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Putting people at the centre of energy systems

03/12/2021 Blog
Putting people at the centre of energy systems

Katie Privett, Energy Programme Lead for the YNY LEP, reflects on her exploration of sustainable energy ideas at COP26 and why it's important these initiatives put communities at the centre.

On Wednesday 10th November, I set off on the train to the UN COP26 with the news reporting increased UK targets for tackling transport emissions, and that the delegates were nearing a draft agreement. This news heightened my anticipation of a positive trip to a city where the future of humanity was being sketched out by world leaders, scientists and representatives of indigenous groups.

The official programme was focused on transport that day, but I was signed up to a wide range of events across the next 48 hours, taking in community energy, smart technology and biomass as part of a renewable energy system.

Involving the community in energy system discussions

I was encouraged throughout the talks by the recognition that the energy system can no longer just be a thing that communities and the public take as an abstract part of life that they don’t know how to interact with. It was pointed out by speakers that in the past, negative reactions have been more common, as communities have seen no direct benefit from installation of wind farms on their land, or have suffered a loss in culture or livelihood as huge swathes of forest are bought up for biomass burning in other parts of the world. The director of the Renewable Energy Association was passionate in saying that their members know that this can and must change, and highlighted the newly minted ‘Glasgow declaration on sustainable bioenergy’ as a sector commitment to rectify this.

In the community and voluntary sector, many people want to be more involved, but the current opaque, centralised system makes it difficult to engage effectively. Those responsible for keeping the lights on are conscious of this and are starting to change data availability and processes to engage customers, but the speed of change is seemingly too slow for many. In York & North Yorkshire, we’re pursuing Local Area Energy Planning as a way to connect citizens with network operators in evidence-based decision-making on the future of energy at a local scale – and so I’ll be working out how to bring all parties to the table over the coming weeks.

IMG_8414The economy and energy systems

There were lots of points on the power of finance, including tax relief and VAT, and how relatively small tweaks in the existing UK system can have massive implications for uptake of greener energy systems. For example, allowing community energy schemes to benefit from social investment tax relief and creating a funding model that facilitates neighbourhood energy trading could lead to a boom in small-scale decentralised energy islands that are lower carbon and keep economic benefits within the community. And in Finland, electricity taxation decreased as the grid became greener, facilitating the switch away from fossil fuels to electric for industry and homes. For community energy and business decarbonisation in particular, there needs to be a continuum of support, from government strategy, mentoring, feasibility funding, through to capital loans and tax relief, to stop them ending up in the ‘too hard to do’ pile – the community energy sector is currently run on the passion of a few very motivated individuals who refuse to give up! I’m hopeful that a devolution agreement in York and North Yorkshire can help bring forth this ecosystem of support for businesses.

IMG_8420Communicating effectively to create change

My main takeaway from these sessions was the importance of consumer understanding and messaging. The shift to a decarbonised energy system will require input from all people, but the most effective will be different from one person or community to the next. I learned from a marketing executive that ‘carbon dioxide’ is a more readily recognised term by the public than ‘carbon emissions’, and that public trust is higher in natural solutions to climate change rather than technical. In most parts of the energy system, technology is lauded as the solution to our problems and thus receives the vast majority of the attention and cash. However, we need to be thinking big (and spending to match) on public awareness, education and marketing if we want people to pick up on their changing role in the energy system, and how they can be winners in the change.

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