Mike Barry of Marks & Spencer argues that the world has to think small as well as big
Eleven months on from the signing of the Paris Agreement (COP21), governments, NGOs and business leaders are gathering once again for COP22 in Marrakech. Necessarily it’s a meeting focused on implementation rather than vision - the devil in the detail that has to be worked through to turn powerful words on paper into sustained change on the ground.
Much of this conversation will be about big themes: carbon taxes and caps; new technology breakthroughs; smart grids; jurisdictional approaches to tackling deforestation; and low-carbon infrastructure. But we hope there is space for a smaller theme: community energy.
Small-scale community energy offers distinct advantages over big projects. It’s proven and deployable now but above all it’s local, relevant and engaging. Big energy by and large happens somewhere else, out of sight and out of mind. No ugly construction in your back garden, but equally none of the benefits either of low carbon action.
This is where we need a different mind-set when it comes to community energy because the benefits case is not a typical one. The normal calculus in assessing big vs small energy would be cost x jobs x carbon savings x technology, but at M&S we believe there’s a different dimension.
Last year M&S Energy ran its first community energy competition. More than 52,000 people across the UK voted to help us allocate funding to 21 projects from 132 schemes that applied for support. We’ve just completed a review of the first year’s projects. You can read it here:
What’s instructive about the review is that it shows the deep immersion of these small energy projects in the communities they serve. The typical solar energy project will create a £2,000 per annum income for many of these communities. Two thousand pounds? Laughably small, I hear you say, when we’ve just signed off tens of billions for big nuclear. But read the stories in this review and you begin to realise that a few thousand pounds is make or break for these projects. You also realise that, beneath the veneer of modern life in a developed country, community groups hold the fabric of British life together.
Putting solar panels on the roofs of primary schools in Hartlepool and Carrington, Nottingham; the Buddhist Centre in Colchester; the sports clubs in Dunvant, South Wales and Barnsley; the community farms in Peterborough and Bristol; the Girl Guides in Northampton and Merseyside - none of these is a “big” project, but all are vital, between them improving the lives of thousands of people every year.
And we’ve just completed a similar exercise this year. This time no fewer than 78,837 people cast a vote. They helped us choose renewable energy projects for groups as diverse as Toxteth Community Food Hub (re-built by volunteers after burning down); South Tyneside Gymnastics Club; Coxhoe Village Hall (a permanent memorial to the fallen of WWI in Durham); the Big Lemon Solar Bus Depot in Brighton; the 55th Ayrshire Scout Group’s hut in Darly; and the Angler’s Rest community-owned pub in Derbyshire. And this year we stretched the idea a little further by helping each of the shortlisted projects to use our platform to crowdsource further funding for their work, raising an additional £27,000.
Skin in the game
But there’s another benefit beyond building social cohesion, and that’s mass participation in a low- carbon future. What we’ve seen with our experience of community energy is that it starts a grassroots conversation about energy, efficiency, climate and community. We’ve offered thousands of people the chance to engage in their future energy system and, crucially, see the benefits personally and across their community. They have “skin in the game”.
Now this is not to say that big energy (whether nuclear, gas or offshore wind) is not an important part of the future energy system, but just as they are being complemented by a technology revolution (storage, smart grid/meter etc) so we need a community revolution, too, where clean energy becomes more transparent, democratic and beneficial for everyone.
So thanks to the M&S Energy team for their leadership and to businesses such as the Co-op, for their hard work championing community energy. As leaders gather in Marrakech lets remind ourselves that the answer to a low-carbon future is both big and small.
Mike Barry is director of sustainable business (Plan A) at Marks and Spencer, and a member of Ethical Corporation’s advisory board.