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Community energy is generating people power

Kayla Ente

Communities should take power into their own hands to build an abundant local clean energy supply to secure our future energy on a national scale, claims Kayla Ente, founder of community energy service co-operative BHESCo......

Consumers have not benefitted from liberalisation of the energy markets. Instead liberalisation has created the current oligopoly of energy suppliers that control 99% of the market and play a dominant role in policymaking.

In an oligopoly, switching is only a temporary fix as all suppliers will basically offer the same price. Switching will not stop the tide of energy prices increases at 8 - 10% every year. Such increases are not sustainable, especially in a recessionary economy where our incomes on the whole have declined. Because we are dependent on energy in every aspect of our lives, energy has become a right, not a privilege.

Tapping into the shale gas reserves using extreme extraction methods has dire consequences on our water supply. Hydraulic fracturing creates millions of litres of waste water, containing hazardous levels of hydrochloric acid. This chemical contaminant must be stored in specially lined ponds. At best, fracking is a five year feed of our fossil fuel addiction before we wake up and realise that we have seriously damaged our environment, like the realisation of bad behaviour after a debauched night out. Increasing worldwide demand will still tenaciously drive prices ever upward over the long term.

Our centralised power stations lose 65% - 75% of the energy generated from unsustainable sources like fossil fuels and uranium in transmission and distribution. Although heat represents about 41% of energy consumed, most of the heat generated by the large stream engines in centralised power stations is wasted in the air.

Unfortunately, unsuspecting taxpayers end up paying for the lack of vision and sound economics in our energy policy. The new Energy Bill including Electricity Market Reform (EMR) means that subsidies will be transferred to the shareholders of large corporate power generators in the form of a guaranteed price for electricity production, regardless of whether that electricity is consumed or not.

Fracking corporations will receive larger tax breaks in the coming years. There is a real danger that the current energy policy will create a continuation of the culture of waste in our society, due to an irrational fear that the lights will go out.

There is little innovation in our nation's energy strategy because there is painfully little movement in important areas like upgrades to distribution and transmission networks to create smart grids. Investment in energy storage pales in comparison to the money that will be invested in nuclear power and Carbon Capture and Storage technologies. Investment in a smart grid was supposed to be addressed in EMR, however, this has been conspicuously omitted, calling the National Grid "a natural monopoly". This may have been ok when the grid was nationalised, not now.

Naturally, the current suppliers want to maintain the status quo of centralised systems where the consumer is kept enslaved to the supplier. And naturally, these powerful forces influence policy decision-making and the media. There is a light at the end of this tunnel: community energy suppliers can stimulate investment by creating micro-generation points and then investing in their own micro-grids for local energy distribution, all connected to transmission stations run by the National Grid.

In 2011, there were 19 Community energy co-operatives generating 19.6MW of renewable energy, powering approximately 16,000 homes. Shareholders in these co-operatives are making a steady return on their investment in tangible local energy generation assets. As we transition into our new sustainable way of living, during this 'Time of the Great Turning' (as Joanna Macy has named it), a post industrial evolutionary movement, a ‘small is beautiful principle should be applied to local energy generation. Consumption near the source minimises efficiency losses. Combining natural renewable energy sources, like sun, wind and biomass to power our needs, making our buildings more efficient by sealing the leaks coming through the fabric, becoming more conscious of how we use energy in our environment will all contribute to our long term energy security.

According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, community groups are involved in four main activities: Reduce, Manage, Generate, Purchase. In Brighton, Brighton & Hove Energy Services Co-operative has been launched to stop the tide of rising energy prices. It is a not for profit co-operative dedicated to help people reduce their energy costs now and forever. We do it now, by organising a collective buying initiative where one price is negotiated for our members, like a large corporation would for its energy supply. We can do this by offering thousands of customers, worth about £120 in profit each, to one supplier. Energy suppliers pay millions in marketing costs to encourage the public to switch to their service. We can save these large suppliers money by reducing their marketing spend and pass that savings onto our members.

BHESCo is working with neighbourhood groups and our local council to map out neighbourhood energy plans, offering a way to implement low cost energy savings and local renewable energy programmes. We are a link between the large energy suppliers and the local consumer. Suppliers are required by the government to identify super priority customers, people living in hard to treat properties that leak massive amounts of heat through their walls, ceilings and floors. The path to these people, many of them vulnerable, is arduous as they are difficult to find, do not trust the large suppliers and do not want to enter into any loan commitment with them at a high cost.

BHESCo is launching a programme of low energy, durable lighting retrofits to small and medium sized businesses in Brighton & Hove which presents a way to quickly reduce electricity consumption as many office buildings have old fluorescent lighting that is hard on the eye and on the pocket. We can go some way to helping these businesses reduce their operating costs and lower their carbon footprint, just by upgrading their lighting to longer lasting LED (low emission diode) lights. These are mercury free, unlike other low energy lighting that is for sale in some supermarkets.

We believe in that by working together, we can continually create wins for members of our community. We invite all people who want to make a difference in their community within the Sussex area to contact us. Together we can help bring about the Great Turning.

Kayla Ente is founder of BHESCo, a community energy service co-operative. She is a qualified accountant, MBA and environmental economist. Kayla lives and works in Brighton, UK.

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