Community Energy Scotland: Uniting the Nation’s Local Energy Communities in a Just Transition

This interview by Laura McDermott is part of a special edition of The BEAM in cooperation with Patagonia about community-owned energy across Europe. You can find the zine in all Patagonia stores!


 

Community Energy Scotland are a nationally recognised charity, providing practical help for communities in green energy development and energy conservation. The organisation has organically evolved from an initial base in the Highlands of Scotland, to meet the demand of local energy communities across the nation. Their vision is to create well informed and capable communities across Scotland, a nation with an abundance of renewable energy resources, whilst simultaneously addressing within these groups the way that energy must be built in a more localised, democratic and sustainable energy system.

CEO, Dr Janet Foggie has a varied career, ranging from academia, to chaplaincy in a psychiatric hospital, to environmental community building at the University of Stirling. She brings to Community Energy Scotland her ethical commitment to putting people first in our transition to Net Zero. She has worked within alleviation of inner city multiple deprivations; including mental health, wellbeing, early life issues, bereavement care and suicide prevention. Her people-oriented approach aligns perfectly with the role of CEO at Community Energy Scotland; a role which is all about giving back to the community and people within it.

The following interview is a conversation between Dr Janet Foggie and The Beam co-Editor, Laura McDermott, where they discuss why local energy communities are so crucial in a Just Transition and the importance of involving everyone in this journey.

 

Dr Janet Foggie, CEO at Community Energy Scotland. Dr Janet Foggie, CEO at Community Energy Scotland.

 

Laura McDermott: To begin, a pretty simple question. Can you give an overview on Community Energy Scotland and what it is exactly that you are doing?

Janet Foggie: Community Energy Scotland (CES) are a national charity and we exist to facilitate, promote and empower communities to own, control, and benefit from local energy. Essentially, this means helping local people to access the resources that are on their own doorsteps and in Scotland, we have an abundance of renewable energy at our doorstep. We are focused on people. It is through the engagement of individuals within their local community that a local community energy revolution can begin.

Why would you say CES have chosen to focus on local community projects in particular? What sort of impact have you seen this focus to have in terms of the work that you’ve been doing?

CES evolved out of a body named Highlands and Islands Enterprise almost two decades ago. So, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were the first place that CES was physically working and this is a region in which we have a real network of community energy projects – particularly in Orkney and the Western Isles.

To someone living in Edinburgh, or London, you might describe those societies as remote but for those living within such communities, that is home. They have a tremendous wealth of renewable energy resources in terms of wind and tidal power which is very accessible to them, however, often these communities do not have the support needed to utilise the wealth of green energy at their fingertips.

For example, ‘Greener Cocody’ is just one project that we have been involved in, which is a community organisation based in Cocody which is helping people from lower incomes to transition to Net Zero; bringing down their heating bills but still warming their houses…

 

Community car club - charging electric vehicles. Community car club - charging electric vehicles.

 

It must be noted that you started the position of CEO in March 2021. A huge congratulations! One comment that the outgoing CEO made on your appointment, was that your depth of experience runs parallel to CES’ strong people-focused approach. Why is such an approach so crucial in discussions relating to global climate action?

Often, it is very easy for those of us who are educated in the climate emergency to go straight to talking about topics such as technological solutions or regenerative farming. The conversation quickly moves, involving labels or acronyms that the average person may not necessarily understand. If we want to get to Net Zero, we have to take the whole population along with us. This means speaking to people and their communities in a way that is accessible…

For many Scottish people, the climate emergency is a high priority. However, the greener solutions to energy use and initiatives that need to be implemented in order to lower our carbon footprint cost money, and it is hard for a household to choose to spend this extra money when it is not always perceived as essential. Further, for people on lower incomes this isn’t always even a choice. If one option is an electric vehicle and the other option is a cheaper petrol or diesel vehicle, then it is very difficult to expect people to make a more sustainable choice without some sort of financial support.

So, we’re working at a national level to tackle the significant barriers and to create flexible local energy solutions. We also need the people living in rented homes or in housing estates or perhaps based in rural or island communities, to feel that that journey to becoming carbon neutral belongs to them and that they have ownership of it. This allows communities to feel and to become empowered.

What responses have you had from individuals whilst doing grassroots work? What impact have you seen the community energy projects have on people’s lives? 

One great story that I was told recently was about a family in the islands North of Orkney, who had an oil tank running their central heating. A lorry filled with oil was driven all the way to the north of Scotland. The lorry then got on a ferry and went to Orkney, where it got on another ferry to get to the island. Once the shipment had arrived, the people in that household then had to lift the oil cans to fill their boiler tank. This family lived right beside a wind turbine for the entire period.

Our team installed a heat storage system for them so that they could run their central heating on the clean and renewable energy that was literally whistling past their door. The family were delighted, as they no longer had to put the physical effort in to have basic heating and their carbon footprint plummeted overnight. People do care, they really know and understand that they are doing an ethical thing – even though they might not always be saving money. An economy in which the bottom line is not monetary, but instead is based on how we treat and nourish our communities will allow society to flourish and local community energy would be and is a big part of this.

 

A Western Isles turbine going up. A Western Isles turbine going up.

 

In September 2020, you released your “Next Steps in Community Energy CES report”. Can you summarise the findings of this report for us? How can we work towards creating the Just Transition?

We would like to see a Scottish national community energy plan. This would mean writing a plan which includes all the stakeholders, which will enable us to have a flexible distribution system so that we can get the maximum out of our natural resources. The purpose of the next steps plan is to ensure that when Scotland generates energy locally, we use it locally. We want to ensure that no community in Scotland gets left behind. The next steps plan would ensure that we have both the technological expertise and the political will required to bring every community along on this journey.

It is a big piece of work, but our hope is to coordinate, facilitate and empower the local communities within Scotland to make a Just Transition in a way that is fair and deserved by everyone.

In November of this year, Scotland will be hosting COP26 – which is set to be one of the most significant moments in climate history. What do you think other countries can learn from Scotland – particularly in relation to the community energy projects that you are engaged with?

We have a real heritage in renewable energy and therefore there is a lot of experience and knowledge that we can pass on. Scottish people are excited about COP26, this is an impression I have really gotten from community groups that I have spoken to. We want to have a holistic approach to Net Zero in Scotland; this means local foods, local agriculture and local industry. To solve the climate emergency isn’t going to be easy, but I think the willingness that I have seen across local energy communities in Scotland is really a vital and important part of it.

Through COVID, this sense of willingness and community strength is something that I have recognised and that has brought us much success as a country. Scottish people have really looked out for each other. I did quite a lot of voluntary work during COVID, with the NHS and I saw the support not only for our health service, but also from one community member to another. I think that we can capitalise on this kindness as we go into COP26, and hopefully also show the benefits of such kindness and generosity to the visiting world.

Finally, one crucial question that CES is striving to answer is the following: “How can Scotland build a green recovery?”. In the years to come, how do you personally see this question being answered? What part will CES play in mobilising Scottish society in particular to achieve this?

I genuinely think we can have a green recovery. Although, I’m not sure that it will look like the previous economic revolutions that humanity has known. I’m hoping it will look different. I’m hoping it will feel different. I think things like indicators of wellbeing and looking after each other and understanding the importance of community, are really vital in progressing to a Just Transition. Net Zero is going to affect our daily lives. It is going to make some things more expensive. It is going to make us choose maybe to do things in a different way. When we do that, we also have a different interaction with each other.

During COVID-19, the population of Scotland have been going for a walk for an hour a day. It would be great to see part of our Just Transition and our green recovery being people using walking more for going to school and going to work. Sometimes it’s an action that is really small like that, that makes the biggest difference. Scotland as a nation is really small, you know we’re a small country, but we can lead the way by saying small beautiful and community based approaches work and we don’t need to globalise everything. Sometimes just taking your own family to school by the pavements walking together is a really good way to be part of Net Zero and you spend time together and bond, it’s all about a holistic approach.