The Great Energy Escape – panel discussion

by Blog

Hosted by Carbon Co-op and Energy Democracy Greater Manchester, the Great Energy Escape panel discussion saw forty people assemble on a wet cold Monday evening in November to discuss the opportunities and challenges of the energy system transition in the context of energy democracy.

The evening was a follow up to the Great Energy Escape immersive game designed by Dan Hett for children and families staged at the Manchester Museum as part of Manchester Science Festival.

The event featured Tom Law, Innovation Manager at the DNO Electricity North West (ENW), Colin Baines, Investment Engagement Manager at Friends Provident Foundation and Emilia Melville energy systems engineer at Buro Happold.

Compere Jonathan Atkinson of Carbon Co-op introduced the theme of the session by polling the audience on how many felt they owned a bit of the energy system (in total two people: one with solar panels, one with shares in a community energy scheme) and how many felt they had both the information and the agency to influence the energy transition (just one person this time and one of the speakers at that!).

The point being made that groups like Carbon Co-op and Energy Democracy Greater Manchester exist to extend both direct ownership of the energy system and to enable citizens to be able to participate in decision making around it – something this evening set out to explore in greater depth.


With an audience of practitioners, policy makers, academics and activists, the event was designed to maximise involvement from attendees and began with a poll of audience priorities and questions for the evening which covered everything from the technical challenges of electric vehicles and battery storage down to energy efficiency policy. There was particular interest in how professionals, activists and policy makers broaden the debate beyond the already informed 'usual suspects' (see full list below).


The evening's three speakers each addressed the energy transition, covering similar ground but each with a unique viewpoint.

First up, Electricity North West's Innovation Manager Tom Law, outlined the distribution network operator perspective, the DNO being the infrastructure organisation that oversees the distribution of electricity down from National Grid pylons to the meters in homes and businesses. Tom discussed 'the things that keep him awake at night' such as the large predicted take up in electric vehicles and electric heating and the huge burden this will place on the existing grid. Interestingly for a DNO, Electricity North West are now more interested in energy efficiency – the point being that the most effective way to meet these new challenges is to lower the amount of energy society uses in the first place.

Next was Colin Baines, Investment Engagement Manager at the Friends Provident Foundation. The Friends Provident pension fund has long since been sold, but the foundation continues to positively influence where pension funds invest their cash. A concern for the foundation is the long term viability of the 'Big Six' energy utility companies (Centrica, N-Power, E-On etc): how sound a long term investment are these companies for shareholders and investors? Colin's most recent 'Wise Minds' research set out to answer this by convening a group of ex-Big Six CEOs, ex-government ministers and other energy industry big-wigs – the idea being that former employees felt more free to speak their mind.

The report that came from this, co-authored by Forum for the Future identified seismic shifts in the energy market such as the democratisation of energy (where recently there were 400 generators in the UK, now there are 1.2m), the exponential growth of technology such as solar panels and battery storage and the transformative influence of internet enabled technologies. The authors concluded that the Big Six's vertically-integrated business model is now time-limited (5 years, 10 years?) and the ability of these companies to influence the energy transition through lobbying and other tactics is declining. “They can either go with it or slow things down but they can't reverse the transition.” Colin concluded.

Finally Emilia Mellville, energy systems engineer at Burro Hapold introduced her work on Energy Democracy. Emilia identified some core, underlying values of the concept of energy democracy, these being participation, environmental sustainability and affordability. She highlighted the groups and networks that have promoted and developed the idea to date, ranging from international Climate Camp activists to community energy groups to unions such as Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. Emilia highlighted the different levels the energy system operates at and how ideas of democracy and participation might vary from the international to the national to the local scale. She highlighted ideas of 'ownership' and 'participation', emphasising their differences between the two concepts – regional energy co-ops in the United States afford common ownership but attendance figures for AGMs suggest participation and in turn levels of democracy are low.

Questions and reflections

After a time for reflection in small groups, attendees pitched questions and clarifications for the panel.

Questions included:

  • What happens in a decentralised, democratised energy system when it experiences extreme weather disasters such as those predicted under future climate models?
    Tom Law picked up on this question as black outs are the responsibility of a DNO such as ENW. He pointed to a relatively recent example when severe flooding knocked out electricity supply to the whole of Lancaster for nearly 36 hours.
  • Is there a tension the deliberative, participatory democracy explemplified in Energy Democracy and the representative democracy we currently experience on a larger scale such as the UK parliamentary system?
  • What (if anything) are the Big Six doing to change and respond to the developments Colin outlined?
    Colin Baines answered this, suggesting the Big Six simply needed to 'get out of the way'. There was discussion about whether Centrica's recent announcements signalled a withdrawal from energy supply or were pretty minor in the context of their whole business
  • Energy Democracy and energy transition advocates seem to suggest regulation needs to be removed, but is there in fact a greater role for regulation?
  • What are the dangers of Energy Democracy, for example, local people blocking wind turbine developments and might we experience brown outs as they have done in California?
    Colin replied to the initial question citing research suggesting communities were in fact MORE likely to accept wind turbines if resources were kept locally by the community. The second question led to an interesting debate about whether increased renewable penetration on the grid might make it more unstable, with evidence from the USA suggesting far high levels of grid stability than some had initially feared.

You can hear the questions and the responses from the panel in full via this audio:

In conclusion

The evening finished off with a go round of positive ideas and actions from the audience, ranging from eco home tours to more creative projects aimed at engaging people with the energy system. A full list can be found below and via this audio:

At the end, a number of future events were flagged up including the (Greater Manchester) Mayor's Green Summit in March 2018, the Electricity North West/Carbon Co-op event on DSOs on 1st December 2017 and there was even a nod towards the Bonn climate talks and the near inevitable three degrees of warming coming our way!

The organisers would like to thank the speakers and the participants for attending, and we hope the event achieved its aims and attendees felt they understood the challenges of democratising the energy system and have a little bit more agency and knowledge with which to effect positive change (we're running a survey of attendees so we'll update this blog when we have the results).

Download the presentations here

Download audio recordings + presentations of the evening here:




Write up for the session:


  • Investment in the grid and in energy efficiency
  • Improved building regs for new developments
  • Teaching, capacity and confidence for communities
  • Engagement with local leaders
  • Developing community leaders
  • Examples of retrofitted houses, bus tours of eco-homes etc
  • Learn from other movements, housing etc
  • Have advocacy and messages for politicians ready for crisis moments
  • Mentoring by experienced groups
  • Communicate when's best for consume energy to householders
  • Creative engagement projects

Questions from the event

  • How does the built environment fit in to the energy transition?
  • Over what timescale are these changes taking place?
  • Nationalisation – yay or nay?
  • How can we carry out public engagement beyond the usual suspects?
  • What can we learn from past mistakes and how can we learn from them?
  • What role is there for demand response?
  • How can local groups become involved in local supply of energy?
  • How can we empower households?
  • What kind of education do we need to do around the energy system transition?
  • How can we get society to take a greater interest in this work?
  • What are the tipping points that will trigger the transition, what is the role for early adopters in this?