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A European perspective on Community Energy

Alyn spoke at Community Energy Scotland's 'Innovation in Community Energy: Opportunities and Obstacles' conference in Glasgow on 6th November 2013.

See his full speech below:

Nicholas thanks very much, I’m glad I could be here hot foot from Brussels to wish you well in your conference and present your awards later for your inspiring Community Energy projects, some great work going on up and down the country.  Its great too to see so many familiar faces!

I’ve been an MEP since 2004, and specifically on my election sought and won membership of the Industry Research and Energy committee – Scotland has hit the global energy jackpot, and we have in our research community a world class resource for our future economy, I’ve been proud to represent both sectors since 2004, and have been pleased and excited to see the changes we’ve seen in renewables.

You’ve asked me to give “a European perspective” today, but I’ll actually give you a wider one than that, and try to tease together just how important Community owned renewables are for so many reasons. One of the beauties of being an MEP is that I can, must indeed, take a wider perspective than most domestic politicians, and while all politics is local there are global trends which we are all influenced by.

First – real big picture.  The entire population map of Europe is the way it is because that’s where coal was in the 18th and 19th centuries.  We are, still, living to that pattern and even in our energy systems, we are still operating to an outdated economic model.  Big mega companies, if not part of then recently part of and closely regulated by, the state produce energy from fossil fuel and distribute it to a grateful, compliant and dependent populace.

Renewables turns that on its head.  Peripherality is relative, and putting people in charge of limitless renewable indigenous energy resources will revolutionise way more things than just our energy mix.

One of my biggest personal bugbears about public life and public discourse in Scotland – the constant use of the word “they”.  You’ll hear it described in different ways, the Scottish cringe, crisis of confidence, whatever, but I think it boils down to one simple fact.  We have in Scotland, whether as individuals, communities or the nation, got used to people with power being ‘someone else’.  They have built trams in Edinburgh.  They have built a Parliament building.  They have raised electricity prices again.  Decades, centuries even, of talking about people with power as being someone other than ourselves.  Too used to decisions being made for us, things done to us.  Energy is a classic example of that, hard wired, literally, dependencey.

Again, you turn that on its head.  We’ve seen real world examples, up and down the country, of how when a community takes charge of energy then it soon develops an appetite to step up and take responsibility for lots of other things too.  You provide community empowerment in more senses than one!

But I’m a supporter and advocate of you not just for all the positive reasons I’ve mentioned, not just about the positive contribution you’ll make to fragile communities, the fight against climate change, all of that, but because I think we’re going to need you, sooner than we think.

My other committee over the water is the Agriculture committee.  Call it Agriculture only so many people are interested, sadly, but call it food and we all have a clear interest, and the geopolitics of food are frightening.  Population growth continues exponentially, while climate change is making bits of the world wetter, bits of the world drier and all of the world more climatically unstable.  Our global agriculture is heavily petrochem dependent in terms of transport and fertilser, and orientated towards vast overeating and waste by parts of the world, vast hunger in others.  This can only lead to political instability, which will itself kick on an energy crisis to go along with the climate and food ones.  And we thought the financial crisis was bad.

I take this pretty personally, I grew up in the Middle East, I still have close family links to the region, I’m a member of the Parliament’s Delegation for relations with the Arabian Peninsula.  I keep a close eye on the place.  The Arab Spring is far from over.  The Arab Spring wasn’t a brave new dawn for democracy don’t kid yourselves, it was started by raging food price inflation, and whoever was in charge was responsible.  Food price inflation is continuing apace, there have been food riots on every continent but ours this year, and we see weekly demonstrations in Bahrain, some of the UAE states, Kuwait and most worryingly Saudi Arabia.  Most worryingly not because any strife is worse than any other, but because the implications of a revolution in Saudi will be incalculable and uncontainable.

Similarly, much of the EU remains dependent upon imported energy, much of that from Russia, a country that has been quite clear and upfront that it will use energy exports as a tool of foreign policy.

Look at the history of renewables growth – the biggest boosts you’ve had have been external shocks: the OPEC crisis in the 70s and the Russians turning the gas off in the mid 2000s.  I think we’ll soon see your work rocket back up the political agenda, and it will be important that we are ready to act fast when it happens.  Green energy is indigenous energy.  There is of course a degree of instability inherent in any weather system but I’d feel safer relying on Scottish windy weather than the vagaries of Russian or MidEast politics, and its not like a properly diversified renewable mix would be unreliable anyway.

And this will be urgent because on the EU side, there’s just no question that you have fallen down the radar.  The EU has done much to encourage growth, but we still have too many conflicting priorities, you know them well.  We want to encourage, but state aid rules trip you up.  We set CO2 reduction targets, but the environmental and planning rules wrap you up in paper for a few years while everyone quietly walks away.  We talk a good game, but the disastrous UK locational pricing regime is still legal under EU rules.

We’ve seen progress, there’s much to build upon, but the fight against climate change has - wrongly – fallen down the EU’s agenda, taking second place to the financial crisis.  At home, we’ve made great progress in Scotland, but I’m deeply worried at the noises coming out of DECC and the UK government.  The notion that energy bills are rising because of renewables is dishonest, misleading and plain wrong, but that hasn’t stopped it becoming the only narrative in town down South and I’m fearful that we’ll see some ruinously short sighted decisions pretty soon coming out of the UK government.

But, I’m more positive than negative, and I think there is much to build upon.  In Scotland we’ve made great progress, both in commercial big scale renewables but also on the community side.  And spare a thought for us, we had to encourage the big developments to make Scotland the centre of the universe, to make sure that the companies do the smart stuff here - the tie ups with the universities, the research, design, fabrication.  Otherwise we could just be the klondike, watching a few landowners make money from part time jobbing builders turning screwdrivers putting up imported turbines or kit.  I think we've achieved a critical mass that has made Scotland a world leader in renewable science and engineering, and we now need to kick on the next phase, real community benefit, and community ownership.

Alongside the big developments we've had the CARES initiative pooling expertise and encouragement, and a target of 500MW of community owned reserve by 2020 has spurred change.  Intelligent Energy Europe has funded a lot of good practice, and has seen a lot of knowledge transfer across the EU’s internal borders.  You know the other plethora of acronyms, there are a number of good projects and there is support available.  But I’ll be frank, renewables in Brussels still looks a bit homespun, a bit cottage industry, you don’t have the priority I believe we need to see.  Yet.  We’re in a period of change in Brussels, when aren’t we? The Energy Commissioner is outgoing, the European elections, if I might make a brief plug, are in May so MEPs will be focussing on that.  So it is a good time to be drawing up your list of demands from your aspiring politicians, if I can help with that do let me know.

Because you’ve a lot to win.  My north star is easy to describe – I want you to do well, because you’ll make my country and continent more successful better place to be.  You’ve no shortage of barriers, actual barriers: access to finance, engineering challenges, geography and more.  To see you, still, being held back by artificial man made barriers: planning rules, a locational pricing regime that doesn’t fit you, an electricity market that works against you, EU rules that conflict and often contradict each other, then it is incumbent upon all Scotland’s politicians to do all we can to knock these man made hindrances down.  For my part, if I’m in a position to, after the elections I look forward to continuing to support you, and work with you and for you towards our common goal.  Thanks.