The importance of communities in energy and development

 

Communities are invaluable for sustainable development and the services they depend upon. Energy is the primary example of this. This month’s blog provides three reasons why this is the case and how this should revolutionise approaches to consumer and citizen engagement in policy and development, and how it has and will continue to shape Project SCENe.

Firstly, communities reveal the profound diversity within any society. This includes the differing capabilities, routines and relations of individuals and social groups that help signify in what ways and why people consume things, the impacts this has, and the differential needs and methods within and between societies for improving these. By including communities in the planning and development process of projects, we can better understand and address overlooked factors that influence the user-requirements and use-impact of key goods and services. The energy sector in the domestic setting is the foremost example of this yet it is here the users and their central influence is most overlooked.

The energy performance gap – the difference between the potential energy efficiency of a building according to its material specification, and its actual energy performance according to its social use – is a critical example of this dominant neglect and the importance of users in development and sustainability. This gap, typically between two and five times greater energy use and costs than under optimal use, and its importance is recognised in key debates and, increasingly, policy.

Project SCENe aims to demonstrate the importance of users and how their neglect can be rectified by a model that includes and empowers users, as well as learns about and from them, in a number of key ways. Some of the key areas to which these ways relate are illustrated below.

 

Communities are essential to the services they use everyday. Energy is key to this and Project SCENe will show how a community can be more effectively empowered in their homes, community & energy practices.

 

Project SCENe aims to enable users to close this energy performance gap and gain more from the energy sector by a combination of innovative and leading approaches. Essential to this is including communities in energy at every stage in inclusive, collective and effortless ways. To help us with this the project uniquely enlists energy, building and sustainability, social scientists and consumer and community engagement experts and user-technology interaction and development experts, such as at the University of Nottingham, Stickyworld and Slam Jam. From this background the project is continually using and developing methods that relate to and build upon the existing capabilities and conventions within communities that shape the often automatic and subconscious nature of how we use, consume, learn, influence and respond. Methods include voice-activated energy monitoring and control, visual and audio energy feed-back, custom-made smart meter with a web-based platform for use on the go from one’s phone, laptop or any other internet device, an interactive energy model with features open to the public, multi-person touch-screens, physical and virtual community hubs that are open to the public and also include twitter (@ProjectSCENe ) and facebook ( /ProjectSCENe ), and additional activities, events and methods. To add suggestions for any of these, please click on the links above or add to the public forums, comment on the model or on this blog below, or contact us privately through the links provided.

 

Project SCENe at Nottingham’s Trent Basin. The physical community hub is along the waterfront in the apartment block. Visit virtually here or book to visit in person here.

 

Secondly, communities are not just essential through what they require and how they consume, they are also invaluable as asset-holders, producers, experts and influencers. Our rooftops, vehicles and experiences, for instance, offer key resources for more effectively producing, consuming, managing and learning about energy. This ‘prosumption’ has key benefits for societies and sustainable development at every level but currently faces various regulatory, economic and operational barriers. Project SCENe aims to demonstrate how these can be mitigated by collective approaches. This includes collectively negotiating better deals from the electricity network operator, regulator and an award-wining supplier; providing collective renewable energy and a range of expertise; demand, generation, storage, management and retailing optimisation; as well as the promotion and socialisation of new skills, standards and practices.

The influential, ideally proactive and producing consumer, and certainly an expert on how they like to use, improvise and manage things. We need to learn from and empower this.

 

Thirdly, communities are key investors in energy and related services and yet the most neglected and under-rewarded part of the system. The residential sector, for instance, accounts for over 1/3 of energy use and spending in the UK and citizens represent a growing and under-utilised body of sustainable energy financers, stakeholders and beneficiaries. Collective approaches are again the best way to bolster this. Collective means inclusive, equitable and according to different needs, abilities and inclinations. This includes the already engaged “energy citizen” that can be involved at every stage and level of the sector and the sustainability, environment, technology and social well-being advocates among us, as well as those of us with minimal spare time, attention or interest. Collective is thus more than ‘bottom-up’ and also superior to ‘top-down’, it is multi-level yet individually responsive.

Key ways to boost this collectivity are those mentioned above and also innovative collective financing, decision-making and benefit approaches. This includes public shareholder models that give long-term fixed or variable monetary returns, and sometimes equity and decision-making ability for investors collectively contributing to the initial finance (and also often land or social acceptance) requirements of energy projects. Such models enable us as citizens, stakeholders and potential investors to have a bigger say in and benefit from the goods and services we use everyday. Energy is the archetype of this.

Such a shareholder model will be offered to residents of Trent Basin for Project SCENe and others are currently and more publicly open, including by Nottinghamshire Community Energy, Mongoose energy and Communities for Renewables. It represents a burgeoning community energy movement in the UK whose importance and the need to boost the active engagement of consumers and residents in harmony with other stakeholders and a complex system is emphasised by the growth and work of bodies such as Community Energy England, REGEN, 10:10, and numerous other cooperatives and coalitions, universities, multi-sector partnerships such as ERA and Project SCENe, and government resources. Project SCENe will compliment this with a community fund, local engagement, interactions, co-design and investments as facilitated by the platforms highlighted above, a local energy service company designed for the project that the residents are currently naming, and ongoing research and development.

 

An example of some of the key actors in the energy sector aiming to improve the prospects for communities. This vibrant field will keep growing, so stay tuned and join in.

Communities are and will be key to this.
Join us in this through our twitter, facebook, additional public events, blogs and participatory research, or via the comment section below. The presentations and minutes from the last event from mid-February are available here.

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