Where do we get the energy?


Are you interested in helping Rye homes and businesses to have lower energy bills, and having cleaner, more reliable energy supplies in future?

Since Rye Energy Day in November 2013, work has been progressing quietly on community energy schemes for the town. With changing government policy, this work needs to take a new direction. A meeting will be held at 7:30pm on March 15 at the Queen’s Head, to discuss this and to engage wider support from Rye residents and businesses. Here Sandy Rodger, leader of Transition Rye, explains the questions facing community energy in Rye.

Background on energy

Energy is vital in all our lives – how we power and heat our homes and businesses, how we fuel our transport. We see it in many forms – electricity, oil, coal, gas, nuclear, wood, solar, wind, and so on. It has become an expensive commodity. While prices have fallen recently, most experts believe that won’t continue. Energy can be so expensive that people can’t afford to heat their homes, which has serious consequences for health, and this is a significant issue in Rye. Energy has other implications – climate change, air pollution, nuclear waste, and the visibility of infrastructure like pylons and wind farms. And providing energy needs good long-term decisions, because of the investments required, whether that’s a new power station, or individuals buying a new boiler or solar panels. So, it’s complicated!

This boils down to a three-way trade-off, or “trilemma:” – We need energy to be:

Affordable – or it hurts the economy, and especially harms people who can’t heat their homes.

Reliable – or the lights go out.

Sustainable – meaning that we provide energy in a way that we can keep doing for the long term, without running out of supplies or causing damage. Of course energy supplies running out wouldn’t exactly help reliability or affordability either! So this isn’t just about the environment – it’s about making all-round wise choices for the long term.

Achieving all three of these together is not simple. It is sorely tempting to be satisfied with achieving any two of the three, and since the industrial revolution that’s what we’ve done. We’ve fuelled modern society mainly by burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) – cheap and reliable fuels, but which will eventually run out, and which cause pollution. Sooner or later we had to face the fact that this couldn’t continue, so now we’re trying to address the third corner of the trilemma – sustainability. That’s why we’re seeing so much investment in renewable energy – using forms of energy that won’t ever run out, like wind or sunshine. But making these as reliable and affordable as fossils is not easy. Achieving all three corners of the trilemma is a much harder puzzle to solve. It’s something we just have to do, but distrust anyone who claims to have simple answers, with one exception.

The exception is really simple. It is to waste less energy. This is a waste of money no matter what kind of energy we’re using. For many of those who can’t heat their homes, the problem is not high energy prices, it is that they use energy really inefficiently so they need lots of it. Reducing wasted energy means physical installations like insulation, and learning to live differently in our homes, and transport. This is quite intrusive – people don’t like being told how to live their lives! History shows government and large companies have been pretty ineffective in driving such personal action. A community-based approach has a better chance to succeed by reaching people through their friends and neighbours, and local people they know and trust – with help and encouragement, not lecturing and hard-sell. In Germany energy prices are higher, yet their bills are lower – because they save energy with better insulation and more efficient heating. And at a time of change to new forms of energy, avoiding wasted energy is a triple win. In addition to simply saving money on everyone’s bills, it reduces the investment needed because we need fewer new units like windmills and solar panels. And it makes it less of a concern if the new forms of energy are a little bit more expensive in the early days – because we’re using less.

Community Energy

Community-level activity on energy is quite unfamiliar in the UK. We’re used to energy coming from big companies, like utilities, and oil companies. We haven’t needed much community involvement, nor a local government role. This has to change, for two specific reasons:

Renewable energy does not come from concentrated sources like oil wells, nor is it processed through big traditional power plants. For most people these (ugly) things are conveniently out of sight. Renewable energy, by contrast, is dispersed – it has to be captured more or less everywhere. So we have to build a consensus across society that we will produce energy locally, almost everywhere. That is more likely to happen on a bottom-up basis with communities making their own choices.

So, community energy groups have tended to focus on these two activities – renewable energy generation, and energy efficiency. In the UK, lots of community energy groups have been set up, most using energy generation to create funds for the efficiency activities. The government has subsidised power from installations like solar panels, allowing a small profit to be made from owning them. If a community group are the owners, they can spend the profit on energy advice for the community.

What about Rye? And what’s happened recently?

We have followed this same approach. After Rye Energy Day in 2013, two community energy co-operatives were formed: RX Power to install solar panels and generate an income, and RX Energy to provide advice services. Both are part of Transition Rye, a collection of community groups that also set up the Recycle Swap Shop and Rye Community Garden. Both obtained some initial grant funding and started work, staffed by a small group of volunteers. RX Power has identified 5 prominent buildings which had been assessed for solar panels. RX Energy has energy advisors trained, and ran an energy advice stall in the library, but has found it difficult to reach the householders who most needed help.

So far so good – until August 2015. Then the government announced that it would significantly cut solar panel subsidies. While this has gone through a consultation, and the proposals softened a little, the basic message is clear – the previous funding approach is dead. We met with Amber Rudd (our MP, who is Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) in November and she specifically confirmed this intent.

The government envisages a new concept – “local energy.” This retains local influence, for the reasons above, but envisages a more professional approach involving local government, local enterprise partnerships, and others. The role of voluntary community groups is not clear at this stage.

This means that community energy now moves in a different direction:

We need to develop the idea of “local energy” and establish what (if any) is the role of volunteer groups.

On energy generation, our role may be more to encourage individuals and businesses to make their own investments, rather than having community-owned solar panels. In this respect the Rye Academy solar panel project is an excellent example.

Energy efficiency advice remains just as important for community groups, but will now need to be differently funded – often from grants. Happily there are multiple groups working on this nationally, collaborating to avoid needlessly re-inventing materials and other resources.

So we have stopped work on our existing projects, and now need to take stock. Do we have the resources to get grant funding and restart the energy advice services? Should we collaborate with similar groups in nearby towns, to pool our resources more effectively? How do we encourage Rye residents and businesses to invest in energy generation?

We’ll be discussing these and other questions in an informal meeting at the Queen’s Head, Landgate, Rye, at 7:30pm on Tuesday March 15. Come and join us!


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