Interview: Mark Luntley, Energy4All, on democratising energy

Environment Journal spoke to Mark Luntley, non-executive director at Energy4All, an organisation that supports community-owned energy projects throughout the UK.

We spoke to him about why solar is the key to democratising energy, how councils can make a success of their own energy companies and his thoughts on Shell’s move into renewables.

What is the current state of the co-op energy movement?

Energy4All has three share offers going on at the moment but things are difficult because of the Feed-In Tariff (FiT) closure. Many projects were relying on them and that’s really hurt smaller projects.

30 years ago energy was centralised — only the government could afford it! Then we went to regional energy production but increasingly energy is now locally owned, which can be transformative.

As much as new forms of energy are important, I believe energy democracy is equally important. People should have a say in how their energy is generated and how it’s used.

Is community energy suitable for every community?

There’s sometimes a feeling that community energy can only be in comparatively affluent areas, but I’m not convinced that’s correct.

The co-op movement grew out of Rochdale and individuals in working communities.

One issue is we need to make sure that the sector has everybody participating. 10-15 years ago we were very much focused on wind, and you don’t put turbines in cities.

Solar is much more suitable for putting in cities. Edinburgh Solar is one of them. You deliberately put them in the outskirts of the city in less affluent areas.

Another challenge is finding younger people to become members of co-ops. Quite often, you put your money in, and it’s there for a long time. Co-ops are increasingly looking at how they can make it easier for younger people to participate.

The co-op energy movement is popular all over Europe. How will Brexit affect UK based co-ops?

The EU has been pushing an energy policy that puts citizens at the heart of it. The question will be, will the UK choose to follow the single energy market principles? I would hope they do. Otherwise, people will look at it as a dimunation of our rights and that will be hard to justify.

Much of our electricity is imported from the EU, so the idea of completely separating doesn’t make a lot of sense. Energy4All is trying to bring people together. Renewable energy co-ops in France, Beligum or Spain share exactly the same principles as in Bristol or Barrow-In-Furness.

You previously worked for the Local Government Association (LGA). How can councils make a success of the council-owned energy companies?

When I was at the LGA, I helped set up the Cooperative Councils Network. Councils can do it themselves, and they will just be like any developer. However, councils such as Edinburgh, Oxford, Reading and Lambeth work with ourselves or other co-ops and they have got their communities involved with them too.

Councils can help communities in their area and let citizens own part of their project. Edinburgh is the best example out there. They said we will provide the infrastructure, help young people, and we’ll tie it up when roofs are available for repair, and maker sure people are involved.

Speaking as an ex-local government finance person, the opportunity is not for councils to do everything themselves, but to enable their citizens to do it. Because then that means people understand it. They get to put their money in and know how their energy has come about.

In Oxford, the council lent money to the local community energy project and then the project raised the funds to repay the loan. There are different ways of doing. At Energy4All we have done several projects with councils who were keen to work their communities.

Shell is an example of a major oil company who have made big moves into renewables this year. Are renewables finally a mainstream option?

The future is renewables. Every year it keeps getting cheaper. It’s great that Shell is getting into that space but it’s important that the sector isn’t entirely occupied by big businesses. Communities need to have the space to do their thing too.

It’s a powerful message that people who are locked into the current system can see that it will be replaced. But as a society there is often a very top-down approach out of Whitehall. Communities and local authorities need to work together to create local solutions.

Communities need to be involved.

Thomas Barrett

Thomas Barrett

Journalist. Follow him on Twitter

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