Could community energy be part of Finland’s transition to a low carbon future?

In recent years there has been a surge of interest in community energy projects. Countries such as Denmark, Germany and the UK have seen such initiatives flourish, creating new ways of “doing energy”. As the country with the second highest share of renewables in Europe, one might expect to also find Finland among the leaders when it comes to innovative community energy projects.  But despite its progressive energy policy, Finland has seen little activity when it comes to community energy initiatives. In a recent paper published in the Journal of Cleaner Production we investigated community energy initiatives in Finland, focusing on factors that could be preventing them from scaling up.

finland solar

Latokartano ecological housing area in Viikki area, Helsinki, Finland. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

What is community energy?

Community energy is a diverse sector with varied projects, types of origins and approaches. There is no such thing as a typical community energy project. In the UK context, they often mean sustainable energy projects which are initiated, led and developed by a range of civil society actors such as charities, cooperatives and neighbourhood networks.

Community energy in Finland

In Finland, community energy is often understood as small-scale local renewable energy. To date, there are only a few community energy projects; and while there is interest to develop such projects on the ground, the country has limited policies that would promote small-scale distributed energy production and citizen participation. To understand the factors that are preventing them from scaling up we interviewed thirteen members of 9 community energy projects and eleven experts involved in the sector.

Based on our interviews, we identified three different types of motivation for community energy projects in Finland:

1) cost reduction projects, where the projects’ main motivation was to save money related to energy costs;

2) technical expertise projects, where the projects were driven by the know-how of key members; and

3) system change projects, where project members wanted to disperse certain new technologies or knowledge into wider society.

Identifying barriers to community energy in Finland

Our research identified a number of barriers that are impeding the wider expansion of community energy projects in Finland.

Networks between local projects that enable the sharing of experiences and learning between projects can play a crucial role in increasing the number of community energy projects.  Our research found that on the whole, networks were limited.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ‘system change’ projects showed the highest degree of networking, learning, and interest in expanding.

We also found that the characteristics of community groups, cultural aspects and the specific context in which community energy develops are relevant in the scaling-up process. For example, in Finland, as in the UK, there is a culture of trying to ‘keep up’ with your neighbours. This could  influence the uptake of community energy projects, as people are keen to see what their neighbours are doing and to copy them. Furthermore, concepts such as joint ownership, often used as a model in community energy projects, are relatively rare in Finland.

Scaling-up is also limited by issues that go beyond individual projects. These include a lack of a clear joint vision for the sector by key actors and practitioners and a clear sense of what community energy could mean in the Finnish context. There is also a limited number of organisations dedicated to promoting the sector, while an unfavourable policy and regulatory framework add further barriers.

The examples we studied show that there is scope for future expansion of community energy in Finland and this could be further aided by dedicated organisations, such as the Finnish Clean Energy Association, that facilitate networking and help share learning. As Finland has continued objectives for a low carbon energy future, citizen-led, local community energy projects could play a part in helping to deliver those.

 

Read more:

Ruggiero, S., Martiskainen, M. and Onkila, T. (2018) ‘Understanding the scaling-up of community energy niches through strategic niche management theory: Insights from Finland’, Journal of Cleaner Production. 170, pp. 581–590. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.09.144.

Acknowledgements

This research was part of a wider research project for a PhD thesis by Salvatore Ruggiero and it was carried out with funding from the University of Jyväskylä. The work was also supported by the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand.

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D-Day for UK Energy Policy: Is there a plan?

by Claire Copeland and Donal Brown

The British Institute of Energy Economics (BIEE) held a one day conference on 21 September at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) somewhat cheekily titled: “Is There a Plan? UK Energy Policy for the 2020s”, coming as it did ahead of the Government’s publication of the Clean Growth Strategy

While there was much acknowledgement of failings in UK energy policy and the enormous challenges ahead, particularly when it comes to decarbonising heat, there was palpable optimism in the room when looking to the future. One of the key messages was that the traditional “trilemma” is no more. Several experts said that the three dimensions of low costs, security of supply and reduction in carbon emissions no longer represent a challenge. Instead, according to one expert, we are now facing a 3D challenge: Digitisation, Decentralisation and Decarbonisation. Another expert went further and suggested that the energy sector is actually facing a 5-dimensional challenge: Decarbonisation, Decentralisation, Digitisation, Democratisation, and Disintermediation. Yet another suggested that Diversity should also be added to the list.

In this brave new “D” world, issues of low cost and security of supply are sure to remain. For example, it is unlikely that the annual press obsession with winter blackouts will disappear. Yet at the heart of the shift in the thinking on future challenges is the potential that can be harnessed from “smart” systems. This conference also demonstrated this shift by focusing on how “smart” systems could change the way energy is generated, supplied and consumed.

prosumers

©Copyright Jaggery and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Colin Calder from PassivSystems gave illuminating insights into how blockchain technology could be used to harness the ability for consumers to trade energy they are generating (for example from solar panels on their roof) in a trusted secure way. Blockchain is the technology behind Bitcoin and is much lauded for its robustness and extremely low risk of corruption. It appears to be a good choice for providing a means for “prosumers” (both producing and consuming energy) to trade with each other. So-called “learning algorithms” could use smart systems to keep a home or office environment at particular temperature, while using pricing signals on the grid to do this in the most cost-effective way. Learning algorithms process data to determine patterns for a particular situation and therefore useful in automating comfort conditions in a home environment.

Catherine O’Kelly, from British Gas, talked about a forthcoming pioneering trial of 100 households in Cornwall. The aim of this trial is to test and demonstrate flexible demand, generation and storage. The homes are to be given the kit to generate and store their own energy. and connect to a virtual marketplace where the flexible energy is traded.

ev charging points

©Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

There were also positive discussions on the rapid current progress in the electric vehicle (EV) sector. With many mainstream car manufacturers announcing electrification of their fleets in the coming years, there was a mood of cautious optimism that the age of the electric car may finally be dawning. However, Darran Messem, Chairman of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, emphasised that EVs still constitute less than two per cent of new car sales. In addition, much more work needs to be done in developing the technology for freight and the integration with emerging smart business models. Given the rate of change in this sector it was also argued that the policy landscape is largely playing catch-up; with big questions remaining over the lack of charging infrastructure and the capacity of EVs to offer demand-side response in the current distribution network arrangements.

Perhaps the most heated debate surrounded the Chair of the Committee on Climate Change, Lord Deben’s claim that the energy companies are still not doing enough to address energy demand in the residential sector. In particular, Lord Deben emphasised the lack of progress on residential energy efficiency, and chastised the energy retail sector for sitting on its hands and continuing to profit from the UK’s woefully inefficient housing stock. One solution he offered was the possibility for variable stamp duty for more efficient properties, as a means for stimulating demand for low carbon retrofits. Indeed, recent research by the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) and the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) has shown that the huge cost savings from the sector are not being realised by the current suite of policies.

To conclude, the UK is set to fail to meet the 4th carbon budget unless radical new policies are put in place, and decarbonising heat still looks an incredibly tough nut to crack. But learning is well underway in how we can leverage sophisticated information technology to help us meet our energy needs in a secure, cost-effective way. Simon Sharpe from BEIS ended the conference confirming that there is much government support for innovation and that smart systems have the potential to provide the most flexible energy systems in the world.

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Intermediaries and champions: the unsung heroes of low energy housing

by Mari Martiskainen and Paula Kivimaa

Have you ever wanted to see what it’s like inside a low energy home? In Brighton you can, through Eco Open Houses, an event showcasing the latest ideas and practices in low energy, sustainable homes. The event is not only a boon for those who enjoy the opportunity to nosy around someone else’s home, but also has a key role in catalysing low energy housing projects in the local area.

Eco Open Houses is an example of a so-called ‘intermediary’:  an organisation or individual that can act as ‘go-between’ and who can mediate and connect individuals, groups, resources and knowledge across sectors. In recent years, many UK policy measures to support the delivery of energy efficiency in buildings have been watered down or scrapped. In this context, intermediaries and champions who can translate learning from projects, share it with others and actively promote low energy homes, are vital if we are to achieve a transition to climate-friendly housing.

Investigating intermediaries for low energy homes in Brighton

The City of Brighton and Hove, with a population of 250,000, has been regarded as one of the UK’s ‘hotspots’ for green living. As part of our project, Low Energy Housing Innovations and the role of Intermediaries, we wanted to find out how low energy homes could be supported through dedicated activities provided by intermediaries. We analysed three in-depth case studies of new-built homes in Brighton. These included a self-built home (Hartington Road), a privately built house involving a contracted architect and a builder (Grantham Road), and a large commercial housing development of 172 apartments (One Brighton).

We found that there are important activities being carried out by intermediaries at each stage of the project, from planning to post-construction. We identified the following three types of actors that exist to take on intermediation and championing for low energy homes:

  • Championing intermediaries have a strong motivation to drive low energy housing. During a specific project, they also act as connectors between other parties, including customers, developers and builders. Examples from our research comprise an architect holding a strong interest in advancing sustainability throughout a building project, and a sustainability consultant facilitating public engagement during initial planning stages, so that the local community’s views are taken on board.
  • Non-championing intermediaries have an interest in low energy housing but are not its most passionate advocates. They can be regarded unbiased networkers and facilitators of learning. The Eco Open Houses event is an example of such, providing a platform for local projects to share experiences and learning.
  • Non-intermediating champions have a strong drive for low energy homes, but are less oriented to facilitating networking and making connections. Examples include a local authority sustainability officer who support projects or a CEO of a construction company giving personal backing to specific projects.

What seems clear is that with low energy homes not yet being the norm, building projects rely on actors that can intermediate and champion low energy development to move forward.

Read more: Martiskainen, M. and Kivimaa, P. Creating innovative zero carbon homes in the United Kingdom – intermediaries and champions in building projectsEnvironmental Innovation and Societal Transitions.

For an Eco Open Home near you have a look at the UK Green Open Home Network.

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Driving innovation in low-energy buildings: key lessons from experience in the UK and Europe

Paula Kivimaa & Mari Martiskainen

Buildings use around 40% of our total energy consumption and account for over 30% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions, but innovative building concepts – such as passive houses, zero-carbon buildings and whole house retrofits – are not yet widely used by the construction and renovation industry. How can we accelerate the uptake of these new innovations?  This was the question we set out to address in a recent task for the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand.

We systematically reviewed academic studies on residential low energy buildings reported in Europe between 2005 and 2015. Contents of abstracts of 3120 hits were analysed, resulting in 28 articles and containing 40 case studies. The review sought answers to questions such as: What can we learn about successful low energy building projects?  How to support the diffusion of systemic innovation in this area? What drives such innovation? What kind of actors are needed to facilitate innovation?

Drivers for innovation in low-energy buildings

New energy efficient homes in Northampton 2007. © Copyright David M Jones and licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

So, what does drive innovation in low-energy buildings in Europe? Our research identified two important drivers:

First, environmental concerns were almost always a key motivation for undertaking the projects. For example, in a project renewing social housing in Cheshire, UK, client demands encouraged builders to integrate sustainability in their developments.

Second, in half of the cases, public policies at different levels (local, national and global) acted as a significant driver. We observed that in most cases, a mix of policies was important ranging from RD&D and deployment subsidies through innovative competitions to building codes and planning regulations. Building regulations have been important but not in every case. Voluntary government codes, such as the Code for Sustainable Homes in the UK and Bâtiment Basse Consommation (Low Energy Building) in France, were mentioned as drivers in five cases.

Interestingly, design, health and comfort, and market drivers have played a minor role to date. Only in a few cases were market drivers, such as willingness to test the market readiness or viability of the concept, important. Clearly there is potential for such drivers to become more prominent. Design and comfort could increase the appeal of low energy homes for consumers.  Avoiding poor-quality energy performance improvements is vital to avoid health problems that can sometimes be associated with energy efficient buildings (for example, when ventilation has not been planned properly).

The role of ‘intermediary’ actors

Low energy buildings can be supported by a range of actors. We focused on so-called intermediary actors that had important roles in over half of the cases. In the cases reviewed such actors ranged from local planners and energy managers to housing funds, trade bodies, government agencies and consultancies. More interesting than who they were was what they did. We identified five processes through which intermediaries influence innovation processes:

(1) Intermediaries acted as facilitators. This included actions such as connecting actors, speeding up planning and permitting processes and influencing local politicians.

(2) Intermediaries created niche markets through developing planning policies and building requirements in exemplary districts. They also did this by searching for new technological and policy designs suited to these districts, and bringing together entrepreneurs and construction companies to showcase innovations.

(3) Intermediaries implemented new practices in publically owned or social building stock by showcasing developments. They provided visions for development, created new partnerships and resources such as land, knowledge and finance.

(4) Intermediaries supported processes to create new business models for low energy housing. For example, they organised competitions for new housing designs or connected actors from different processes to generate new business ideas.

(5) Post-construction, intermediaries facilitated correct use of building technologies. They educated and negotiated with residents on how to use buildings and their technical devices (such as heating controls and so on) to ensure that they were used properly and effectively.

Our review shows that whilst there are several low energy building projects completed in Europe, learning from such projects has not received a great deal of attention in energy social science research. The review also shows that, while multiple reasons can motivate and drive low energy buildings, intermediary activities can be important throughout a building process, from idea generation and planning through to construction and end use.

Read more:

Low Energy Housing Innovations and the role of Intermediaries project

Kivimaa, P. and Martiskainen, M. 2017. Innovation, low energy buildings and intermediaries in Europe: systematic case study review. Energy Efficiency

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Energy for Society: First International Conference on Energy Research & Social Science

Jim Watson, Harriet Thomson and Benjamin Sovacool at the ERSS Conference

Jim Watson, Harriet Thomson and Benjamin Sovacool (Image credit: Mari Martiskainen)

What do folklore, yak cheese, Chinese dams and the Dakota pipeline all have in common? Energy and social science. The First International Conference on Energy Research and Social Science, held on 2-5 April in Sitges, Spain, aimed “to spotlight what the wonderful group of energy social scientists both represents, and can accomplish,” according to Professor Benjamin Sovacool, Director of the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand. In his opening keynote speech, Sovacool highlighted the reasons why energy researchers not only need, but want to use social science. The conference was organised by Elsevier and linked to the journal Energy Research & Social Science. Read more ›

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The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent Sussex Energy Group.

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