Community energy in Ireland (Part 1)

Jul 26, 2014 No Comments by

Ireland is highly dependent on the usage of fossil fuels, imports of which represent 85% of Irish energy consumption [1]. The rate at which increasingly expensive fossil fuels have to be imported is a big drain on an already fragile economy. Things have to change, but how? What is holding Ireland back from becoming more sustainable? I investigated the Irish energy situation in the context of one of Feasta’s key insights: the close link between energy and the economy. Part two of this report is available here and part three is here.

Energy is regarded as one of the key challenges of the 21st century from many different perspectives: climate scientists tell us that we have to cut back our fossil fuel consumption. Peak oil experts tell us that we will cut back our fossil fuel consumption and every household struck by the financial crisis has an energy bill and gas bill telling them to cut their consumption. There is no sign that energy will become more readily available or cheaper in the future. To understand the economic repercussions I studied the works of Feasta co-founder Richard Douthwaite who wrote brilliantly about the relation between energy and the monetary system and looked at the current state of the Irish energy system. The main problem from an economic perspective is the import of energy. Money leaves the Irish economy and is only partly regained by economic activity. This leaves less money available to pay the next energy bill and results in impoverished communities in the long term. Economies follow the same rules as ecosystems: when the amount of energy in a system decreases, its complexity and diversity will decrease too. By internalising the energy production this process can be halted and even reversed when a region shifts from being a net importer to being a net exporter of energy. The clear link between GDP and energy, and for that matter the link between population growth and oil production, show a disturbing picture: an energy decline will inevitably mean a less complex society. There is an urgent need to prepare Ireland for the consequences of this energy scarce world [2].

From this systems perspective I will discuss the recently published Community Energy Policy Position Paper. It is written by 18 Irish organizations [3], including Feasta, and gives a great and much needed overview of the barriers preventing an Irish “energiewende” from happening. It proposes viable solutions to the Irish national government of which its main recommendation is also its title: “Ownership is Key to Giving Communities a Real Stake in Energy Policy.”[4] Because of the broad support base and clear recommendations it is definitely a milestone for the Irish energy sector which should be taken seriously. While I do share most opinions expressed in this paper and strongly encourage the collaborative effort I feel that some segments would benefit from a more nuanced discussion. In three parts I will discuss some of the societal, technological and financial aspects proposed in the Community Energy Policy Position Paper with the aim to contribute to the discussion on the future of the Irish energy system.

Part 1. The societal aspects

The Community Energy Policy Position Paper (henceforth: CEPPP) uses the community as a starting point and from thereon recommends how barriers can be alleviated to enable communities to get a piece of the sustainability pie. I think it is important to appreciate that there is more than one way to decarbonize the Irish economy and implement the various methods of renewable energy production. This means that it is impossible to develop an utopian blueprint that shows the indisputable perfect future of the Irish energy system. There is no consensus (yet) and there is a whole spectrum of visions that illustrate what this sustainable future might look like. I will quickly lay out both ends of this spectrum:

Firstly there is the “cornucopian” vision which aims at large scale, infrastructure-driven generation of renewable energy [5]. Concepts such as the supergrid where energy flows from solar fields in northern Africa and massive wind farms to urbanized areas [6], big offshore wind farms, and concentrated solar power are examples of this line of thinking. This technology-driven, top-down approach maintains the traditional dichotomy between the supply and demand side. The aim is to replace coal, gas and nuclear plants as efficiently and cheaply as possible with renewable equivalents to guarantee grid stability in the future. While this has many advantages such as economies of scale, international grandeur and the level of professionalism, it tends to neglect the human scale and is known to exclude local stakeholders. A recent example being a new power cable between Ireland and England to export the energy generated by the, yet to be built, offshore wind farms in front of the Irish coast and on the land. There have been protests against this “corporate land grab” which “pollutes” the Irish landscape for British gains [7]. Even parallels with the times of English occupation when the forests of Ireland were chopped down and used to satisfy the English energy/shipbuilding demand have been made [8]. From a sustainability perspective it can be argued that, while this measure provides environmental sustainability, it scores rather poorly on the other three domains of sustainable development: the economic, social and political sustainability.

Secondly there is the local vision which aims at small, localized, empowerment driven generation of renewable energy. Local ownership and control are seen as preferable to absentee corporate ownership. Additional advantages of community or local ownership are raised awareness which has proven to result in reduced energy consumption and an increase in local jobs helping the revitalization of villages. When a cooperative model is chosen, the level of democratic inclusion and involvement increases, and because there is more to gain for the community there is a reduced NIMBY effect [9]. The main difference between the cornucopian vision and local vision is the acknowledgement of the importance of social capital. The downsides are that participants are often required to change their lifestyle and habits as they are an integral part of the process and that it is hard to achieve the amount of mitigation needed to make a significant difference: a lot of small projects are needed to gain the same environmental impact as a handful of big projects.

The CEPPP clearly embraces the local vision. Like the CEPPP I strongly prefer the local and people oriented approach because I see sustainability and empowerment as mutually reinforcing. The mitigation of barriers and the allocation of money for the development of community energy projects are, broadly speaking, the main tasks for the national Irish government according to the CEPPP while I think that reducing energy dependency and the adaptation to, and mitigation of, climate change should be the main tasks. Developing community energy is the means to achieve those, not the goal in itself. The CEPPP is a bit too modest in my opinion in addressing the importance of community energy.

Another nuance missing from the CEPPP is that “community energy” can still be a multitude of things that are quite different. The following three models can, to a large extent, all be regarded as “community energy”.

The co-operative model. A renewable energy cooperative in its purest form is a group of people who together 100% own the energy generator(s) with the revenue shared proportionately. Most co-operatives are membership based and relatively democratic because of the “one person, one vote” principle. So regardless of the share size, the voting power remains equally shared amongst the members. This model has proven itself in Germany and Denmark but is, due to high upfront costs, very hard to get off the ground in Ireland and often only with extensive grant funding and subsidies made to a good end. Remember that all the costs have to be carried by the community and it might take years before actual revenue is created. The role of experts and good relations is very important in the early stages of the renewable energy cooperative. This often entails involving incumbents such as the local and regional government, the manufacturer of the generator(s) or external investors. It is possible to start a successful cooperative as the Templederry project shows, but when undertaking such a project a long time span should be expected. A detailed study on the success and failure of cooperative energy projects in Scotland which operate under relatively similar circumstances is a must read if you wish to pursue the cooperative route [10]. The mitigation of barriers as proposed in the CEPPP would be of great help for future cooperatives. If we analyse the Danish cooperative energy culture we see that they also started with a single project that faced multiple barriers and took years of hard work to become operational. Once finished the project became an example for like-minded groups and accelerated the development of these projects and increased the political pressure to remove the barriers. The full story of these pioneers is worth reading [11] and gives hope as Ireland seems to be in the same position as Denmark just when this movement started.

The joint venture: The collaboration of communities and energy companies / wind developers has become increasingly common throughout Europe. There is a strong correlation between the amount of community involvement and the abatement of the NIMBY effect which makes it attractive for developers to involve the community [12]. There is a grey area between genuine community involvement and a token share to bypass protests and it is often hard to distinguish between the two. A community might have a share of only 5% in a wind project in their area, but this might still have a big positive impact on their community and function as a starting point for more sustainability oriented projects and investments. On the other hand, a project with 80% local ownership might feel and function like a corporate project if only a handful of people own all the shares. Research on ownership methods of community energy tends to favour this route as the expertise and resources of the experienced developers can be utilized for community gains [13]. Yet I find it hard to tell if other motives play a role and this research merely tries to open the door for incumbent regime players in the largely “untapped market” of community energy. The documents I encountered describing joint ownerships as main recommendation [14] were (partly) funded by players who would directly benefit from these partnerships.

The local company: A (social-) entrepreneur sees an opportunity to generate renewable energy and uses the community to generate capital. The difference between this model and a co-operative model is the relationship: instead of members and a board of directors, a local company has a producer-consumer relationship. There is more risk involved for the initiator who has “skin in the game” but also the potential for a higher return. Once successful, it is often possible to scale up the activities contrary to the cooperative model which is often more place-bound. The local company does not exclude community building and involvement, it does however lack the democratic properties of a cooperative. A great example is the British Energy4all [15] which emerged out of a renewable energy cooperative and offers help with renewable energy projects in England and northern Ireland [16]. When discussing the state of renewable energy with the late Pat Gill from the Aran Islands renewable energy team he saw the potential for a company like Energy4all in Ireland to help setting up and overcoming barriers for the renewable energy projects.

Community energy as described by the CEPPP embraces these three models and has the same doubts about the joint venture model when community involvement is not genuine. I feel these three models are different enough to be treated separately, especially in the recommendation part as there are different needs for different models. When debating community energy it is important to distinguish between these models. In part 2 the financial aspects will be discussed.

Supervised by Graham Barnes

Endnotes

1. SEAI – Energy In Ireland Key Statistics 2013, p. 6 http://www.seai.ie/Publications/Statistics_Publications/Energy_in_Ireland/Energy-in-Ireland-Key-Statistics-2013.pdf
2. Richard Douthwaite – The supply of money in an energy-scarce world http://fleeingvesuvius.org/2011/08/04/the-supply-of-money-in-an-energy-scarce-world/
3. The organizations involved: ACE Co op, Atlantic Coast Energy Co operative Limited, Comharchumann Fuinneamh Oileáin Arainn (Aran Islands Energy Co Op), Cork Environmental Forum, Ecologics Solar Makes Sense , Energy Co operatives Ireland, Energy Wise Consultants, Feasta, The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, Friends of the Earth, Good Energies Alliance of Ireland , LEAF, Collaborating for a Sustainable Future in Laois, MEGA, Micro Electricity Generation Association, MozArt Ltd Architecture Landscape Urban Design, Peoples Energy Charter, Syspro Systems for Progress Ltd, Tipperary Energy Agency, Waterford Energy Bureau, XD Consulting.
4. The report can be downloaded here: http://www.foe.ie/download/pdf/community_energy_policy_position_paper.pdf
5. Grant, L. (1983). The Cornucopian Fallacies: The Myth of Perpetual Growth. Futurist, 17(4), 16-22.
6. More on the supergrid concept: http://www.desertec.org/concept/
[7] Ireland’s Rural Protests Over Wind Energy http://www.energytribune.com/80132/irelands-rural-protests-over-wind-energy#sthash.x0ikmUYd.dpbs
8. Department of Agriculture (2008): Irish Forestry – A Brief History https://www.agriculture.gov.ie/media/migration/forestry/forestservicegeneralinformation/abouttheforestservice/IrishForestryAbriefhistory200810.pdf
9. Warren, Charles R., and Malcolm McFadyen. “Does community ownership affect public attitudes to wind energy? A case study from south-west Scotland.” Land Use Policy 27.2 (2010): 204-213.
10. Haggett, Claire, et al. “Community Energy in Scotland: the Social Factors for Success.” http://www.climatexchange.org.uk/files/4413/8315/2952/CXC_Report_-_Success_Factors_for_Community_Energy.pdf
11. How Three families created a movement and boosted an industry (1996) http://www.feasta.org/2014/06/22/from-our-archives-how-three-families-created-a-movement-and-boosted-an-industry/
12. Warren, C. R., & McFadyen, M. (2010). Does community ownership affect public attitudes to wind energy? A case study from south-west Scotland. Land Use Policy, 27(2), 204-213.
13. Harnmeijer, Jelte, Matthew Parsons, and Caroline Julian. “The Community Renewables Economy.” ResPublica/RenewableUK (2013). http://www.respublica.org.uk/documents/yqq_Community%20Renewables%20Economy.pdf
14. For example: “Innovations in Voluntary Renewable Energy Procurement: Methods, Communities, Governments.” (2012). http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy12osti/54570.pdf
15. http://www.energy4all.co.uk/
16. “Northern Ireland’s first wind energy co-operative offers green investment opportunity” http://filesdown.esecure.co.uk/energy4all/Drumlin_Press_release_GB101012.pdf

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Commentary, Discussion Paper

About the author

Erik is a Msc. student Urban Environmental Management at the Wageningen University. He has a Bsc. in Landscape Architecture and is interested in resilience, heterodox economics and sustainable design. He researched the barriers and possibilities of the Irish energy sector during the second half of 2013 as his internship at Feasta. Currently he is researching the possibilities of frontrunner companies to embrace a post-growth stance as a part of their CSR framework.

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