A just and inclusive energy transition – what can local authorities do to ensure more people are involved?

19 Aug 2020

Authors: Sioned Haf and Rosie Robison

If the current pandemic has shown us anything (particularly during periods of lockdown) it is the proven capacity of citizens to cooperate in times of emergency. People have shown their ability and willingness to work collectively in caring for their communities. From voluntary food and medical prescription deliveries through to donations, campaigns, and creative collaborations. Normal people have proven themselves to be extraordinarily innovative in finding ways to deliver services that bolster and support their communities in a way that addresses their specific and localised needs.

Although these positive activities have occurred under tragic circumstances for many, it demonstrates how society could and should work, virus or no virus. It also holds relevance to the energy transition – the transition to a new and sustainable energy system.

Why is it important that communities and citizens are central to the energy transition?

There is growing evidence within energy-related social sciences and humanities research of the importance of including people within the energy transition. An inclusive energy transition is fairer, can address interlinked issues and could speed up the transition. By placing the transition into the hands of normal people (not just into the hands of traditional energy incumbents and governments), giving us ownership of our own ‘energy fate’, makes the transition more personal. It makes it ours. By excluding normal people, the energy transition is in danger of becoming another abstract idea that will take years to achieve. Years, in relation to climate change, that we do not have.

Citizen and community involvement has already been recognised through the EU’s Clean Energy Package. For citizens and communities to benefit from this initiative, Local Authorities in particular – as the closest body of government to citizens – play an important role in translating new opportunities.

What can local authorities do?

Ensuring that more citizens and local communities benefit from the energy transition should be a priority for any local authority concerned with the wellbeing, economy and future development of the communities over which they govern. This can be done in several ways, some of which include:

  • Adopting more open and inclusive structural procedures that allow for the input of citizens (e.g. citizen assemblies and juries).
  • Actively seek out and support citizen led energy projects whose members could also participate in forming collaborative energy measures.
  • Procure locally generated renewable energy from community/cooperative energy projects.
  • Make joint-ventures with community or citizen owned energy projects a priority.
  • Link environmental, health, wellbeing, planning, culture, and education issues with energy developments.
  • Use creative tools and collaborate with the creative industry to connect related topics (mobility, health, economy, etc.) and allow citizens to ‘figure out’ how to create resilient, sustainable local economies (The Future Generations Commissioner in Wales has recently suggested that recent funding for those working in the arts sector could be used to employ the skills of creative artists “in the planning design and delivery of public and community services”)

Losing sight of the proven ability of citizens to be participative actors within a society (brought to light once again during the recent pandemic) who can galvanise and deliver their own solutions to their own local needs would be a great loss. From an energy transition perspective, and particularly in relation to local authorities, this potential should be captured for future projects if the energy transition is to be realised. Doing so goes some way to address an even bigger world crisis that faces humanity, that of climate change.

A full version of the research report ‘How local authorities can encourage citizen participation in energy transitions’ is available through the UKERC and Energy Cities websites. This report, written during a secondment with Energy Cities as a part of the Energy-PIECES project developed by the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University, reflects upon how Local Authorities and municipalities across Europe can support and facilitate the involvement of their citizens in energy system developments, as we transition towards low carbon societies.