Community Energy – Let’s get it on our new curriculum!
by Sioned Haf
Much interest has been given to community energy development in Wales. It has been recognised as an important sector that addresses sustainability measures, engages and empowers local communities, matches local energy production to energy use and revives struggling economies. It is a sector that should make the designers of the Well-being of Future Generations Act of Wales fall to their knees and weep for joy.
Apart from an appreciation of the valued-added benefits of community energy (in bolstering local economies, generating renewable energy, combating fuel poverty etc), there has also been some efforts by the Welsh Assembly Government to support the sector in Wales, through schemes such as Ynni’r Fro, and Ynni Lleol. I heavily emphasise the ‘some’ in that last sentence. It is not ‘sufficient’. A million miles from being ‘progressive’.
So, despite the positive rhetoric lauded on the sector, despite a handful of community energy success stories (that have managed to struggle through a cumbersome and unsympathetic planning system), despite a growing desire for locally owned and managed energy projects, and despite academic research that has proven some of the positive outcomes of such projects, community energy in Wales is in limbo.
We are currently creating the most miniscule amount of renewable energy from locally owned projects. If you want to feel really down on Wales, for comparison of how the community energy sector could look, see Germany, Denmark and Scotland.
Unfortunately, the wider renewables sector in Wales seems to be continuing with the practices of the traditional carbon-intensive energy sector. A dependence on commercial developers to use our natural resources for capital gain is perpetuated. Ownership remains in the hands of outside developers. Local benefit? Well, a few jobs are thrown at us – how’s that? Remind anyone of the coal, slate and copper industries of our pasts?
Big developments are normal. Commercial developments are normal. Private ownership is normal. Small developments are ineffective. Community developments are deviant. Local ownership is too difficult.
These are philosophical norms surrounding the energy sector that need to be challenged. But how to go about challenging such deep-rooted, Welsh norms?
Well, let’s see. Beyond the groups themselves, intermediaries and policy developers, how many of our citizens have become engaged, or even know about the possibilities of community energy?
Beyond an understanding of how renewable technologies work, how many of our young people are debating in our schools the way that natural resources, particularly the renewable resources aplenty in Wales, are being used, and to whose gain?
How many people question ownership in relation to renewable energy technologies and the resources that drive them (who owns our rivers, our shores, the sun beams, the wind?)
These are questions that remain untouched in our schools. By remaining untouched, the chance of Wales nurturing an engaged civil society, particularly around natural resource use and a sustainable renewable energy sector, remain slim.
The community energy sector not only allows for a more conscientious and responsible way of generating energy. It also allows for an opportunity to promote the growth of our civil society. (Remember IWA’s publication in 2010, ‘Growing Wales’ Civil Society’(Remember IWA’s publication in 2010, ‘Growing Wales’ Civil Society’?).
The community energy sector perfectly encapsulates what an engaged civil society could look like. An active, informed group of people, working in tandem to create a locally owned project that contributes towards a fitter local economy, a sustainable and environmentally healthier energy source, and a more dynamic and empowered local society.
But these issues should be discussed beyond community energy circles. For far too long, we have been talking amongst ourselves. The potential benefits of the sector need to be discussed and circulated nation-wide, through a concerted plan.
My main proposal then is to include community energy on the national curriculum. Already we have been giving seminars on community energy for undergraduate and postgraduates in the School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography in Bangor University, with, I can report, enthusiastic and positive feedback.
Community energy is a sector whose experiences, intricacies and vision span many existing subjects in late primary and in secondary schools, particularly history, geography and citizenship strands. It is a subject that can really challenge our children and young people’s understanding of ownership issues and the rights of local communities to develop their very own renewable energy project.
It is also a way of discussing the possibilities of a decentralised energy system – small clusters of energy pockets feeding their own communities. Combating fuel poverty, encouraging energy conservation and local empowerment are issues that can also be unpicked amongst students.
Through our education system, we can start engaging our young citizens in challenging the norms of the incumbent energy system. It would be completely remiss, and lazy, to rely on existing community energy projects (heavily burdened already with the administrative work of their projects) with this task.
Through a small grant from the ESRC, steps are already underway in Bangor University to contribute to this gap in our curriculum. An online, bilingual, downloadable graphic novel (and additional teaching resources), will be available for schools from September this year. Hopefully, this resource will encourage schools and assist teachers, to introduce community energy as a subject alongside the more traditional discussions about renewables and sustainability.
Community energy needs to start permeating our society in a much more prolific way. With the development of a new curriculum currently underway (which will be introduced in 2018, and to be used across Wales from 2021 onwards), now is the perfect opportunity to ensure that community energy finds its deserved place within it.
Sioned Haf is a community energy researcher based in Bangor University. ‘Tick-Tock: a graphic novel about energy, ownership and community’ and additional teaching resources received funding by the Bangor University ESRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) and will be available at no cost for all schools in September 2017. It will be launched in an event in the National Eisteddfod on Bangor University’s stall, 11am, 12th of August.
To contribute to the debate on how to raise awareness and capitalise on the benefits of community energy, come along to a lecture on ‘Diverting the water/wind to our own mill: local solutions to meet local energy needs’ held at the National Eisteddfod by the Institute of Welsh Affairs in partnership with Bangor University’s Sustainability Lab on Monday the 7th of August 2017. Simultaneous translation will be available.
Notes from the organisers
We are keen to hear from individuals and communities who might be interested in developing their own schemes beforehand. Our hope is that as a result of this event inter-community collaboration and co-creating will be facilitated and enhanced and that new ideas will emerge. To contribute to the discussion you can use social media @planetdotcymru #LocalEnergyWales or contact Einir Young or Gwenith Elias.