What is the issue?
For many people living in deprived communities, the energy system is perceived as out of their control. They have limited influence over their housing energy efficiency, and the energy market offers them inadequate information and limited deals that are worse than those for wealthier households. In addition, national planning and energy policies tend to support energy generation infrastructure that is non-collaborative and misses chances for genuine local benefit. Lasting change is not possible unless people believe that they can have some control over energy systems and services.
Community energy is a growing field, but successful activity has largely been confined to middle-class communities who have the time, money and headspace to engage in building energy resilience. Exploratory projects in deprived areas (e.g. in Weston-Super-Mare and Radstock), along with a growing body of evidence in the wider field of community development, is revealing possible ways in which energy resilience could be achieved in deprived communities: designing interventions on energy for local people, rather than assisting them to articulate their relationship with energy and their needs, tends not to create long term change. Gaining trust to enable facilitation takes time, and initial activities in deprived areas are low-key, simple interventions that speak directly to immediate material needs. Activity tends to end there; more ambitious activity that could improve prospects and prevent household energy crises from emerging – true energy resilience – never happens. This is partly an institutional failure, as most funding programmes and projects to date for community energy activities are poorly designed for embedded, long-term engagement needed to make this work in deprived communities, favouring external delivery rather than the more time-consuming nurturing of genuine local leadership.
What will the project try to achieve?
CSE will develop a new approach to energy resilience in deprived communities that draws on the best available practical know-how and theoretical understanding from across the community energy sector and wider field of community development. This action research project will run in three deprived communities, testing community development and practical interventions to build knowledge, skills and capacity at the grassroots and improve links and capabilities in relevant local institutions. The ultimate goal is to develop replicable processes and resources for building community energy activity and resilience which can be used by communities and institutions in deprived areas with only minimal funding and intervention from outside experts.
The methods used will draw on community development theory and practice, including work by Social Innovation Lab Kent, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Sheffield Hallam University and NEF, alongside CSE’s knowledge of the successes and challenges of in-house energy projects in deprived communities.
The project will include an initial period of ethnographic research (in partnership with the University of Bath) to develop a rich picture of the lived experience of energy use by households in deprived areas. These findings will be published early, and will be used as the basis for building both trust and understanding with local residents in order to co-create community energy activity that meets their immediate needs and provides the skills to do more ambitious and sustainable activity in the later stages of the project.
Who might be interested in this project?
The project will be of interest to those working to promote community energy activity, community resilience and energy justice. In particular, the outcomes will be of interest to those working to support community-based responses to low-carbon energy transitions. The audience is likely to be broad and will include representatives from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Ofgem (in their role overseeing the Social Obligations commitments of the network operators), other charitable organisations working in this field (such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation), academics, and practitioners involved in supporting community resilience work on the ground, such as local authorities, parish councils and Rural Community Councils.