Repowering communities

People powerI am writing a book, with Prashant Vaze and Peter Meyer (both of whom have written for Climate Answers and whose websites can be acessed by clicking on the names in this article, see also Fuel poverty in the UK, Measuring your carbon emissions, ‘The Economical Environmentalist’ by Prashant Vaze, Christmas appeal – the Economical Environmentalist and Moving at an accelerated PACE in the USA), on the role that local, regional and state governments should play in increasing energy efficiency and promoting low carbon energy. This will be published by Earthscan in 2011. We will put much of the material, particularly the case studies, up on Climate Answers and would very much welcome comments (see Contact us).

The urgent need to invest in low-carbon energy services is widely recognised. The book argues that we can’t just leave energy policy to the free market and, indeed, that we never have. Many politicians are, at least rhetorically, committed to giving more political power to local government and voluntary actions by communities. These two issues – localisation and investment – are often seen as contradictory, but they could be brought together by localising energy and energy efficiency policy.

In the past, local government has played a leading role in energy supply. In the USA, municipal energy companies still do. There is plenty of academic literature on measures to control climate change, but nothing for the general reader on the positive potential role to be played by local government and communities in combating climate change. We hope to plug that gap.

We are organising the material into the following sections.

Why do we have an energy policy?

There are many political reasons why government has to intervene. Some are stated – keeping lights on, environment/climate, affordability; and some are hidden – nuclear weapons, local political issues, breaking (or bolstering) unions, international or inter-state grand-standing, energy self-sufficiency. However, energy policy has also been in flux through changes in the political zeitgeist: energy will be too cheap to meter, privatisation followed by liberalisation/retail choice and so on. In our book, we step back from political tastes and look at the experiences of successful, real world projects, which are delivering affordable, sustainable energy services.

How do we encourage behavioural change?

Most people say they are concerned about climate change and believe that people are, at least in part, responsible. So which institutions, community organisations or local government agencies are able to translate this into action?  Some places have managed at least to make a serious start.  For example, in Cambridge MA and Vermont there are grassroots efforts to reduce energy use through community wide activities.

Financing of energy efficiency and decentralised low carbon energy

High capital investment is needed for energy efficiency, heat network and distributed generation, but ongoing costs are then low. This creates a financial rather than economic problem. The problem is currently acute because of pressure on public spending, consumer resistance (and high cost of private capital) and business balance sheets. However, some countries – notably Denmark with its heat regulations – have overcome this. States in USA and also the UK are piloting mechanisms of attaching loans to individual properties benefitting from the investment instead of spreading the cost to all energy customers.

Delivery of energy efficiency and decentralised low carbon energy

Inadequate progress has been made in insulating existing homes, installing renewable and district infrastructure. There has been too much soft policy and mechanisms such as getting energy suppliers to lead on energy efficiency lack credibility with customers. There is a need to separate gas production and electricity generation from customer facing actions. Some countries (for example Austria and Denmark) have made greater progress using Energy Supply Companies (ESCOs), municipal energy companies and co-ops. Vermont, in the USA, is experimenting with an energy efficiency utility which has been successful in rolling our energy efficiency with much higher penetration rates.

Carbon pricing and emissions trading

There is no meaningful carbon price in the EU – the Emissions Trading Scheme price is far too low. The politics of carbon pricing are very complex and include the issue of tax sovereignty. Should this be for the EU or member states? Some countries (for example, in Scandinavia) have made some progress with carbon taxes. Rival technologies (CCS, nuclear and large scale wind and concentrated solar) are at different levels of maturity, therefore, a single carbon price is not correct. Taxes (or floor prices for emissions permits) are better than pure permits, because they do not raise issues of international resource transfers or allocation, and are less prone to political capture.

Case studies

We will be carrying out case studies of a number of state, regional, city and local governments which have made substantial progress. These include:

  • Energy efficiency – Berlin, Germany.
  • Energy efficiency – Vermont, US.
  • Energy efficiency – California/Berkeley, US.
  • Energy efficiency – Delaware, US.
  • Energy efficiency – Babylon, New York, US.
  • Energy efficiency – Kentucky School Systems, US.
  • Energy efficiency – Rotterdam, Netherlands.
  • District heating with CHP + biomass – Upper Austria.
  • District heating with CHP + biomass – Denmark.
  • District heating with CHP + waste – Sheffield, UK.
  • District heating with CHP + nuclear – Switzerland.
  • District heating with CHP + geothermal – Southampton, UK.
  • Community owned wind farms – Germany.
  • Community owned wind farms – Denmark.
  • Community owned wind farms – Eigge and Gigha, Scotland.
  • Solar PV – Freiburg, Germany.
  • District cooling and external insulation – Toronto, Canada.
  • CHP and Solar PV – Woking, UK.
  • Thermal storage of solar heat – Sweden.
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