What influences Local and Community Engagement in Renewable Energy in Wales?

Professor Judith Marquand introduces a new research report from the IWA’s Re-energising Wales project

Judith Marquand is now an honorary Professor at Cardiff University, after a career in the Government Economic Service and subsequently as an academic working on Environmental Protection with universities in Russia.

Factors influencing Local and Community Engagement in Renewable Energy in Wales was constructed by talking with people directly involved with local and community renewable energy and energy-saving projects. It concerns the problems which they perceived and measures to alleviate these.

 

We talked with people in 6 local authority areas across Wales – north and south; urban, rural and Valleys. The areas were: Blaenau Gwent, Flintshire, Newport, Pembrokeshire, Powys and Swansea.  They were selected to represent different factors which might be thought to influence the extent of community engagement with renewable energy and energy-saving.  

 

In each area, we talked with the local authority, a sample of Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) and community renewable energy projects. Through these conversations, we learnt about the immense dedication over a period of nearly 10 years or more needed to realise a local community energy project, and the wide range of skills needed to steer such a project through to the construction stage. It became clear that such dedication and skills were likely to be scarce commodities – that the support of renewable energy experts, often external to the community – is crucial in many cases.

 

It also became clear that securing funding was much less of a problem than is often thought, except in the crucial early stages of establishing the feasibility of the project. The Welsh Government’s new Energy Service and its provision for increased early stage loans is to be welcomed unreservedly. But even with this enhanced support, it will be difficult for any major expansion of ‘traditional’ community energy projects to take place rapidly.

 

Other forms of projects undertaken for local community benefit are likely to provide at least as much scope for producing renewable energy and energy-saving. These include, for example:

  • projects undertaken by local authorities or by registered social landlords (RSLs) for social housing.
  • projects undertaken by bodies represented on local authorities’ Public Service Boards.
  • projects undertaken by local authorities themselves.

 

All such projects could and indeed should, wherever possible, be undertaken in partnership with local communities. But such projects face barriers. Some are specific, such as the availability of the grid. But most are the usual barriers found in the early stages of any major technological change – plus the pressure of austerity on the budgets of local authorities. Staffing constraints are significantly damaging to rapid adoption of renewable energy initiatives.

 

We found there is insufficient public understanding of renewable energy. This causes a wide range of problems – for example, the difficulty in persuading social housing tenants to accept changed systems and to use them effectively. Pressure on budgets prevents local authorities from providing the very personal service which they know is needed to overcome this.

 

There remains a general lack of knowledge and expertise within local communities to deliver renewable energy projects.  At an immediate practical level, there is a need to improve the understanding and hence the acceptability of renewable energy more generally, and to assure an adequate supply of skills: practical skills, managerial skills, and entrepreneurial skills.

 

There is some very welcome work in hand to develop renewable energy modules for training programmes.  There are some, but not enough, programmes to encourage people to enter training. There are some opportunities for people and organisations to develop relevant managerial skills. But more needs to be done.

 

Within local authorities themselves, we found there is sometimes a lack of interest in renewable energy policies by senior managers and by Councillors, and sometimes actual hostility. We heard of cases where a change in senior management had transformed the support for the development of renewable energy project – but in some other local authorities the number of people allocated to developing renewable energy strategies was minimal. Where there was an individual or a small team dedicated to the development of such strategies, far more was happening than elsewhere – and such work could be developed at regional rather than local level.

 

But what did not seem to be widely appreciated by senior managers was that successful renewable energy projects can yield a significant increase in revenue in the longer term. We found that similar considerations also apply to RSLs.

 

We also found that the opportunities provided by the Well-being of Future Generations Act were not widely recognised within the local authorities. Many Public Service Boards need to raise the profile of renewable energy and energy-saving in their annual reports; and there is also a need to ensure that the relevance of these reports is fully appreciated throughout their local authorities.

 

Several local authorities wanted to be able to take social benefit into account when making their decisions, but there was no clarity about how to do it. There is a real need to make it easier to have a longer time horizon by developing simple, robust ways to help public bodies take account of social benefits when making their decisions. The development of such a ready reckoner is a major task, but this is no reason to avoid it. A shared project between the Welsh Government, the Future Generations Commissioner, local authorities,  Public Service Boards and qualified research bodies to produce a framework for readily-usable estimates of the social benefits resulting from renewable energy and energy-saving decisions would be of real practical value.

 

Some measures we identified could be undertaken quite easily and cheaply. For example wider dissemination of renewable energy educational materials already available in Wales such as those developed by some RSLs and local authorities.

 

It was also suggested that existing forums could be used to focus attention on local renewable energy, such as the Consortium of Local Authorities in Wales (CLAW). Its Energy group could arrange its meetings so as to allow time for more fundamental and forward-looking discussion of local renewable energy possibilities, leading to shared learning.

 

Making better use of tools already at our disposal was also a recurrent theme. As the Well-being of Future Generations Act becomes embedded into strategic plans, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales may wish to remind Public Service Boards to consider explicitly the role of renewable energy and energy-saving in achieving their well-being goals, alongside other national priorities. Public Bodies and Public Service Boards have a duty to improve the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales (through setting well-being objectives that maximise contribution to the seven national well-being goals) and report on progress. We believe that renewable energy and energy efficiency should be an explicit element of improving well-being in Wales

 

As the IWA identify in their recent plan for Wales’ renewable energy future local renewable energy projects have a substantial contribution to make to meeting Wales’ energy needs and creating local economic and environmental benefits.  To achieve this, increased dissemination of information is crucial. Let us hope that, under the increasing threat of climate change, there will be a rapid growth in understanding, both by the public at large and by community and public sector decision-makers, of the importance of increasing the rate at which renewable energy and energy-saving schemes are developed, and in the competences needed for their development.       

   

Photo by Gustavo Quepón on Unsplash

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

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