Low Carbon Communities Network Conference – Doing politics, partnership and networking

Last weekend, Jin Park and I from the CISE team attended the ‘Low Carbon Communities: New times, new ways forward’ conference, run by the Low Carbon Communities Network (LCCN) in Oxford. Attended by almost 200 delegates representing a wide range of different communities involved in ‘community energy’ of one sort or another, the conference was a fascinating opportunity for the CISE project to observe and reflect on the current state of community energy in the UK. For me, the various plenary and workshop sessions I attended raised three key themes that are perhaps indicative of the ‘new times’ and the ‘new ways forward’ the conference title mentions.

1. Doing not talking

First, I got a real sense that the time for talking is now over and that the UK community energy sector is becoming impatient to get on with ‘doing’. Presentations from, amongst others, Barbara Hammond and Saskya Huggins from Low Carbon West Oxford, and Allan Morton and Cara Jenkinson from Muswell Hill Sustainability Group showed clearly that community energy projects across the UK have already developed a vast amount of experience and expertise in how to make different kinds of projects succeed. For example, these presenters highlighted a number of key lessons as well as challenges involved in running low-carbon behaviour change initiatives, and had in some cases prepared toolkits and information packs (such as Low Carbon West Oxford’s guide to ‘Low Carbon Living’) so that others could learn from their experiences and get on with doing it themselves. Crucially, the message these presentations conveyed was that it is difficult and you will make mistakes, but it is also possible, extremely rewarding, and the best way to learn is by doing it yourself.

2. Politics and Partnerships

Second, in his opening keynote address, Chris Church, Chair of the LCCN, quipped that 2011 was the year that ‘if you didn’t do politics, politics came and did you!’ Across the conference there did appear to be a sense of uncertainty about how the community energy sector should best proceed in the face of a radically altered political and financial climate. Nonetheless, far from leading to apathy, this uncertainty appeared to have generated a recognition of, and desire for, new kinds of partnerships between community energy groups and others for whom the funding situation is perhaps not quite so dire. Workshop sessions on partnerships with universities, local authorities and the private sector highlighted a number of important lessons about how to get the most out of partnerships. For example, the workshop on working with the private sector identified several ‘rules’ to get the most out of such partnerships. These included: i) the need to think carefully about why business should be interested in community energy – is it just a PR stunt or might you offer new business models for the future?; ii) spending time identifying the correct person to speak to in each business; iii) staying true to yourself and your core aims and principles, but also being prepared to do the ‘window-dressing’ necessary so you align with business needs; and iv) Being aware of the mismatch between private and community sector timescales and being ready to make decisions quickly so as not to hold up a corporation who, after years of seemingly doing nothing, might suddenly be ‘in a hurry’.

3.Networking and Sharing Knowledge

Third, the conference highlighted the value of networks such as the LCCN in providing opportunities and fora for the sharing of knowledge. In his keynote speech, Chris Church suggested that 2011 had been a relative trough for the LCCN compared to the days of rapid growth in 2008, which led him to ask: ‘do we need a network? And what for?’ For me, the conference responded by revealing the importance of networks in enabling community groups to get together and share their expertise and experiences. Several of the workshops I attended involved highly detailed discussions between various community experts on issues such as: the best organisational structure to raise the ‘risk capital’ necessary for starting a community renewables project, how to deal with statutory consultees such as Ofgem and the MoD, or how best to tailor behaviour change messages to different kinds of household. In short, these discussions revealed that someone somewhere has almost always tried it before and it is through networks such as the LCCN that you can meet them and learn from them about what works and what doesn’t.

Overall, these three themes suggested to me that, despite the profound challenges it is currently facing, the UK community energy sector is already doing a great deal to confront, adapt, learn from, and jointly overcome them.

Tom Hargreaves