Addressing the climate emergency requires immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors. This calls for an unprecedented transformation of our energy system and a massive uptake of renewable energy.
The recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights the role of collective action in achieving urgent and ambitious global climate mitigation. Importantly, the role of power dynamics in determining the pace of transition is acknowledged in the report; where the “interaction between politics, economics and power relationships” is central to explaining the gap between commitments and action.
Collective Action Initiatives (CAIs) represent important players in the energy transition, but how and to what extent? At their core, CAIs aim to reconcile economic, social and environmental needs, whether at the scale of the local community or to address needs around the world.
The COMETS project set out to investigate the contribution of CAIs to the energy transition. This involved research into “frontier” case studies of social innovation in the energy field such as energy communities, cooperatives and purchasing groups. The research provides insights into how CAIs are contributing to the energy transition in different areas of the world and their potential for scaling up. While all CAI’s are unique and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, there are common lessons that emerge across the case studies. Here are five key takeaways from the CAIs examined by the COMETS project.
1. Social justice approach
Climate change is a social justice issue, raising concerns about those groups most vulnerable to climate impacts and who stands to win or lose in the energy transition. There is increasing recognition among CAIs that social justice issues must be embedded into climate action. The people that are most impacted by the extractive fossil fuel economy must be at the forefront of the energy transition.
Bristol Energy Network (BEN) was formed after David Tudgey and a group of friends decided to create an organisation that acts on climate change while addressing social justice needs. After carrying out a community asset assessment and engaging with local people, energy emerged as one of the most pressing issues among the community. Nowadays, BEN is broadening the conversation beyond just clean energy, to incorporate social justice issues, amplifying the voices of the communities often forgotten in the energy transition.
2. Don’t give up
Developing a successful CAI can take time and requires perseverance and resilience to overcome the multiple barriers along the path to a more sustainable energy future.
ElektrizitätsWerke Schönau (EWS) is a community-owned energy cooperative that became the first power operator to supply 100% renewable electricity in Germany. Starting around 1986, in response to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a group of citizens from a small town in south Germany established a grassroots local action group to raise awareness about the risks of nuclear energy and promote energy efficiency and clean energy. It took the group ten years to obtain a licence to distribute electricity, in a market dominated by four big companies. The journey to success involved extensive community engagement and mobilisation, fundraising, legal action and two citizens’ initiative referendums.
3. The power of networks
Many CAIs recognise that collaborating with networks at regional, national and international level can help them achieve their goals. Being part of a bigger movement fosters knowledge sharing and support, while having a greater influence on energy policies.
Co-op Power, incorporated in Massachusetts, USA, is a federation of local energy cooperatives with projects across northeastern states. Co-op Power has a vision to build a local energy economy that is connected with other local energy economies in a particular state, region, country, or around the world. In an interview for the COMETS project, Lynn Benander, President & CEO of Co-op Power, said that “This includes being part of a bigger movement that brings back more sovereign control and benefit over energy.”
4. Education and training
The clean energy transition requires scaling up education, outreach and workforce training. Among the case studies, CAIs offer local training and education initiatives to their members, the wider community and even to energy projects in developing and emerging countries.
The Energy Self-Reliant Village (ESV) in Seoul, South Korea, is the flagship project of Seoul Metropolitan Government’s One Less Nuclear Power Plant initiative. Education and training was a central aspect to ESV’s business model, encouraging collective action through financial, administrative, and informational support. The city government provided subsidies, education and outreach programs to designated neighbourhoods for up to three years and some representatives from ‘graduated’ ESVs have gone on to form new cooperatives.
5. The David and Goliath issue
For small citizen groups, confronting “Goliath” energy players such as utilities and big energy companies can be daunting, to say the least. Real stories of underdogs who come out strong provide inspiration for other CAIs on their journey to energy independence.
Nørrekær Enges Vindmølleforening (Nørrekær Enges Wind Turbine cooperative) in North Jutland, Denmark, was founded in 2016 in response to an application by Swedish multinational energy company Vattenfall to erect wind turbines in Nørrekær Enge. The cooperative succeeded in mobilising 1,000 community members in the local area to go up against Vattenfall, resulting in a cooperation agreement with the company that is supported by the local municipality.
Through CAIs, communities are tackling energy poverty and promoting greater access to affordable clean energy. For more information on the case studies mentioned in this article, you can find the full report on Frontier Case Studies and other project outputs on the COMETS website.