Community energy meets neo-classical economics in Sweden

Last week (13-15 June 2011) some of the Community Innovation in Sustainable Energy research team participated in the 2nd International Conference on Sustainability Transitions. We presented some (tentative) issues and questions arising from our project to researchers interested in sustainability transitions, and received enthusiastic and helpful feedback from international colleagues (click here to view slides). Participants at the conference had expertise in some of the analytical frameworks we are using in our project, and which we hope to challenge with the community energy experience in the UK.

The conference contained a strong strand of research on the topic of civil society and sustainability transitions, including studies of grassroots innovations in other countries. Nevertheless, one of the plenary speakers at the conference provided a sobering reminder that practices and insight arising in civil society settings – sustainability leadership from below – has yet to penetrate elite-oriented, leadership from above.

Allan Larson, former Finance Minister for the Swedish government, presented his amongst policy and business elites around the Davos meeting into creating a low carbon investment community. His Global Utmaning project (Utmaning is Challenge in Swedish), basically pins its hope on global carbon prices pulling through low carbon technology. This is despite a wealth of historic and current research, raised in the discussions, showing how people building new daily practices and new industries are involved in a much richer and meaningful set of activities and capacity building than prices and investments alone. Frustratingly, (or with relief, depending on your viewpoint), the world is not a neo-classical economics text book.

Adrian Smith was on the discussion panel for Allan’s presentation, where he suggested elites needed to consider how to help develop distributed capabilities and sustainable and socially just low carbon communities. Flor Avelino from the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions argued that innovation within civil society is overlooked by the Global Utmaning project.

Of course, there are good reasons why community groups would wish to have nothing to do with policy and business elites, and prefer to retain some autonomy. But community projects also need resources, which can be hard to come by, and can come with strings attached. This tension between doing the directing and being directed is a classic dilemma in community development, and was a theme in the CISE presentation to the conference.

Actually, it turned out Allan is doing community energy already. He mentioned he is part of a community energy project in his home town near Stockholm, where neighbours are trying to attract electric vehicle developers through a community enterprise. It is curious how international climate diplomacy forces people to reduce such experiences to financing hardware.