Mark Hillsdon reports on how Patagonia has lent its backing to a do-it-yourself form of energy generation that is gaining ground in Europe
As the cost-of-living crisis bites, and the price of fuel continues to rise, politicians and policymakers have been casting round for solutions, from ill-conceived notions of reinvigorating fossil-fuel extraction, to more enlightened arguments around insulation and energy efficiency.
But another idea is also gaining traction in Europe. Community energy, with its emphasis on green power, was pioneered in Denmark during the 1970s and sees energy produced and distributed at a local level. Last year, a study commissioned by the European Climate Foundation reported that 61% of those questioned said they would be likely to join an energy cooperative if one was set up in their local area.
Community energy involves people coming together to develop their own renewable energy, usually through wind or solar. Local people and businesses can then use this local power instead of paying market prices, with any excess sold back to the national grid, and profits reinvested back into the local community.
It is an issue that outdoor clothing brand Patagonia is backing as part of its support for the clean energy transition. Last month, its founder, Yvon Chouinard, announced that Patagonia would convert into a charitable trust, with all profits not reinvested in running the business ploughed into fighting climate change.
In the middle of the energy crisis, we are sitting on a solution that could make a real impact
In 2021, the company released We The Power, a film which looks at how local cooperatives, from deep in Germany’s Black Forest to the rooftops of London, are taking power back from big energy companies and paving the way for a renewable energy revolution.
“In the middle of the energy crisis, we are sitting on a solution that could make a real impact,” says Beth Thoren, Patagonia’s director of environmental action.
Community energy projects can help fight fuel poverty, she says, as well as creating local jobs, greater local cohesion and a sense of empowerment. They can encourage people back to live in rural areas, too, and turn what was once a cost for businesses into an income stream, with energy sold back to the grid. They also mean less dependence on foreign fuel.
Dirk Vansintjan, president of REScoop, an organisation that promotes community across Europe, agrees. “Local communities producing renewable energy are able to shield themselves better from the inputs of high wholesale electricity and gas prices and volatility,” he says.
REScoop represents a network of 1,900 European energy cooperatives, with more than 1.25 million citizens active in the energy transition. But it’s an uneven geographical spread, he says, with many more groups in northern Europe than the rest of the continent. This is despite the fact that the EU’s Clean Energy Package placed a legal obligation on all member states to support energy communities, with a deadline of June 2021, he explains.
Community energy can also challenge people’s negative view about renewables, continues Thoren. Once people start to benefit personally from green energy “whole attitudes change, and that allows the rapid scaling of (renewable) energy”.
Jon Hallé, co-founder of the Big Solar Co-op in the UK, highlights its potential to make energy systems more resilient. “In theory, distributed energy helps to balance the grid,” he says. “If we’re going to have a much more complicated energy supply system, which decarbonisation involves, then encouraging people to put in energy in smaller places, further down the grid… is generally perceived as a good thing for the system as a whole.”
Big Solar is looking to unlock the potential of rooftop solar on community and commercial buildings in UK cities, centralising processes and resources such as feasibility studies, designs and legal studies to make it as easy as possible for community groups and time-pressed businesses to make the most of their roof space. “There are hundreds of thousands of suitable buildings which still don’t have solar PV,” he explains, which Big Solar has calculated are capable of contributing at least 5 gigawatts (GW) of energy, and at peak times match the combined output of the UK’s nuclear power stations.
Leisure centres, care homes and hospitals are all big energy users that could benefit from community schemes, while they also offer opportunities for people who don’t own their own homes, or can’t afford their own rooftop panels, to get involved.
But not all big energy companies see things the same way, says Thoren, with some unwilling to connect small producers to the grid, while at the same time lobbying government to change the regulations and make the process much more bureaucratic.
In our future renewable energy system there will need to be lots more decentralised local green generation
While energy companies argue it is cheaper to build renewables at scale, that doesn’t recognise the full costs of the extra infrastructure needed to supply energy to remote locations, costs that ultimately end up on consumers’ bills, she says.
“What you are seeing is blockages … they sure haven’t made it easy for us,” she says.
In the UK, says Hallé, energy and distribution companies have been largely supportive of community energy, keen to avoid any accusations of stalling the decarbonisation process.
Octopus Energy Generation, for instance, has launched Fan Club, an alternative to traditional community energy projects. It has set out to reward people who live close to generation projects so that they can tap into electricity that is 50% cheaper when their local wind turbines are spinning.
In an email, Octopus chief executive Zoisa North-Bond said: “We think consumers should also be able to benefit from local green energy without having to invest themselves.”
Although just three wind turbines are currently up and running as part of the project, serving 800 customers, Octopus has received more than 13,000 enquiries about the initiative, with a target of 1,000 local wind turbines by 2030. The company is now building a database so it can match-make where communities have registered their interest with where landowners can provide sites for local wind turbines, before overlaying this with data on grid capacity, wind speeds and environmental considerations.
“In our future renewable energy system there will need to be lots more small-scale decentralised local green generation across the country,” says North-Bond. “Green energy will be integrated into communities, with green electrons travelling shorter distances to the people using it.”
Vansintjan of REScoop says: “Policymakers need to recognise local ownership of renewable energy as an urgent matter of securing energy supply.” He believes the success of a community energy revolution in Europe hinges on three important factors: fewer barriers to developing projects; greater knowledge-sharing with those countries in Europe where community energy hasn’t yet taken off; and greater public awareness of the benefits projects can bring.
Patagonia’s Thoren remains upbeat. “The vision for decentralised energy is extraordinary,” she says. “It starts local and builds to this really beautiful solution.”
This article is part of the October 2022 edition of The Sustainable Business Review. See also:Patagonia community energy fuel poverty REScoop Big Solar Co-op Octopus Energy