A peek into Bristol’s vibrant community energy scene

Last week I visited Bristol to attend the event ‘Our energy future: the road not (yet) taken’. This was part of the city’s annual Big Green Week, an ‘international festival of better living and great ideas’, which incidentally, is now two weeks long. The people I met convinced me that the city has much to offer when it comes to innovative approaches to the challenges faced by those searching for fairer and more sustainable energy futures. Energy poverty, community engagement, and sustainability were high on the agenda.

The event aimed to air different stakeholder positions on Bristol’s potential energy future and began with short intros from six panelists before an hour of audience-led Q&A debate. Hosted and chaired by Jake Barnes of Bristol Energy Network (my colleague at SPRU), the event featured a diverse and interesting panel, with representatives from the Bristol City Council, community energy groups, the Centre for Sustainable Energy and Good Energy and Ovo Energy. The composition of the panel demonstrates the diversity of actors that have a stake in the future energy sector.

Pinning down a debate like this is always a challenging task, so I wanted to share some of my insights from this discussion in this post.

First, the different visions presented exemplify different possible architectures for the future energy systems (I recommend this typology), but more importantly raise questions about who should own, control and benefit from these systems, and on whose behalf the current transformations are being carried out. These are for me examples of questions that remain abstract in the national debate, and that can have a clearer contour when discussed at the local level.

Second, the event was a great display of the symbiotic and competitive relations that can form between the different stakeholders interested in decentralised energy. The participants identified many opportunities for collaboration: between community energy groups and local authorities, between groups and businesses and between local authorities and businesses. However, the lack of dedicated resources and the rapidly changing context seem to be important hindrances to forging and maintaining collaboration. In this context, it is clear that intermediaries such the Bristol Energy Network are key in bringing these distinct voices to the room. Within the wider UK context, it is hard to see which networks can bridge between the local and the national context, and between different perspectives of what needs to be done.

Third, the debate around community energy was as much about demand-side innovations and changes in distribution as they were about renewable energy technologies. It was refreshing to see this as a consensus, but it is also clear that there is much work ahead before this potential can be reaped, and simply fixing market failures can hardly do this. One participant shared a clear frustration with seeing so much effort spent in trying to patch the markets to produce a clear signal without a deeper understanding of what the markets are supposed to deliver. Sadly, many of the ideas around behavioural change seem to follow this; according to another participant, more time is spent on fixing the bills than finding ways to meaningfully engage with users.

Fourth, there was a heated debate around the comparison between the British and German context for energy decentralisation. The German model of ‘Stadtwerke’ (municipally owned energy companies) appears to be inspiring a lot of the work behind Bristol Energy, which the Bristol City Council is seeking to establish. In such discussions, I have often heard polarised arguments between an exceptionalist position and a simplistic take on best practices. The former defends that the local context is so unique that every solution must be local and different than what has been done before. The latter sees policies and innovations as packages, which can be easily transferred and replicated. However, on this occasion I was pleased to see a nuanced debate, with various voices speaking about the need to recognise the local strengths and cultural preferences while experimenting and learning from other experiences.

Jonas TorrensIn sum, I began to discover a truly fascinating energy scene in Bristol with which I hope to engage more meaningfully in the future, and had a chance to see an effective intermediary at work. I expect to see more spaces like this popping up in different cities around the UK and Europe, with increasingly concrete discussions on how to bring about the transformations that the energy sector so badly needs. It is in such spaces – which seem ambitious and unpretentious, creative and down-to-earth – that those truly remarkable transformations can start to take shape.

Jonas Torrens is a first year Doctoral Researcher at SPRU, focusing on urban low-carbon transitions. He is studying cities that are actively engaged in efforts for reconfiguring urban energy infrastructures, with the objective of understanding the means through which local governments seek to influence the dynamics of the on-going transitions. Jonas joined SPRU after working at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. He holds a European Joint Master in Management and Engineering of Environment and Energy (ME3), and has studied and worked in Sweden, France, Spain and Brazil.
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