Climate Power to the People? Bottom-up Energy Policy and Community Renewables

Julie MacArthur

Lecturer in Politics and International Relations and the Master of Public Policy Program at the University of Auckland.

As the Paris COP 21 climate talks approach on November 30, attention is turning to the seemingly impossible task of reaching a binding and effective global deal to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, in a recent climate policy report released by the OECD, the authors argue that not only are current targets too weak to be effective, but the vast majority of countries are still failing to meet even the relatively low bar set. Given this challenging context, what can we expect next week and where might we find ways forward?

In Paris, as with Copenhagen in 2009, it is widely expected that much of the debate will focus on mechanisms for information sharing, developing new technologies and monitoring emissions reduction progress at the national levels. The goal is still a binding agreement, but this will prove a tall order. Effective national and local level policy action is thus crucial moving forward. However, according to a 2015 analysis in Nature Climate Change,

“No major emitter can at present claim to show the necessary leadership in the concerted effort of avoiding warming of 2 degrees Celsius in a diverse global context."

The consequences of weak targets and implementation in this field are dire. They include rising sea levels, species extinction, increasing intensity of droughts and storms as well as a range of other health and economic effects. These impacts will vary from region to region. The OECD estimated the annual cost of air pollution to OECD societies, China and India to be “USD 3.5 trillion in terms of the value of lives lost and ill health”. Incredibly, significant fossil fuel subsidies persist globally ($554 billion USD in 2012 according to IEA and $2 trillion according to IMF), overshadowing support for new renewables and the investments needed in cleaner and more efficient mechanisms for fueling our cars, heating our homes and powering our workplaces.

A bottom up approach in the face of policy deadlocks and inaction at the national and international levels is increasingly appealing for climate action; from a California Effect in climate policy, to a renewed focus on municipal climate plans and initiatives, national and even local level action has emerged as a central mechanism for progress in this area.

New Zealand

One exemplar of the scope of the challenge ahead is New Zealand. Despite having one of the world's first comprehensive carbon price mechanisms in its Emissions Trading Scheme, New Zealand has not been a climate action leader in terms of the effectiveness or ambition of its policies. Per capita greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in New Zealand rank fifth in the OECD, and total emissions have risen sharply by 32% since 1990 despite various international negotiations and agreements. Uniquely for a developed country, agricultural GHGs form a significant portion (48% in 2013) of the total while energy (39%), industrial processes (6%) and waste (6%) formed the remainder. Emissions in the transport sector alone have increased 70% since 1990.

At the last UN Climate Summit, participating countries agreed to arrive at the 2015 treaty meeting with concrete climate targets (INDCs) in hand that would be implemented no later than 2020. According to New Zealand’s 2015 INDC , the country has provisionally pledged to reduce GHGs to 30% below 2005 levels (11% below 1990) by 2030. They’ve put a focus on domestic reductions at "an affordable cost", with a commitment period from 2021 to 2030 and a target of 90% electricity from renewable energy by 2025.

But the gap between emissions on the ground and pledges is a wide one. According to the OECD, in order to meet its earlier 2020 pledges, Kiwis are going to have to reduce GHG emissions by 9.5 to 11.4 per year (including LULUCF) between now and then, with annual reductions closer to 3.5-4.5 annually for the longer term provisional 2030 INDC targets. The task is going to be a mammoth one.

While some may rely on the idea of 'clean, green New Zealand' to justify complacency on the energy policy front, this is a mistake. The need for new green and more efficient energy systems even in relatively renewable countries like New Zealand is crucial when one considers the power requirements to shift from petrol and diesel to power electric cars, or to address shortfalls from declining hydro resources and coal generation decommissioning.

The political challenge, of course, is that the large scale public investment which developed New Zealand’s energy sector in earlier years does not fit within the current policy context of P3s, aversion to deficit spending and limited government. One way that states are, often uncomfortably, attempting to support reform yet still maintain arms-length is by supporting inclusion of a broader range of actors.

Community Renewable Energy

Community renewable energy (CRE) is an approach to renewables development that focuses on a central role for local groups—co-operatives, non-profits, iwi or indigenous groups, social enterprises and sometimes municipal actors— participating and/or owning renewable energy initiatives. These might include, for example, an urban solar array, a collectively owned wind turbine, a district heating system or even a geothermal plant.

The argument advanced for this form of engagement in renewable energy is that local citizen ownership is a useful mechanism for a) citizen education on the complexities of energy issues, b) creating a financial stake in new renewable and efficiency projects, and c) a move towards more reflexivity design and implementation. Support for transitions to renewable energy is thus enhanced through the creation of a more informed, engaged and active citizens in the particular policy arena. Community energy systems are also heralded as a potential mechanism for reducing NIMBY backlash.

These potential benefits are appealing to policymakers and community advocates alike. According to the OECD:

“Policies are needed that can help improve energy access and reduce poverty, while avoiding development pathways that lock in dependence on traditional carbon-intensive energy technologies. For instance, decentralised renewable energy systems can increase access to energy in remote off-grid areas."

In developing countries community energy initiatives may provide a way of ‘leapfrogging’ development of large centralised power systems. In developed countries like Australia and New Zealand, power systems shifted from earlier decentralization based around municipal public utility models to centralized (and now often privatized) entities where citizens are largely consumers.”

In response to supportive policies in some jurisdictions, combined with a groundswell of local renewables advocacy and mobilization, community energy projects have expanded significantly in recent years. Scotland has now developed the first community ocean energy system. In New Zealand, groups like the Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust have just applied for resource consent to build a windfarm, and Maori trusts are active owners and developers of geothermal power in the country.

This expansion is largely, but not solely, driven by a range of supportive policies. This is important as the energy sector is often highly technical, with significant up-front costs in both time and funding. Targeted policy support has been crucial in leveling the playing field somewhat for these non-traditional participants.

For example, feed-in tariffs—set rates for generation usually diversified by renewable source—that target support to community projects operate in jurisdictions from Thailand to Nova Scotia. In the Province of Ontario there area community capacity set-asides on the grid so that local actors can connect, and for first nations, co-operative and municipal projects under a certain size extra funding is provided. In 2014 the UK Government brought in a Community Energy Policy, and the Former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Edward Davey explained this policy action on the basis that:

“We want to tap into the enthusiasm and commitment that’s so evident in community groups across the country – whether it’s for helping people struggling with energy bills or for playing a part in the global race to decarbonise our society…We want to play to the advantages that community-based action offers energy and climate change policy. Communities are often more effective in reaching the vulnerable in society and may be more trusted by sceptical consumers. They are better placed to maximise the benefits of certain renewable technologies, such as district heat networks, and can gain wider benefits such as local economic regeneration and a stronger sense of community.”

Community energy support also crosses party lines in some countries. The UK Labour’s spokesperson Lisa Nandy recently announced that:

“We want to put people back in charge… [we] don't want to nationalise energy…We want to do something far more radical than that. We want to democratise it….There should be nothing to stop every community in this country owning its own clean energy power station.”

When and where community and bottom up energy reform can ‘scale up’ to make a significant dent in energy sector emissions is, of course, by no means assured. Challenges have arisen in community energy practice in determining who constitutes a ‘community’, diverse needs within them, as well as the use of the term as a rhetorical device for drawing support for potentially controversial initiatives. Clearly, there are no magic bullets or panaceas. The contribution of these groups and the policies that support them will certainly also vary from state to state, which is why nationally and locally targeted empirical research is crucial to assessing their potential. Furthermore, local level action alone certainly cannot address the multi-sector, multi-level and inter-generational challenges that confront actors in this sector. Next week's meeting in Paris is vital, but so too are locally based efforts to transform and democratise our power systems.


This blog post also appeared on Pacific Outlier. 

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