Friday, 25 July 2014

Creating Resilient Communities: Putting Power in the Hands of Local People

English: The Co-operative Tilehurst, run by th...
Co-operative Tilehurst, run by the Co-op Group (Wikipedia)
Co-operative Group members are taking part in Let’s Talk this month - an online discussion panel to shape the future of the organisation. 
This week it is talking about resilient communities, and here the Low Carbon Hub’s Barbara Hammond sets out what the Group can achieve …

Communities face many challenges today, not least cuts to local services, closing amenities, falling living standards and, in many areas, greater isolation, with people feeling less connected to the community around them.

One solution to enhance the resilience of communities against challenges such as these is community energy.

This involves neighbourhoods coming together to take control of the energy they use, either through community-owned clean energy generation, joining forces to make their homes more energy efficient or sharing energy-saving advice.

Our experience at the Low Carbon Hub, a social enterprise championing community energy in Oxfordshire, is that the benefits from a community resilience perspective are huge.

Having already facilitated a wave of community benefit solar PV and hydro schemes, our ambition is for the whole of Oxfordshire to be powered by smart grids centred around small scale, community-controlled renewable energy schemes.

This transformation of our energy system would bring not only environmental, but also social and economic benefits. The Oxfordshire Low Carbon Economy Report we are currently working on with Oxford University has identified some surprising data that shows how much this shift is to our economic advantage:
  • As a county we spend £1.5bn on energy every year, all of which flows out of the local economy;
  • But we also already make £1.2bn every year out of low carbon business sectors and these already support over 8,000 jobs, over twice the number of jobs supported by the BMW car plant at Cowley in Oxford, the largest local employer;
  • A combination of business development and infrastructure investment could generate an extra £800m per year and an extra 10,000 jobs by 2030.
This vision could have a major impact on the resilience of our 300+ geographic communities:
  • They will spend less on heating and powering their houses and businesses, reducing local fuel poverty and improving economic competitiveness;
  • They will make money from the renewable energy projects they own, creating a much needed income stream to be redistributed and reinvested locally for the community’s benefit;
  • By coming together to run local microgrids and renewable energy projects, communities will build their capacity as well as being much more socially connected;
  • Local businesses and jobs will increasingly be secured by the growth of decentralised energy; and
  • Ownership of locally led projects will provide a huge boost to community pride, becoming a source of inspiration and a focal point for community activity.
This is a big, hairy, long-term vision which needs community innovation and collaboration for success. We think that the technical and financial innovation required to achieve it is already well under way and we know how to find it. More difficult is the social, regulatory, legal and political innovation necessary to change the way we do things.

The first steps along the road have already been taken by a number of pioneering community projects in Oxfordshire.

These include the Westmill Wind Farm Co-operative and Solar Co-operative, community benefit societies funding solar projects in both west and north Oxford, the Osney Lock Hydro community benefit society, and the Hook Norton Low Carbon retrofitting fund.

All of these projects contribute to Oxfordshire leading nationally in terms of ‘local run’ enterprises according to a recent Co-operatives UK report: 10 enterprises in total have 9,000 shareholders who have invested £5m to date.

Between 2012 and 2015, the Low Carbon Hub hopes to have helped four hydro schemes, a solar park and numerous rooftop schemes to be developed on schools and local businesses across the county.

Twenty schools have already signed up and will receive cheaper, green electricity for 20 years, while creating an income to support other community projects. Our share offer for these will be launched in September.

We can’t think of anything better than community owned energy to help boost community resilience. I hope the Co-operative Group adopts ‘Resilient Communities’ as one of its causes and champions community energy’s pivotal role in helping them become a reality.

Take part in the Co-operative Group’s discussion on Let’s Talk.

• Barbara Hammond is chief executive of the Low Carbon Hub, to find out more about their work, including how you can invest and get involved with various community energy projects, go to:

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