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Grass roots renewable innovation

By Dave Elliott

It is sometimes argued that small-scale community-based experiments with green energy projects can lead to new ideas and practices that can be spread widely – pioneering technological and social innovation. The ‘bottom-up’ grass roots approach has certainly been successful in the past.  For example, it’s claimed that wind energy owes much of its current success to the initial small-scale community-based projects that emerged in Denmark, where grass-roots agricultural engineering innovators pioneered new wind turbine designs that were then taken up by community-based wind co-ops. Most of the wind projects in Denmark are still locally owned and local green energy co-op based schemes have spread across Europe, notably in Germany.

In order to explore whether grass roots innovations like this can spread further, a research team from University of East Anglia and the University of Sussex looked at 12 small-scale projects that aim to reduce the impacts of energy consumption in communities across the UK. They included a solar PV project in Brighton, an eco-home development in Bristol, hydro-generation in Cumbria, and a community buy-out on the Isle of Gigha in Scotland.  Lead researcher Dr Gill Seyfang, from UEA’s school of Environmental Sciences, said: ‘What we found is that there is a great deal of community enthusiasm for small scale innovative projects like this, but the resources available are not always enough to really help them flourish’.

The theoretical basis for the study is strategic niche management (SNM), an approach to innovation management that has been developed mainly for use in more conventional contexts – to guide corporate-level attempts to respond to potentially system-changing (‘destructive’) technological innovations and linked emerging niche markets.  Grass roots energy innovations certainly seem to have similar characteristics, and so the study looks at ‘the conditions under which innovations for sustainability succeed, and guide governance of innovations for sustainability’. However, as the academics note, the context is somewhat different from the more usual commercial one. It involves ‘networks of activists and organisations generating novel bottom–up solutions for sustainable development; solutions that respond to the local situation and the interests and values of the communities involved. In contrast to mainstream business greening, grassroots initiatives operate in civil society arenas and involve committed activists experimenting with social innovations as well as using greener technologies.’

The paper says grassroots innovations differ from market-based innovations in that ‘their driving force is social and/or environmental need’, and they ‘display diverse organisational forms’ including co-ops and voluntary groups, rather than firms; and they are ‘grounded in local and collective values, based on notions of solidarity, rather than efficiency and profit-seeking; and their niche protection consists of being a space for alternative – i.e. green, sustainability-oriented – values to be expressed’. These initiatives ‘form ‘pockets’ of shared values different to mainstream norms, and communities of interest coalesce around them, in mutually supporting (hence, protective) spaces’.

What the study concludes is that  ‘while networking and intermediary organisations can effectively spread some types of learning necessary for diffusion, this is not sufficient: tacit knowledge, trust and confidence are essential to these projects’ success, but are more difficult to abstract and  translate to new settings’  i.e. it may be hard to reproduce the specific green and cooperative value-driven ‘niche’ innovations and processes in areas where market values predominate.

All in all then, it’s hard to replicate and transfer widely via conventional top-down corporate SNM! But if these developments are seen as important, e.g. as a source of new ideas and practices, as well as for the direct local benefits they can offer, then more flexible intermediary agencies and support systems are needed, to help them prosper and diffuse the ideas more widely.

Dr Seyfang has spelt out what that means in practice: ‘While technical advice is available through handbooks and toolkits, there are some really critical support needs in particular – from decision making help to financial models and emotional stamina to keep going in challenging times. The [DECC] Community Energy Strategy has adopted many of our recommendations for supporting mentoring and intermediary organisations, but much more still needs to be done. A huge priority is for Government to recognise that many community energy projects are aiming to tackle fuel poverty and develop stronger communities, as well as generating or saving energy. Evaluation and performance monitoring really needs to value these different kinds of results, and not simply focus on the amounts of energy produced. Community energy has a part to play in a sustainable energy future for the UK, but demands joined-up policy support, spanning community development, social inclusion, regeneration, energy and climate change.’

While there is no doubting that local-level projects can have many local benefits, in terms of energy provision, job creation and building local economies, the study implies that, without the right kind of external support, it may be hard for them to break out of their niches and be taken up more widely. In the current context of economic constraint, there is not too much on offer in terms of grant aid, and although the Feed-In Tariff system has helped, in the UK as elsewhere, it’s interesting that another report on community energy, from ResPublica, has focused more on self-raised capital, making use of the ‘crowd-funding’ approach.

Community energy projects are spreading, but it remains to be seen whether they will be happy to adopt a more commercial market-determined approach. For some, the hope is that this may not be necessary, since the alternative approach will come to dominate. Given the success of the ‘prosumer’ and energy co-op movement in Germany, which has led conventional companies to revamp their approach, having lost some of their markets to these bottom-up, grass roots initiatives, that may not be entirely utopian.  But as the new UEA/Sussex study shows, in the UK at least there may be some way to go.

‘A grassroots sustainable energy niche? Reflections on community energy in the UK’, was funded by the Energy and Physical Sciences Research Council and EDF Energy and is in the journal Environmental  Innovation and Societal Transitions:

ResPublica report

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