How Communities Around The World Are Challenging Mainstream Energy Systems

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By Tom Nockolds, Director of Community Power Agency

Community energy is a global phenomenon. Wherever we find people, we tend to find communities stepping forward to have a greater say and determination in what their future energy supplies should look like. These people are ensuring that their communities are getting what they want and need from the transition to clean energy.

This is also an often-misunderstood field. For example, community energy is not a scale of renewable energy development. Simply installing clean energy next to a town, matched to their power demands, does not make it a community energy project. I was taken aback recently when I was asked why a “cottage industry approach to clean energy development” is a good thing. I reminded this person that the iconic Middlegrunden Wind Farm outside Copenhagen was in fact a community energy project, and when it was commissioned in 2000 it was the biggest wind development in the world. Anything but cottage.

Ownership is similarly often misconceived as being the defining characteristic of community energy, but even this is a bit too simplistic. Community owned renewable energy (CORE) is a thing, no doubt, but it’s not the only thing that makes for community energy.

At Community Power Agency, for instance, we talk about the benefits and motivations that underpin these community energy projects. We refer to five broad areas of benefit: political, economic, environmental, social and technological. The more a project delivers on these areas and the closeness with which this delivery matches the motivations of a community, the stronger it should be judged as a model of community energy.

I’m passionate about how the act of community energy development is invariably a creator of skills, expertise and capacity within communities. This benefit sits at the intersection of the ‘social’ and ‘technological’ benefit areas and could be a global driver for a faster transition to clean energy.

When community members come together to deliver an energy project, they consciously and unconsciously start to change themselves and their communities for the better.

The very act of organising a community group builds and strengthens the ties that make our communities resilient, while the complexity of delivering an energy project means those of us who don’t come from engineering, finance or legal backgrounds are “thrown into the deep end” and forced to rapidly build our skills and capacity in a surprisingly diverse set of knowledge areas.

©Pingala 2016 — Over 200 local residents made a commitment to buy shares in this new community solar co-operative.

Pingala in Sydney

In early 2013, I became a volunteer for a new community energy group in Sydney. We gave ourselves the name “Pingala” and over the last four years we’ve maintained a large and cohesive core group of about 20 devoted volunteers. It’s been a privilege to be a part of Pingala and a pleasure to watch the group develop and grow, and to see the individual members build their expertise and in some cases even transition their careers into the energy sector.

Pingala is united by its mission of building a fairer energy system for the communities that make up Sydney. We think the old energy system is unfair and broken and we’re doing something about that by taking the power into our own hands.

While we’re blessed with a bounty of human capital, being a city-based community energy group with a large volunteer base, we typically find that we don’t have the experience or sometimes even the skills required to keep us tracking towards achieving our mission.

Initially this seems frustrating to us as we perceive obstacles in our path. But what usually happens next is where things get interesting and where the real power in what we’re doing becomes apparent.

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