Peer Power – lessons from a peer networking project

Our organisational aims are to get more community ownership of energy generation that reduces our carbon emissions. This will help make our communities better and stronger

Jodie Giles

Project Manager, Regen

A year and a half ago, our grantees Regen set out to replicate their work with the Devon Community Energy Network in Dorset, and it didn’t go quite to plan … here are some reflections from Regen’s Project Manager, Jodie Giles, on why that is and four lessons they learnt along the way.

1.      Networks are powerful capacity builders, but they need support

We are lucky in Devon to have more community energy organisations than any other county in the UK, but we have created that luck though a sustained and collaborative approach to supporting peer networking of grass roots energy organisations to help them grow, learn and build their own capacity. All the networking activities have been co-designed with communities, and financially supported over the last 6 years by Devon County Council, Regen (funded by Esmee Fairbairn, and Power to Change), South West Water, Naturesave, and our local Distribution Network Operator, Western Power Distribution. These supporters have all played a vital role in bringing the network together for training and social events, including feasts, site visits and two open space residentials.

2.      Networks take a long time to develop

The 23 community energy organisations in Devon have installed 62 community owned renewable electricity generation projects, a total of 12.3 MW of capacity. They have saved 6080 tonnes of CO2 emissions, raised over £14million, and supported 2717 households with energy efficiency. Regen have been intensively supporting this network for six years.

Eighteen months ago, we started a new project called Peer Power, funded by Power to Change. The intention was to take the learning from our work with the Devon Community Energy Network and apply it to Dorset which has just two community energy organisations. What happened was not quite what we expected. There were lots of people in Dorset participating in our network building events and who enjoyed meeting up to learn and talk about energy issues. Perhaps one day some of them will develop their own projects, but most of them were not ready yet. Instead they want to carry on meeting, learning and sharing ideas. We are now working with Sustainable Dorset to help this network move forward.

Dorset Community Energy supported and participated in Peer Power throughout, but for them it didn’t really meet their need to talk to other community energy organisations delivering live projects. They participated in the Devon networking activities and started talking to other groups near them about the benefits of peer networking. On Tuesday night they launched the Wessex Community Energy Network along with Salisbury Community Energy and Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. I ran a workshop for them on network building and shared some of the lessons we have learned in Devon and Dorset.

3.      Mission critical

A clear mission based around a set of values is essential. The Devon Community Energy Network has defined their mission:

“We share knowledge and expertise and collaborate in a transparent way to make our decarbonised, democratic and decentralised energy projects happen. We cooperate to build our capability and capacity, and to drive innovation. Collaboration gives us a stronger voice for lobbying, and we want to explore more collective action.

Our organisational aims are to get more community ownership of energy generation that reduces our carbon emissions. This will help make our communities better and stronger, keeping the money, benefit and services local. We want to offer trusted advice and raise awareness about energy use to help people in our communities, especially those in poverty.”

The fledgling network in Dorset struggled to define a clear vision beyond saving the planet and reducing carbon emissions. The lack of a viable and easily replicable business model was a problem as they considered developing their own community energy projects. Without a focused set of values that enable people to work together for a common purpose, networking activities are challenging.

4.      Go with the flow and let go

Our work in Dorset has not resulted in loads of new community energy groups forming, but as two new networks with different purposes emerge in Wessex and Dorset, we will be watching this space! In Devon I have been actively stepping back from being a central convenor of the network and encouraging a more democratic structure, because this is more sustainable in the long run and ultimately creates a stronger network. Letting go is hard to do as a born organiser and self-confessed control freak, but as the network evolves so do I, and letting go is a very necessary part of the process for sustainable networks.

If you want to find out more about the peer networking project, the theory of networks and what Regen and others learned check out the unlocking networks website: www.unlockingnetworks.org You can find out more about the Devon Community Energy Network in its latest impact report on the Regen website. If you’d like to get involved, get in touch with your local community energy group or contact Regen to find a group near you.