What role for community in the energy crisis?

15 November, 2022

Jake Barnes

Reading time: 4 minutes

Jake Barnes asks, what is the role of community in the current energy crisis?

Rapid rises in the price of domestic energy supplies have got many people thinking about how they can save energy at home and in their communities. Some communities around the country are keen to ‘do their part’, support neighbours and reduce demand as prices rise.

At least a well-attended event last week, put on by Community Energy England, suggests as much, even if those communities in attendance were likely to be in the minority. The event aimed to identify quick wins and scale existing solutions to help people through the current energy crisis and, if action also addressed the climate crisis, all the better. This focus on the immediate situation is understandable but raises an obvious question: what is the role of community in these layered energy, price and climate crises?

Recent research, on the emerging business models of energy communities offers insights on their potential to reduce demand. There are two main insights.

In the short term, deploying more energy efficient technologies is the quickest and most widely used route to reduce demand by communities

There are many proven technologies that hold the potential to reduce demand now.  Many solutions are widely available, cost-effective and easy to use but aren’t being taken up to the extent possible. Some options, like LED light bulbs, can simply replace existing higher energy consuming alternatives, like incandescent light bulbs. Other options include topping up loft insulation or tackling draughts using off-the-shelf products to seal gaps around windows and doors for example.

Upgrading to more efficient appliances, like white goods can also reduce household demand. Such investments typically follow product lifecycles but that doesn’t mean they should be dismissed, given that 3.2 million fridges are sold annually in the UK. Many more technologies – like solid wall insulation and heat pumps – require significant upfront investment but offer further opportunities and are sometimes supported by grants.

The role for community enterprises is simple. In the absence of the government taking a position on energy demand, there is a clear need for others to champion measures to reduce consumption, now and into the future. Historically, public awareness of the value of demand reduction in the creation of sustainable zero carbon energy systems has been low but this is changing as a result of the current energy crisis. Communities, alongside a range of charitable organisations and local authorities, appear to be ready and eager to step up. This opportunity needs to be seized.

Longer term, communities have a distinct capacity to develop demand-side solutions by changing socio-material contexts of action

Achieving deeper, more radical cuts to energy demand is likely to require an array of technical and social innovations; in all likelihood, nothing short of the creation of new systems for delivering energy services.

Our research suggests communities are well placed to achieve this because they do things differently to government or the market. They act collectively, doing things together at a scale that remains meaningful to those who participate. By so doing, communities can reshape relationships within the energy system, for example, assembling and connecting new technologies like wind turbines, heat pumps and an array of smart communication technologies, to deliver a range of new services. Make no mistake, new relationships with energy are needed: no longer can we rest as passive consumers of energy services. These new relationships foster understanding about how and where energy is generated and of how, when and where it is used.

The last decade has seen an explosion of community renewable energy projects, many of which are now exploring how to make the most of locally generated power. New models, such as the pioneering Energy Local approach, are being developed allowing local generation to supply the communities adjacent to it.

Our work shows that the earlier these communities engage with demand reduction, the easier it is to achieve. It also shows that particular motivations, such as a desire for independence and self-sufficiency, are powerful motivators of action, and can also result in reduced demand where it wasn’t previously considered or desired.

Staying positive

Building new communities is far from easy. Even engaging diverse publics about proven energy and bill saving solutions takes time and is unlikely to deliver results fast enough to stave off the worst impacts of the current energy crisis. However, one positive side effect to the global energy crisis is that it provides an unprecedented opportunity to engage with households, start new conversations and explore individual and collective solutions to meeting future energy demand. Communities are well placed for this. Their willingness to engage is therefore very welcome in the short and long term.

Banner photo credit: Illiya Vjestica on Unsplash