Power to the people – how effective data management can support community energy

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How can data be used to support communities in their journey towards a sustainable and fair energy future? Matt Wood, our Energy Innovation Manager, shares his experiences.

Community energy – energy that is owned and managed by a local group – has come a long way over the last five years. I’ve seen groups go from installing a few solar panels on a community building to owning megawatts of renewable energy capacity, including solar, wind and hydro. Despite the government’s constant tinkering with energy policies, groups have professionalised and raised millions of pounds to invest in a low-carbon future.

The key to this is trust. Community energy groups are local; they are your friends, family and neighbours. They present their offers at fun community events and through honest, enthusiastic discussions rather than a hard sales approach.

But while community groups are excited by solar panels and wind turbines, almost all of them are also aware of the importance of energy efficiency and the impacts of living in cold, hard-to-heat homes. This has been a more difficult area to get involved in.

The Green Deal, the energy saving loan scheme launched in 2013, looked promising at first. But community groups found it was hard to engage with; big businesses funding and installing insulation under the Green Deal had no interest in working with them. And these big schemes mainly use a door-to-door sales approach, distrusted by the vast majority of people. But the companies just persisted, knocking on the same doors until they got the numbers they needed – a blunt force instrument, not a long-term strategy. In any case, the Green Deal was dropped by the new Government last year.

In 2012 I started working with Easton Energy Group in Bristol, which focuses on fuel poverty and insulation rather than renewable energy. It was clear that a different approach could be much more effective. They have built-up a strong reputation in the local area through fun events and spending time with householders, particularly the vulnerable ones. They reached out to different sections of society, such as the Somali community, and delivered a series of projects focused on draught-proofing, supplier switching and basic energy awareness – all key first steps for those in fuel poverty.

But managing the information that householders provide to community groups, such as what levels of insulation they have or if they’re having problems paying their bills, is time consuming. These community groups mainly consist of volunteers and lack the resources for admin work. So when the opportunity for a large insulation scheme does come along, they don’t have the information they need to hand.

In response to this problem Bioregional teamed up with SpiralEdge, a web development company, and secured funding from NESTA to develop Community Energy Manager (CEM), a web based tool to help community groups manage data. Groups can record the information they collect on householders and use CEM  to develop their own schemes or engage with a larger scheme run by a local authority or energy company. It can also show the impact they’re having, helping to demonstrate their effectiveness.

CEM is powered by EnergyMap, an advanced mapping tool developed by The Converging World. EnergyMap allows open data such as gas and electricity estimates at neighbourhood level and census information to be mapped. This helps people visualise and analyse energy use to better understand what local needs are and what measures might be most effective. EnergyMap has also recently been extended to include OFGEM’s FiT data aggregated to neighbourhood level too. If you are interested in learning more about this, check out this blog written by our project partner SpiralEdge.

We’ve developed CEM to a public beta – an advanced trial version of the tool – and we need your help to take the next steps! We want community group users and clients. Community groups can use CEM for free, so sign up or invite your group to join.

Although we think community groups will find CEM useful anyway, its real potential is to help deliver projects. so we’re also looking for councils, energy companies and other organisations that want to deliver energy efficiency, energy advice and renewable energy projects to households to make use of our new tool.

So please do check out CEM, and if you have any queries, contact me at matt.wood@bioregional.com.

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