Blog: Energy Efficiency - investing in a greener recovery for local business
"I wasn't elected to do global issues, I was elected to do Cumbria issues,” said a Councillor, apparently, during the recent session in which Britain’s first new deep coal mine for 30 years was approved.
We shouldn’t be too harsh*. Let’s leave aside the fact that Cumbria is probably a part of the world, and specifically a part that is subject to frequent flooding made more likely by that most global of issues - climate change - and that the new mine will triple the county’s carbon footprint.
Let’s instead try and put ourselves in the shoes of this Councillor. In a region desperately in need of good quality jobs and economic diversification, the proposal for a new mine has been put on the desks of decision-makers with an array of promises and some ready-baked excuses**.
This is the dichotomy of a fossil fuel-powered economy. Dirty fuels force trade-offs between local jobs and local environmental degradation, between economic growth and climate breakdown. The actions of protestors and growing public awareness of the magnitude of the climate crisis are starting to tip the scales against outcomes like this one in Cumbria. But this decision shows how seductive the old economic models can still be, particularly when times are tough. And times most certainly are tough.
In principle, a clean energy economy requires no such trade-offs, or at least less onerous ones. There is still the potential for a developer to come into an area and extract wealth, but this comes with far less downside for the local community. And the small scale, relative simplicity and low barriers to entry of clean energy projects compared to fossil fuels lend themselves to local, community-derived solutions.
We are not there yet, but the community energy movement is showing how this new paradigm could work. Over the last year I have been working with this sector a lot, and it is incredibly encouraging to see how it works. The development of community renewable energy projects has been painstakingly professionalised and systematised so that projects are investment-grade, low risk, even for ordinary investors, making it easier to rally local people around initiatives in their area. Unlike our Cumbrian councillor, these investors are presented with an opportunity that is both locally value-creating and globally responsible - they don't have to choose.
Through our ESCO-in-a-box project we are trying to create the same conditions for investment in energy efficiency - 'powering down' by reducing demand as a complement to 'powering up' with clean generating capacity, to borrow terminology from our partners at Low Carbon Hub.
Specifically, we have been looking at the opportunity in every region for reducing the energy demand of local businesses. This represents an enormous source of zero-carbon 'energy' and, equally importantly, a way to secure and create local jobs (provided a local workforce is employed), and to provide a return to local investors. All with no environmental downside. Arguably an even more compelling 'win-win' than local renewable projects, and certainly a logical accompaniment to them.
Throughout this crazy year we have been building a system that can be used to deliver standardised energy-saving projects to businesses in a local area, and have launched the first Community ESCO to use it - www.energysolutionsoxfordshire.org - with Oxfordshire SMEs now starting to benefit.
Presumably for transgressions in a past life I have been condemned to think about energy efficiency for a living. Always the underdog of the energy transition, one of energy efficiency's many problems is its nebulousness. Yes, the potential for efficiency is vast, but how vast? And how do we access it when the potential is locked-up within homes and organisations?
In contrast, what strikes me about both the coal mine proposal and the clean energy projects presented to community investors is that they are on the table. They are discrete, comprehensible, investable things that create momentum through their very existence. You can say 'yes' to them.
So if we are going to put SME energy efficiency on the table, it needs to take the same form. We are trying to build a system that incorporates the best of international 'good practice' along with community-level positioning. In short we are aiming to create an energy efficiency proposition that SMEs can easily agree to, even those who have previously taken little action (which is most of them.) Every individual project will be substantially identical, and when aggregated they form a local portfolio that will be investable for individuals in a community.
In some ways this appears to be a terrible time to do this. SMEs are facing a tsunami of uncertainty from Covid and Brexit. Central government is chaotic, appears intent on antagonising local and devolved decision-makers, and fixates on moonshot-ish techno-fixes rather than the cloud of small-and-beautiful, proven solutions we need.
But these are exactly the reasons why now is the time to grasp the nettle, tackle business energy use in a local way, and help communities build back greener for the long term. It's become a cliché, but the current crises are dwarfed by climate breakdown, and the margin for error on emissions is so scant that we cannot afford to make the wrong decisions in response to short-term pressures.
Now that we are off the ground in Oxfordshire, we need other regions to create local ESCOs and help local businesses be cleaner and more productive, to become part of a movement that creates and sustains local jobs without damaging the environment. Now, more than ever, is the time to say 'yes' to energy efficiency.
For more information on ESCO-in-a-box, see our new website: www.epconnect.energy
*Ok maybe we should. I mean, come on.
**For example (I'm paraphrasing): It's not really a coal mine, like a dirty old-fashioned one with flat caps, brass bands and organised labour. It's a special modern coal mine that only produces really shiny coal for steel production... And who doesn't love steel production? So you see, its emissions don't really count. In fact you could say it's an environmentally-friendly coal mine... And so on.
Managing Director, Consultancy at EnergyPro Limited