Who will own the energy transition?
To mark the release of the Community-led Energy Planning toolkit, Helen Power looks back at the pilot project on which the toolkit is based and considers how ownership relates to the just transition.
There can be no doubt of the willingness of local authorities to support and advance on the UK’s 2050 net zero target, nor that they are well placed to translate national ambitions into action. Our councils have centuries of pedigree in acting as place shapers, problem solvers and conveners, but locally-led interventions can often place them in the firing line of both public and political resistance.
“Oldham Energy Futures […] has taken a different approach”
Citizens assemblies and juries are increasingly popular as a means to building public legitimacy on climate related decision-making. But, while these approaches build consensus amongst participants regarding solutions already on the table, they are rarely used to shape the delivery of energy transition interventions themselves. The Oldham Energy Futures project, of which CLES has been a delivery partner over the last 18 months, has taken a different approach.
Beginning in spring 2021, the Oldham Energy Futures team have worked with two low-income communities in the borough in a participative process which has enabled residents to, not only have their say in how they want the energy transition to happen in their place, but also to gain the skills and knowledge needed to take advantage of new opportunities in the low carbon economic sector. The resulting Community-led Energy Action Plans for the neighbourhoods of Westwood and Sholver go much further than processes, such as Local Area Energy Planning, which have limited mechanisms for building public legitimacy, let alone enabling local people to shape and take ownership of the changes coming to their place.
“ownership is critical”
The question of ownership is critical to the Oldham Energy Futures project. In a figurative sense, a deeper understanding of both the challenges being faced and opportunities available to their place for a just local transition has allowed the residents of Westwood and Sholver to, as one participant put it “create a greater sense of local ownership [and] increase social cohesion and connection through collaborative actions and shared goals.” In a more literal sense, though, participants were not only exposed to examples of community-owned energy initiatives, but encouraged to envisage how residents in their places could financially benefit from creating climate-focused enterprises that disrupt the extraction of wealth from the local area.
“we need an approach to decarbonisation which […] builds an economy that works for ordinary people and places”
For, when we talk of a just transition, the question of ownership must be front and centre. As CLES’s lead on the Oldham Energy Futures project, Ellie Radcliffe, wrote back in April of this year, the recording of vast profits by the “big six” energy companies came shortly before Ofgem warned that 12 million households could be placed into fuel poverty this winter. Meanwhile, Shell and BP are handing out record shareholder dividends while petrol costs hit an all time high. It’s clear that we need an approach to decarbonisation which puts an end to the enabling of this kind of rampant profiteering and instead builds an economy that works for ordinary people and places like Oldham.
Close-to-home examples shared with Oldham Energy Futures participants in Westwood and Sholver included Oldham Community Power – which will use the funds raised by solar and hydroelectric energy generation sited on municipal buildings and a local reservoir to support local young people to gain training and employment in the environmental sector and to tackle fuel poverty – and Derwent Valley Car Club – a low-cost electric vehicle hire social enterprise serving a rural community heavily reliant on car use.
“who should take responsibility for the energy transition on the local level?”
In exploring these ideas, participants were encouraged to think deeply about the implications of ownership in the energy sector, through considering the municipal origins of the energy system in the UK and the transition to the privatisation and centralisation, and the limitations of what can be shaped by a group at the local level. Evaluating how different forms of ownership – state, private and community – could impact their neighbourhood in terms of jobs, wealth and reinvestment opened up critical questions for the Oldham Energy Futures participants on who should take responsibility for the energy transition on the local level.
Local authorities who want to adopt the methods outlined in the Community-led Energy Planning toolkit released today, based on the learnings from the Oldham Energy Futures project, will find that it contains guidance, practical resources, workshop guides and tools to lead a place-specific project for their own communities. More than that, though, the toolkit reflects the debates on ownership related above and will enable ordinary people to consider these questions as they shape and take ownership of the changes coming to their place. This is an important leap forward – not only for climate action in our places, but for people’s understanding of what a truly just transition could look like.