Energy Minister Charles Hendry discusses the roles of local communities during his visit to SPRU

Energy Minister Charles Hendry, MP visited SPRU today to discuss UK energy policy with us. Part of the Minister’s visit included a presentation and Question & Answer session about government thinking over the £200 billion plus reinvestment required to transform our energy systems into new, more secure, and low carbon forms. The list of technologies the government envisages as part of our energy solution is large and diverse, ranging from nuclear power stations to smart meters, carbon dioxide emission pipelines and deep geological storage, to district heating grids and household biomass supply chains. Local communities are implicated in all these envisaged activities, in all sorts of ways, and some of the comments by the Minister showed he was aware that communities matter.

On a quite instrumental level, the Minister recognised that people needed to be persuaded that large-scale changes are necessary. He wishes to avoid local back-lashes against the pipeline infrastructures that will accompany carbon capture and storage systems, for instance. When asked about planning, the government is exploring how local communities can benefit better from hosting energy projects. The Minister hoped changes such as business rates remaining local might overcome some of the polarisation associated with projects like onshore wind farms. Planning gains that are seen to benefit the local library, school or other community facilities (like local energy service facilities) might help overcome some of the root causes of NIMBYism and make these energy technologies more widely welcomed locally. This is a moot point. Revenues from large energy projects can be considerable sums, compared to the budgets of local parish councils say, and decisions about how to manage such windfalls need to be handled carefully if community division is not to be exacerbated. That is quite apart from the diverse reception local communities might give to these ‘payments’, ‘benefits’, or ‘bribes’ for projects initiated, planned and owned by others.

The Minister conceded that much in energy policy is currently government driven, and considerable work is needed to improve public debate over which energy choices are available to society, and who should decide, and how. He noted that the Transition Town movement and others had done much to help people think differently about energy. However, the Minister suggested that some initiatives led by local enthusiasts had ‘stalled’; they were not breaking through into the wider community. Whether this is the case, and how it might be overcome, is one of the ambitions behind Sussex and UEA’s Community Innovation in Sustainable Energy project.

According to the Minister, more NGO and government involvement might be needed. If this is the case, then some very interesting justifications will need to be formulated by governments (central or local) to earn trust and legitimacy over the mainstreaming of bottom-up initiatives, when they are under pressure to push through or help along the larger-scale aspects of the energy portfolio. There are going to be many tensions and contradictions, as well as synergies and opportunities, between the multiple energy paths to secure and low carbon futures. One important consequence is that we are going to need ambidextrous institutions to enable that process to unfold – and can bridge the current divide between the worlds of ‘top down’ energy market reforms and ‘bottom up’ community energy initiatives.

Adrian Smith and Jim Watson

Sussex Energy Group, SPRU – Science & Technology Policy Research, University of Sussex