and facilitate conversations around climate. It is soon to publish a book of poems and images from the Moths to a Flame project; and a new project, How to Bury a Giant, will look at the issue of carbon, running from 2022-2025.
Ms Knowles said Moths to a Flame had been a “beautiful journey, not just as an organisation but as individuals”.
PEC has been running volunteer programmes since 2014, with energy advisers and community outreach teams telling locals about the organisation’s services and share offers. Wanting to build on this by developing more creative new ways to engage people, in 2018 it started to collaborate with Art and Energy Collective, a link-up that led to Moths to a Flame.
“Having conversations connecting individual challenges around energy and how we can all be involved in taking action on climate change is difficult, it’s not exactly fun and engaging,” said Ms Knowles. “Moths to a Flame allowed us to join the dots for people between struggles with energy bills, their dependence on energy, its impact on nature, the role of global collaboration and the importance of communities coming together. A strong network is fundamental to PEC and this offered people the chance to participate in a creative, successful and dynamic way.”
The insights from the project, and connections the team made while working on, have in turn led to new ideas and opportunties for promoting the community energy message, added Ms Knowles.