For community energy, as with other societal innovations, there’s a challenge to swing political, media and popular opinion behind the cause.
Part of this is the sheer congestion of messages, as we battle for ‘cut-through’ in a world of over-communication and where opinion-formers are time-poor and faced with an onslaught of lobbying and special pleading. Just on the existential agenda of climate-change alone, community energy has to compete with parallel programmes for decarbonising transport, active travel, the retention of biodiversity, and environmental protection against extreme weather events. On energy, there are competing priorities between renewable generation, energy conservation, and grid modernisation. At stake is not just resources but mind-space as public, private and community organisations and decision-makers influence what to do next, and how …
The agenda varies from the immense task of shaping and influencing the national picture – helping community energy occupy a prominent place in overall public policy to the challenge faced by local groups and supporters in gathering local support and pressing for innovative approaches.
I found it useful to read about the work of Ambition Community Energy and its partners – hoping to build England’s largest wind turbine. Looking at this, and other case studies, it is clear to me that the top tier of community energy groups already have a real need for stakeholder management expertise and the systems to support them. Just to get to where some of these groups are now, they must have navigated a labyrinth of UK and international funding sources, found technology partners, and needed to work within the UK’s tortuous planning regime. Above all, they have needed to forge lasting relationships with local authorities – both officers and elected members.
It’s hard to imagine but it’s only a year ago that Chris Skidmore published his comprehensive report with 129 recommendations informed by engaging with communities, economists, and climate experts from across the country through more than 50 roundtables and 1800 submissions. Sadly, he is leaving Parliament, disillusioned at the Government’s lack of ambition; something that should give us all pause for thought.
One of his most insightful comments was on the role of local authorities, who, he claimed had ‘a significant amount of local convening power’. True, but we must not leave it to Councils. They have too many pressing priorities and are hopelessly resource-constrained. Instead, community energy groups and those who support and encourage them need to figure out for themselves who they need to influence, and how to go about it.
Stakeholder engagement is now an established management discipline, with identifiable activities and emerging standards. Groups should learn about:
- Stakeholder identification: a few years ago, at the Consultation Institute I helped devise ‘six tests’ – questions that every organisation should ask itself when assessing which individuals or organisations were relevant to what it seeks to do. Maybe we could build a similar checklist specifically for community energy?
- Stakeholder mapping: normally using the well-known interest/influence matrix, originally developed by the World Bank, and ideal for working out how best to approach and work with stakeholders of different characteristics. Again, a template mapping schema might be valuable for this sector.
- Planning and implementing the engagement: deploying a whole range of communication and dialogue methods in two-way processes that can help clarify stakeholder positions and explore better ways of working together. Are there particular methods that might work best in the energy environment?
Communities are full of people with experience of these tools and techniques – either organising them or just participating. What’s needed however is to harness such skills and know-how in specific campaigns, especially if new ideas and proposals are seen as a potential threat to the status quo.
There is still massive ignorance about community energy, and how it can contribute at so many levels. IPSOS-MORI recently found that public awareness of Community energy is below 10% of the population; in reality the situation is even worse as only 1% really understand what it means. To make a difference, local activists need to be generating commitment, enthusiasm, and devising projects – the very opposite to the traditional top-down energy policy-making.
To accelerate its adoption, we cannot just rely on Government policies. We must also motivate volunteers and pioneers to indulge in some systematic self-help.
That is why I believe we should invest in a practical programme of skilling up on stakeholder engagement – from its basic concepts, through best practice on the many methods of making it happen and to explore how system tools, social media and, yes, AI can be used to promote community energy and help secure sufficient funding and support.
Rhion Jones was the original Founder of The Consultation Institute, and now uses his many years’ experience of public engagement to inspire and train new generations of practitioners. As the Consultation GuRU, he publishes regular blogs on www.consultationguru.co.uk and acts as an adviser to many organisations, including Community Energy South
 In April 2022, Thrive Renewables provided a £4 million funding bridge to Ambition Community Energy (ACE) to build England’s largest onshore turbine at 4.2 MW, capable of generating enough power for close to 3,000 homes and will save almost 120,000 tonnes of carbon emissions over its lifetime. The project is 100% community owned and will provide a new revenue stream for the local community, with all profits from electricity sales reinvested back into the area, acting as a driver for regeneration.