Taking control of energy

Taking control of energy
With Europe's energy supply concentrated in the hands of a few companies, Lynda Mitchell, Manager at ALIenergy (Argyll, Lomond and the Islands Energy Agency), looks at how communities are taking back control of their energy supplies

All across Europe, people are taking control of their own clean energy. I was delighted to attend the first Community Energy Convergence last month in Catalonia, at the beautiful cooperatively-owned venue of Mas Franch near Girona.

Organised by Friends of the Earth Europe in conjunction with the European Federation of Renewable Energy Cooperatives (REScoop.eu), this event brought together over 80 participants representing the community energy sector from 20 European countries. I left feeling wonderfully inspired by the enthusiasm and the many examples of innovative, citizen-led initiatives that are changing our world for the better.

Like me, these people are fed up with the fact that the majority of electricity across Europe is supplied by only a handful of big companies. In the UK ‘the big six’ supply 90 per cent of customers, and in Germany, five companies have a similar share, while in Spain, only three energy corporations dominate.

By taking ownership of their own, renewable energy, communities are moving towards an entirely different energy system. Studies suggest half of all citizens in the European Union could be producing their own renewable energy by 2050.

This much-needed transition is happening thanks to committed, willing people getting projects off the ground.  I’ve been involved with the growing community energy movement since 2012, when my organisation ALIenergy, which promotes sustainable energy use and renewable energy generation in Argyll, Lomond and the Islands, entered a partnership with Ecopower, a successful renewable cooperative in Flanders, Belgium. With other community energy partners around Europe, we helped community-led renewable energy projects contribute towards European energy and climate targets by increasing social acceptance, gathering and sharing knowledge and best practices, supporting emerging projects, creating a network of expert mentors, and making policy recommendations to EU and national governments. 

Through this project I was privileged to visit many ground breaking citizen-owned renewable energy cooperatives, such as Middelgrunden in Denmark, an elegant, crescent-shaped offshore wind farm near Copenhagen. Projects like this have paved the way for an ever growing movement of ‘prosumers’ (proactive consumers), who are empowered to take control of their own energy generation and use.

Closer to my home on the west coast of Scotland, where the natural elements of wind, water and forestry are abundant, community owned energy projects are also on the increase. Having reached the target of 500 MW of community and locally owned renewable energy generation three years ahead of schedule, the Scottish Government has set new targets of 1 GW by 2020, and 2 GW by 2030. Current emphasis for local energy generation, in line with the Scottish Government’s recent draft Energy Strategy, is on a ‘whole system view’ incorporating renewable energy technologies alongside on-site energy use, storage, and demand-side and active network management. 

A good example of this novel, innovative, circular economy approach is the ASLEE project (Algal Solutions for Local Economy). This project has been developed in response to grid constraint issues that mean that many communities wanting to generate their own renewable power are unable to obtain the permissions they require for grid connections, as the grid struggles to cope with new local generation which is intermittent and difficult to control.

Here, an algal manufacturing process is used as a ‘transactive load’ that switches up and down in rapid response to varying local supply and demand on the grid. It deals with excess renewable energy by directly using it when and where it is produced.

Algae production is an ideal process for a fluctuating energy supply because algae have evolved to cope with naturally varying light levels. The process can also use waste nutrients from nearby agricultural processes or whisky distilleries, and carbon dioxide from combustion or fermentation processes. There is a ready market: algae are used as feedstocks in the Scottish fish farming industry, and there are other uses for algal products in the sustainable economy, including as pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, feedstocks, bioplastics, and biofuels.

The story of the ASLEE project sparked plenty of interest amongst the delegates at Mas Franch with its interwoven themes of community renewables, grid balancing, a circular economy, algae, fish and whisky. There are over a hundred different whisky distilleries in Scotland, each producing waste nutrients and carbon dioxide, alongside some very fine alcoholic drinks. Perhaps one day they will also offer sustainably produced live superfood chlorella or spirulina drinks for the morning after!