How communities around the world are challenging mainstream energy systems

Community energy is a global phenomenon. These initiatives to supplying a local community with its renewable energy flourish all around the world. Here is the example of Pingala in Sydney, Australia. 

©Pingala 2016 — Pingala’s launch event was an equity crowd-funding event with an ac dual crowd!

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.

Doing it for ourselves

We knew it was important to communicate what we were doing in a richer way than just words on a page or screen, so we decided to make a short promotional video explaining who we are. The only problem was that none of our volunteers had any experience in making videos.

The story of how we made our video is typical of how we’ve tackled most of the problems we’ve encountered along our journey to-date. First we tried to recruit new volunteers with the required skills in making videos. We also approached commercial video production companies to see if they’d do something for us for free or for a discounted rate. This didn’t work. We spent quite some time trying to find someone to make a video for us, to no avail.

The next thing we did was to try to secure funding to pay someone to make the video for us. We don’t have enough money to spend on things like this, so we really needed grant funding to make this happen. Once again, this didn’t work. Really, we ran out of patience working with the long lead-times on grant applications.

Finally, we decided that making a video can’t be that hard. We’ve got adequate equipment, there are amazing resources on the internet…why not do it ourselves? So we formed a committee, started writing a script and we made a first attempt at the video.

We knew it wasn’t that great. It was over five minutes long and densely packed with technical information about our mission and how we planned to achieve it. It was totally lacking the sort of appealing visual images that we knew was required to connect with our target audience at a more human and emotional level.

Thankfully, at this point, a videographer friend agreed to have a look at our video and give us some advice. His immediate reaction when he saw the video was to comment: “It looks like this was made by a committee”. Of course this was exactly how it was made. We could only laugh! Not only was the deliver-by-committee approach really time-consuming and difficult, it also produced a pretty poor video.

April, Jake and myself formed a small team and set a filming date. We re-imagined the script with much less content and a lighter mood and feel. A friendly family agreed to be interviewed. We found a decent camera and a microphone to capture decent sound. The video was made.

The result isn’t perfect, we know that. But it’s pretty good considering we started out with nearly zero experience of how to make a video like this.

This story has repeated often enough for us to now know that it’s just a process we need to go through. The process is just as important to us as the outcome. The initial committee approach isn’t a waste — it’s empowering and tells us what’s important in the task at hand. The efforts to recruit skillful people and to secure funding is worthwhile and sometimes it even works. But what ultimately gets traction is when a small team of committed volunteers steps up and decides they want to skill-up and make the job happen.

©Pingala 2016 — Pingala’s moto: “Doing it for ourselves”

Remarkable skills in new areas

The volunteers at Pingala have each built up a remarkable and diverse set of new skills. Let’s be honest, the video was probably a one-off, but so was the act of forming as a co-operative, of building our business model from scratch, developing a financial product for community financing of solar projects, navigating corporations law to ensure what we were doing was legal, building our first website, establishing a way for receiving online membership payments… the list goes on and on.

Jake and I have several times commented to each other just now amazing it is what we’ve learned on this journey. We know things we could never have dreamed of becoming knowledgeable about. I’m now something of an expert in equity crowdfunding. Jake is a solar designer by trade, but he knows an awful lot about the finance side of corporations law in Australia.

Some volunteers have used their new skills to find jobs in the energy sector. All of us have become more skillful in everything we do. We all know lot more about the business of renewable energy.

A faster and fairer energy transition

If the energy transition is going to happen as quickly as we need it to happen, we’ll need to mobilise a new workforce with exactly these sorts of skills. This isn’t just an engineer’s paradise. God forbid that we leave the energy transition solely in the hands of the engineers. We need videographers and artists, communicators and story-tellers, social workers and anthropologists, lawyers and accountants and yes, we’ll need plenty of engineers too.

The more community energy groups there are out there building these skills right where they’re needed, in our communities, the more we’ll be solving the entire challenge that lies before us.

The icing on the cake is that when we put communities at the front and centre of the energy transition we also build a fairer energy system because, guess what, people also know what’s best for their own communities. But that’s a story for another time.

Tom Nockolds is a director at Community Power Agency. He has played a key coordination role for the Coalition for Community Energy in Australia and is an expert in business models for community energy projects. Tom is also a volunteer with Pingala, a community energy group in Sydney.