This December, Jonathan Atkinson of Carbon Co-op was lucky enough to be invited to take part in a two day, community energy delegation visiting Brussels on the invitation of Green MEP for the South West Molly Scott Cato.
The visit fulfilled several purposes: a chance to meet MEPs and get a better understanding of the European Union and its institutions, a chance to learn from other European community energy initiatives, an opportunity to catch up with other community energy practitioners from the UK and, somewhat inevitably, a chance to ponder the myriad implications of Brexit!
The tour was led and organised by Jodie Giles of Regen and Jenny Coles of Plymouth Community Energy, and though the delegation was mostly made up of community energy groups from the South West (Easton Energy, Bristol Energy Co-op, Exeter Community Energy, Tamar Energy Community, South Dartmoor Community Energy, Dorset Community Energy, Woodland Valley Farm), Carbon Co-op was invited along with a few other groups from outside the region including Repowering London, South East London Community Energy, Community Energy South and Awel Aman Tawe from Swansea.
Meet and greet!
With a programme put together by Jodie, Jenny and Molly's team, the visit heard from a range of speakers and a variety of energy industry viewpoints. Closest in values and outlook to Carbon Co-op was Dirk Vansintjan, a founder of the Flanders-based co-operative retailer Ecopower and President of REScoop, the community energy federation with over 1,500 members around Europe. Dirk is an inspirational veteran of the community energy movement with a strong vision for the sector based around self-sufficiency and community control.
He highlighted the European Union's new 'Winter Package' on clean energy policy, welcoming some of its proposals but highlighting that it still rewards polluters with tax breaks and higher energy consumption with lower bills. Indeed, Ecopower is perhaps the only energy company in Europe to state that its aim is to sell less energy to its consumer members.
He also advocated the phrase 'prosumer solidarity' ie ensuring that better off householders with renewable generation and more kit share the benefits of this equipment with those in fuel poverty who cannot afford the same technology.
Sonia Dunlop represents the Solar Power Europe, and though very much speaking from an industry point of view, she shared information on an innovative new community energy model from Germany known as 'Mieterstrom' [link to wider report]. This involves co-operatives facilitating the installation of communal solar panels on blocks of flats with the energy generated consumed within the building by co-operative members under mini power purchase agreements. This is effectively 'local supply' and though no such projects exist in the UK such schemes are technically legal under the untried 'unlicensed supply model'. Certainly there is a lot of interest in pioneering this work in the UK!
The group also heard from Gert De Block of European Federation of Local Energy Companies who represents European municipal energy organisations, Christoph Rasch of Greenpeace Energy, an energy company that came out of a Greenpeace campaign 20 years ago and Pierre Jean Coulon, President of TEN Section of European Economic and Social Committee.
We also had time for a few presentations from members of the delegation. Of particular interest was farmer Chris Jones of Woodland Valley Farm who presented on Mob Grazing (as recently featured on Radio 4's The Archers), a farming method which encourages soil structure and leads to a net carbon sequestration through the ongoing incorporation of organic matter in to the soil. Brian Aldridge might not like it but as Chris remarked, “He's a farmer stuck in the past, understanding only petrol and fertiliser!”.
The workings of the European Union
The visit also offered an important opportunity for us to better understand the workings of the European Union. On day two, we were treated to a whistle stop tour of the institutions that make up the EU from civil servant Henry Wasung, examining the role of the Commission, the Council and the Parliament.
We then had time with Green MEP Molly Scott Cato and it was of particular interest to learn about the interrogative process of debate and review that MEPs carry out on new legislation. Because the European Parliament does not operate under the same adversarial system as the UK, there is far more opportunity for amendments and improvements to be made to new legislation. Molly herself has worked regulations affecting tax havens and financial securitisation and can demonstrate a level of involvement that would be unthinkable in a Westminster context.
Whilst at the Parliament, I was lucky enough to grab the opportunity to meet with North West Labour MEP Theresa Griffin. Her focus is on energy efficiency and fuel poverty and she was keen to hear of concrete examples and case studies from Carbon Co-op's Community Green Deal retrofits.
She highlighted important new policy proposals within the Winter Package: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Cymt8GSXAAAQeXg.jpg. Her team also commented that the rise of the empowered and informed prosumer was very much seen as a threat to the existing business models of the Big Six energy companies and that community energy groups should seek to protect the rights of householder to generate and consumer their own energy as individuals and communities.
Again, the crucial role of informed and knowledgable MEPs in shaping new policy was highlighted.
Lessons from the UK
One of the most beneficial aspects of the trip was the opportunity to learn from and network with other UK community energy organisations. As discussed previously on the Carbon Co-op blog, community energy is a hotbed for new ideas and innovation in the energy sector. New models for local supply are on the agenda but there is also a renewed interest in energy efficiency models – a move Carbon Co-op very much welcomes and where we look forward to sharing our learning, experience and tools with others within the community energy sector.
Contrary to some expectations, the visit ended on a high note, with Andy O'Brien from Bristol Energy Co-operative highlighting recent data from Government demonstrating that solar PV and onshore wind are now cheaper forms of energy generation than new gas-fired power stations. He advocated a 'dolphins not dinosaurs' community energy campaign with dolphins representing new, clean generation and dinosaurs the disappearing polluting power stations of the past.
'Brexit' inevitably reared its ugly head. Examining the immense detail of the Winter Package it quickly becomes apparent that the job of generating and interrogating new energy policy is a huge one and one that the UK civil service is currently in no shape to tackle.
Britain's energy system is intimately connected to Europe's in the form of electricity inter-connectors but also in the set of standards and regulations that govern the operation of the system – everything from energy efficient fridges to new smart meter standards, all our energy policy originates from the EU. It is unthinkable that we can become self sufficient in this area, especially if we are serious about achieving our 2050 carbon emissions targets or even just keeping the lights on.
The reality is that whether in or out of the EU, our energy system is likely to remain part of the 'Energy Union'. At least with MEPs as dedicated and knowledgable as Molly and Theresa we stand a chance of positively contributing to its development – though Brexit inevitably means losing our MEPs and their influence.
In or out, it is absolutely essential that the solidarity and collaboration shown between community energy groups within the UK and within Europe continues and that this helps us achieve the vision set out by Dirk Vansintjan and others of a citizen-led energy revolution for the continent.
Carbon Co-op would like to thanks Jenny and Jodie for organising the trip and Molly and her PA Harriet for helping make it all happen.