From electricity to empowerment, community energy growing out of the inner-city

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Imagine a city where rooftops are lined with cooperatively owned solar panels, providing much more than electricity. Through collective decision-making, local skill-building, jobs, and reinvestment in marginalized neighbourhoods, this city becomes an emerging energy democracy.

How might a city create this future?

When a community pitches in their ideas and time, and is financially supported by government programs, energy becomes empowerment. A likely beginning would sprout from a small but enthusiastic group of community members, possibly using pubs as meeting spaces, until the local government hopefully recognizes their efforts and joins the game. The government, perhaps a local district council, could act as an important player, connecting this fledgling group to like-minded others and offering a more formal meeting space.

Riding a wave of new partnerships and legitimization, the team should be sure to look both outward and inward for inspiration. Why both? To be successful, this project can learn from good ideas elsewhere while still centring itself around local needs. In this novel case, where there may be no similar models in the city to learn from, inspiration comes from elsewhere. While examples from other areas may offer practical advice and sample financial structures, project proponents’ proactive and direct consultation with fellow locals is essential to make sure the initiative is meaningful to them. What are their priorities, their limitations, issues they’d like to see resolved? These answers can be used to adapt other models to the community context.

Centring the community energy business model around other experiences and local needs will create an engine to drive the idea forward. In this model, share purchases raise money for capital, which then provides returns for investors, and any extra revenue feeds back into a community fund. To invest, community members need assurance of reliable returns. Therefore, such a model may only be financially feasible with the support of ongoing government subsidy schemes and grants.

Although it is tempting to make the most of government financial support, rapidly changing political landscapes will upend even the best-laid plans. Declining or cancelled subsidies can destabilize the entire concept of community energy. If this happens, it’s back to the drawing board to develop and test a new, more self-sufficient, business model. This new model could involve peer-to-peer electricity trading, or selling energy into the grid as a licensed supplier.

What comes next? Ambitious proponents of this more durable model can continue to scale it up and enable many more projects throughout the city and beyond. To do this, learning and implementation processes will need to be less experimental and coordination by a higher institutional body would be very helpful.

Do you want to learn more about this scenario?

This scenario fits under the approaches:

  • Energy and Mobility solutions. This approach cluster addresses technological interventions that can support the transition to a low-carbon society.
  • Governance and participation processes. This approach geared toward urban sustainability emphasise defining and addressing environmental problems as well as envisioning the future of cities, mainly based on the co-production of knowledge through innovative, diverse and strategic partnerships.
  • Policies and practices for inclusion of disadvantaged groups. This approach aim to provide all citizens with equal access into urban life and ensure their right to the city.
  • Sustainable households. This approach examines initiatives seeking to improve energy efficiency, namely the energy performance of building as a means of lowering carbon emissions to create carbon-neutral habitats, communities and cities.

It addresses some drivers of injustice:

  • Material and livelihood inequalities. This driver refers to the ways that the underlying distribution of economic resources gets expressed within urban sustainability efforts, reinforcing or exacerbating unjust outcomes.
  • Racialized or ethnically exclusionary urbanization. This driver refers to the ways that historic patterns of segregation, based on race, ethnicity, religion or other identity characteristics, shape the outcomes of urban sustainability efforts.
  • Lack of effective knowledge brokerage and stewardship opportunities. This driver refers to the ways in which (access to) useful information and know-how around sustainable urban interventions and their benefits is not shared effectively or equally among disciplines, sectors or social groups, and thus constrain the potential for both sustainability and justice.
  • Exclusive access to the benefits of sustainability infrastructure. This driver refers to the ways in which territory, identity, education, knowledge, and information are used to draw lines, privileges, and hierarchies between social groups, and especially to how this leads to an uneven distribution of benefits from urban sustainability efforts.