Community energy fortnight & 100% renewable energy target setting for Bristol

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Blog written by Alasdair Yule

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I first became aware of Easton Energy Group (EEG) during my research project this summer which looked at the potential a 100% renewable energy (RE) target might have for a city such as Bristol. I did this through interviews with individuals from community groups, charities and public bodies who were involved in sustainable energy initiatives. I’ve recently started volunteering for EEG, and Bristol Green Doors was my induction to the fascinating world of community action on energy efficiency.

Along with an established voluntary sector, Bristol has a long history of environmental activism, and as I found out through my research has a very aware and active population with an enthusiasm for grassroots action within and between all things green. This strong sense of shared values and collective identity provides fertile ground for community action around sustainable energy, out of which a number of interesting city-wide organisations have developed. These include ‘Bristol Energy Network’, an umbrella organisation for promoting learning and awareness between different stakeholders, and ‘Bristol Energy Co-operative’, a cooperatively owned corporate body that develops renewable energy projects in Bristol and the surrounding area by raising money through community share offers, and who have also been doing work towards a 100%RE target for Bristol.

Bristol Green Doors 2015, held on the 26th and 27th September, was a 2 day event where residents of Bristol who had taken measures to improve the sustainability of their homes opened their doors to the public. As well as going inside to ‘see for yourself’ this was an opportunity for individuals to share ideas and gave those interested in applying energy efficiency measures to their homes a chance to discuss the finer points of housing retrofitting with others who had already been through the process. As multiple examples could be visited over the weekend, this also allowed visitors to compare between different examples and visit similar properties to their own. This was part of ‘Community Energy Fortnight’ which runs up and down the country and is now in its third year.

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Although spending the evening before trying to familiarise myself with the basics of cavity wall insulation, internal and external wall insulation, double glazing and rooftop insulation I was still very much a beginner myself. Because of this I spend a large proportion of the day listening to what was being said around me. I soon found out there were many facets to housing retrofit that I was not aware of, information which prospective home improvers might find difficult to track down online. Many of these visitors had particular issues which they wanted to discuss, for instance how to get hold of good suppliers and installers, where to access funding, what energy efficiency measures would be most suitable for their home or particular circumstances, or what options might be open to those living in rented accommodation.

Spending time with EEG and listening to the conversations around me, through the day I was even able to answer some of the questions visitors had (which I was particularly chuffed about). Some visitors were happy to chat casually, and during the event I got to meet a whole diversity of people of all ages, including young families, the elder generation, and landlords and tenants visiting together, many of whom already had stories of retrofit projects they had applied to their homes. I realised that as well as the benefits of distributing and sharing information, Bristol Green Doors was also a great chance for residence to come out, meet other people in the local area, and be inspired!

Taking part in Bristol Green Doors was a great way for me to develop my understanding of energy efficiency measures anzoe green dooorsd the value of social enterprises such as EEG for helping to empower local residents with the knowledge, confidence and support to improve the sustainability of their homes, something many people are unfamiliar with. It has also been a great opportunity for me to develop my employability skills (I would recommend volunteering for EEG who are very friendly and welcoming). Bristol Green Doors was about more than simply disseminating information. By giving people the chance to talk to others, and develop associations with other in their community the event provided an example of a collective approach to acting on energy efficiency. Clearly many people like doing this sort of stuff together, and action on green things can certainly be more fun, engaging and inspiring when collaborating with others and feeling part of something bigger.

With its environmental ethos, the potential for this kind of approach seems very strong in a city like Bristol. Community groups are well situated to contribute in this regard, but scaling up their impact requires effective working relationships between themselves and other stakeholders in the city. From my research I discovered that there were many difficulties inherent in developing these kinds of partnerships, which require flexible and open-ended governance arrangements that enables different actors to work towards each other’s strengths. The right support mechanisms, and a clearer understanding of what constitutes effective partnerships between community groups, the private sector and the council could help provide more options for improving the sustainability of Bristol’s housing stock on a community-level more widely.

Going back to my research on 100%RE target setting, there was a sense from some interviewees that Bristol needed a vision which is more aspirational than current targets, but that this must be accompanied by more collaborative action. In addition, it is likely that only on a city-region level would a 100%RE target be achievable and therefore credible, primarily because Bristol will find it hard to produce enough energy for itself from within the city. This suggests that a significant target requires buy-in and support from Bristol’s neighbouring authorities and the communities living in those areas.

A 100%RE target may seem far removed from the present challenges facing the community energy sector in Bristol. However, as some interviewees suggested there were many ways that a 100%RE target could contribute to sustainable energy initiatives within the city and beyond if the process to both setting and acting upon it is right. 100%RE targets have transformed energy debates in places such as Balcombe. Whilst they might have more chance to bring the whole community with them and achieve that target, it is going to be more difficult to replicate that for a city of 500,000, but as one interviewee said “…if anyone is going to do it I’d like to think Bristol could”.