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Energy adviser Peter Gudde has some advice for communities looking to become zero-carbon

Calling out to anyone with an ambition for their street, neighbourhood or village to become a zero-carbon community.

Whether you have already started on your journey or wondering how to begin this could be the time to push ahead.

With national and local governments finally committing to deliver on climate pledges ahead of the next global summit in the autumn, it’s time for coordinated community action.

Peter Gudde
Peter Gudde

So how to start? First and foremost, it may seem a strange thing to say but it’s not all about fancy smart techno-fixes. Technology is really important but at its heart, community energy is about people. Great ideas will need wilful local people to champion them. Change, and community energy is about doing things differently, needs leaders. You will need your personal energy stores, along with bags of resilience to cope when things aren’t going so well. Also, a good sense of perspective coupled with a humour bone can be invaluable.

A community energy project cannot develop in isolation. By its very nature, it will be shaped by the character of the local community, whether that’s the size, location or the situation of the people that live and work in the area. You will need others who share your passion and are up for making your project come alive. Ideally, a community energy project needs a group of people with time, drive and a mix of skills to be successful. But, core to that success is persistence.

Being able to explain your idea and what it brings to the local area will go a long way to creating a smooth project journey. The list of those who may be important to share your ideas with can be long, so be prepared for lots of conversations with neighbours, others living and working in your patch, local businesses, politicians and other local leaders in institutions, along with those who own or control buildings or land to see if they could support you. From personal experience, knowing people both in the know and also with great contacts makes things much easier. If you have a local shop, pub, school or faith group they can be an invaluable pool of knowledge and assistance in getting others involved.

There's plenty of help available for communities wishing to become zero-carbon. Picture: iStock/Sy_Sarayut
There's plenty of help available for communities wishing to become zero-carbon. Picture: iStock/Sy_Sarayut

With all that identified, you can focus on your big idea. There’s no ideal model or rules to follow here. Some say aim high; go large or go home. Others may want to take baby steps; get something simple done first to prove the concept, gain confidence and show others that community energy is something to support. Knowing what you want your project to achieve is really important. It could be about your local area playing its part in the big climate picture, reducing home energy costs, generating cash from energy or just finding something that brings local people together. Having those goals clear at the start will help to shape the choice of project that you take on.

Whatever your idea, some understanding about your local energy needs will help to shape your thinking. It is also really helpful to know others who are trying to do something similar. Doing your basic research to identify who else is out there and what has worked, or failed, will save you lots of time and effort. Networks and support groups like Community Energy England, the environmental charity Groundwork and the local branch of the Association of Local Councils as well specific project support organisations like Eastern New Energy or Community Energy South will be invaluable sources of independent, well-researched information as well as a shoulder to lean on when things get tricky. There are also lots of independent guides, videos and blogs written hopefully in a way that anyone can pick up and use from organisations like the Energy Saving Trust or the Centre for Sustainable Energy amongst others.

Money is always important; to buy in specialist skills, test ideas and eventually finance your project. There are pots of money out there to help at key stages. Funding advice is available on the Green Suffolk website, grants for designing and developing your project offered by the Rural Communities Energy Fund with money to make your project real whether that is through crowd funding through organisations like Abundance Investment, Ethex or Solar for Schools if you want to work with your local primary or secondary school. Smaller projects may be able to apply for funds from your local council through the Community Infrastructure Levy which is linked to new development. Some councils may offer specific grants for community projects so talk to your local councillor who should be able to direct you. Don’t forget to speak to local businesses who may want to participate, whether to promote what you are doing or take an active role in developing, hosting or financing your project depending on their interests.

Finally, whether you are successful first time round or take time to progress to first base, don’t forget that you are not alone and others will always be able to learn from what you are doing as well as you learning from them. So, share your successes, and even valiant failures, with others. Energy is a people thing.

-- Peter Gudde is an energy adviser and environmental researcher

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