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Power for the people

Community power is ushering in a new era of energy democracy
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Younity, Brighton

This article first appeared in our Women: time for action issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 02 July 2021. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

A round the world, people are recognising the need to radically transform our energy systems if we are to halt the climate crisis.

Harnessing power from abundant natural sources is the obvious solution, but to create the revolutionary energy transition we need, communities must come together to take power into their own hands. If the energy revolution is to succeed, we all need to get behind it.

Shared ownership

Neighbourhoods across the UK are coming together to form unique energy-generating collectives. Through community energy projects, people can unite to fund, build and operate their own renewable energy sources.

The energy is used to power local homes and businesses, while profit is reinvested in local initiatives.

By creating a truly fair energy system based on shared ownership and cooperation, community energy could be the key to achieving energy democracy.

It is a revolutionary idea: local renewable power – by the community and for the community – when the sun shines, the wind blows and rivers run. People save on their bills and even profit from their investment, while sending green energy to the grid and reducing the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Community energy

Thousands of communities across the country have joined the movement so far, adding solar panels to their roofs, harnessing hydro energy from local rivers and installing wind turbines at nearby farms.

These communities are already putting profits towards local initiatives, from tackling energy poverty to boosting local conservation efforts and investing in community facilities.

These investments close the loop on truly community-minded and cooperative projects.

In Brixton, locals have joined forces to install solar panels on a social housing estate to tackle fuel poverty in the area. Some communities, like those in Halton, have chosen to donate the profits from their cutting-edge hydro-electric schemes to local projects including the Scouts, youth sports initiatives, a school allotment and a community play area. 

A democratic system

Community energy provides cheaper, greener power, but it’s about so much more than that: it’s about creating a blueprint for a better world – one that empowers locals to invest in their communities and build lasting bonds with their neighbours.

It’s about a decentralised, democratised energy system – owned by the people, for the people. 

Introducing Younity

In 2019, Octopus Energy and The Midcounties Co-operative joined forces to set up Younity, a joint venture devoted to supporting these community power champions.

So far, Younity supports over 100 community energy projects across the UK, stretching from the Isle of Skye to Devon.

One inspiring example is Swindon’s Westmill wind and solar farms; an entire community came together to develop wind turbines on a local farm – creating enough energy to power 4,500 homes.

As is fairly typical among these often like-minded groups, the community generously chose to donate a large portion of the profits to energy conservation programmes. 

For those not yet ready to set up their own project, Octopus has partnered with Co-op to create a unique way for anyone to support the community energy mission: Co-op Community Power is an energy tariff 100% sourced from UK community energy projects. 

The myth of the ‘green premium’ is over: renewables can empower everyone and save us all money.

Global community energy

Community power isn’t just gaining momentum in the UK – there are inspiring success stories all across Europe. From Austria to the Netherlands, the sustainable, people-centric energy revolution is gathering pace as people take back power from the outdated fossil fuel industry.

Offshore wind projects, solar panel installations on local schools and schemes to tackle energy poverty are just some of the projects that have been developed as part of the ambitious plan to restructure our energy systems.

Remarkably, according to research conducted by the CE Delft institute, half of EU citizens could be producing their own renewable electricity by 2050 – enough to meet 45% of energy demand. 

The need to upend our outdated energy systems stretches beyond Europe, and countries across the globe have found unique ways to mobilise.

Marginalised communities

We know the impact of climate change is more severe in the global south, where many marginalised communities are threatened by extreme weather and ecological crises. 

In rural Africa, 590 million people – almost half the population – currently live without access to electricity, limiting access to education and employment opportunities.

Often, those without electricity have to rely on costly and environmentally unfriendly options such as kerosene lamps and diesel-powered generators, which can cause serious health issues. 

The positive news is that much of the global south has access to abundant renewable energy sources; in Africa, for example, many countries are embracing the switch to green energy. Kenya is a continental and international leader, with a massive 85% of its power coming from renewables.

Clean, affordable community energy is already actively improving the quality of life for many in disadvantaged communities around the world.

In Zimbabwe, for example, government and charity-run schemes to install solar panels in rural areas are a huge success story, helping communities stay connected and powering businesses to support families.

Schools have introduced IT lessons, families are able to read or work in the evenings and fridges can now be used to preserve food and medicine. 

Community Energy Champions

One charity working to be part of this solution is Solpowered, an international project that is helping to end unequal energy distribution. The charity empowers low-income communities to take control of their energy generation and cut ties with financially and environmentally damaging diesel generators and unreliable grids.

The organisation was launched just a few years ago by Octopus Energy alumnus Melanie Rideout. It works alongside local Zimbabwe charity FACE, which is headed by Portipher Guta. 

Solpowered and FACE are currently working on a programme in Zimbabwe, which is still severely impacted by energy poverty. Their first project installed a solar energy system at the critical maternity ward at Rusape General Hospital with the support of Engineers without Borders.

Prior to this project, unreliable power meant patients sometimes had to be operated on awake without anaesthesia.

Project manager Shuwisai recounts surgeons operating on patients using only candlelight or their phone torches. These dire conditions contributed to high local maternal and child mortality rates. Here, reliable renewable energy quite literally saved the lives of countless women and children.

Beyond energy

Once the need for reliable electricity was met, Solpowered and FACE were able to expand their project at Rusape General in lots of ways.

A healthy nutritional community garden was created to help tackle food poverty and provide a daily meal for hospital visitors. This will soon include a fishery project, which will provide water to fertilise the garden and provide a source of community income and protein to feed families.

An agroforestry project will provide trees for architecture, firewood and community revenue. 

Solpowered’s projects embody the same ideals as community energy ventures everywhere: they are local initiatives centred on community empowerment. They’re run and set up by local organisations, and they train local young people to maintain the panels and contribute to the economic welfare of the community. 

The charity is now looking at setting up micro-loans and classes on how to create sustainable energy projects, so people in the community can build healthy, sustainable lives and businesses for themselves. This holistic approach is a model for how we can create a more just world.

Imagining a better world

Across the world, communities are coming to terms with the effects of climate change. A sustainable, ethical, equitable world will require an energy system that puts power in the hands of the people.

Community generation enables us to reimagine energy in a way that works for the planet, as well as the most vulnerable in our society. This green energy revolution is already underway – and thanks to community energy, people at the hearts of their communities are destined to be its vanguards.

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