In this post I tell two possible stories of the community of Sončna Vas’. These are designed to illustrate the importance of working comprehensively through a set of ‘enablers of change’ if any community is to be really successful in transforming into inclusive, equitable and healthy places to live. These enablers of change are described in a parallel post.
A Good Story
The community of Sončna Vas wants to reduce their carbon footprint. The municipality sustainability team and councillors have agreed to push forward with a single-focus on climate action and to deliver 1MW of new solar power capacity before the end of the year. The municipality team commission a feasibility study, which identifies the old-landfill site on the edge of town as a good location. The municipality concludes that they do not have the capacity or experience to deliver the project, and publish a tender for a partner to develop the solar farm. A commercial energy company is selected to invest, develop and operate the solar farm, and they ultimately propose to install 1.5MW. The council signs a 25-year lease agreement for the landfill site and a power-purchase agreement committing to offtake half of the power produced per year for 20 years at a today’s average power price with 2% escalation per annum. The energy company completes the solar plant development on time, and it is connected into the local power grid.
A good outcome right? Leadership from the municipality has catalysed the creation of new renewable energy supply in the community, with built-in cost security for the municipality. This is a positive example, and one many communities would probably be happy with. But is it good enough in context of what the community’s mission needs to be?
The solar is helping decarbonisation, but the focus only on carbon means that this project ultimately makes little contribution to the equally critical imperatives of greater inclusivity, equity, health and regeneration of ecological systems. There is little bad to say about what is being done - renewable power production on an old landfill site that is unfit for many other uses. The shortcomings lie in how the solar project is done.
So what if the Sončna Vas community worked effectively through all of the enablers while developing this initiative?
A Better Story
In this version of the story, instead of starting with a feasibility study the Sončna Vas municipality team promotes the solar power project idea through multiple communication channels across the community - using local media, social media and their established teams of on-the-ground public engagement officers. The citizen ‘co-creation hub’ that they established last year in partnership with local NGOs is empowered to gather feedback, ideas and criticism from across the community. This shows generally widespread support for the idea of solar power, but also much greater concerns around energy poverty and unemployment than the municipality team had understood. In response the co-creation hub team organises a citizens’ assembly to deliberate on overarching energy goals and priority actions for the community. The assembly concludes with recommendations for a local energy transformation approach that prioritises equitable access to energy services and economic development, while achieving rapid decarbonisation. Development of solar power is strongly endorsed, within this wider vision, and it is highlighted that another 2MW of generation capacity would exist if private-building roofs could be fully utilised. As a result, the municipality team and co-creation hub work together to set up a community working group to investigate potential collective management models to best deliver on the now broader mix of energy goals.
After considering a range of ownership and investment options, the working group develops plans for a community energy co-operative business model that will manage development of the solar power assets, while building capacity to also provide an integrated building retrofit service for energy poor households. The Sončna Vas Co-operative is established with board members who are fully representative of the community - for some it is their first experience of such a role and they bring valuable community perspectives that would otherwise be missed. The co-operative embarks on raising capital for a community transformation fund. The municipality commits the landfill land to the co-operative for the large solar installation at a peppercorn lease and to purchase as much power as possible from the eventual installations. This gives confidence to the viability of the new co-operative as an investment proposition, and a successful community share offering raises €0.5 million of working capital from over 500 subscribers, 80% of which are local. The municipality agrees to match this initial capital with a low-interest loan. Leveraging this €1 million of locally aligned capital allows the co-operative to raise a further €2 million of private debt investment in the first year. A specialist solar power company is procured by the co-operative to design, build and operate the solar farm on the landfill site, which generates returns that exceed the relatively low cost of blended capital. These profits are reinvested in the energy transformation fund. The Sončna Vas community is increasingly recognised as a ‘trail-blazer’, which helps the co-operative to secure a €5 million government grant to expand the transformation fund. A typical challenge to the viability of rooftop solar is overcome by the municipality and local business leaders working closely with the national government to put in place new economic structures - legislation that allows for the long-term leases of roofs to community energy entities to stay with the property title regardless of changes of ownership, and an adjustment to energy market rules that allow the co-operative to become a local energy retailer. A growing number of small local businesses are installing the rooftop solar systems, supported by a new training programme established at the Sončna Vas vocational school.
The co-operative’s local retailing role is enabled by an open data platform, set up by SoVaDaCo - another new collective management NGO established to manage the community data commons. All energy production and usage data is shared through the SoVaDaCo secure system using a blockchain ledger and a common interoperability standard. The Sončna Vas Co-operative keeps the costs of its retailing service low, thanks to innovative smart applications developed by entrepreneurs at the local innovation centre. These also gather and share much more granular energy usage data than the community has ever had before, streamlining the development and delivery of new energy actions.
The co-design process highlighted to the Sončna Vas municipality that their initially planned procurement strategy needed a thorough reconsideration. Along this journey the municipality procurement team worked creatively to align the strategic aspirations of the municipality with their legal obligations and requirements. While the negotiated process with the co-operative was a new approach for them, it equally ensured that the municipality’s commercial stakes in this initiative were reached in a fair and transparent way. The municipality also implemented planning policy rule changes to make solar installations on roofs a permitted activity, while lobbying and working with central government on the changes that allowed the co-operative to become a micro power retailer. Critically, early in this process the municipality set up a rapid-response team made up of staff from existing sustainability, finance, planning a community development teams. Their first meeting was the first time some of these people had met each other. This group worked closely with the co-creation hub team, to which the municipality also provides a grant for staffing. With the experience of this work, the members of the rapid response team have convinced the municipality to keep this internal organisational model - now called the ‘Making it All Possible Team’. The team has tripled in size, has an on-going close partnership with the co-creation hub, and receives daily enquiries from other council staff on how they can join. The costs of the co-creation hub are increasingly covered through the community transformation fund. This initiative has significantly lifted the organisational readiness of the Sončna Vas municipality and community deliver a broader portfolio of ambitious initiatives for the transformation of their community.
This scenario took a bit longer to play out, but working across the full breadth of enablers of change has delivered significantly greater benefits for the Sončna Vas community compared to the first story. For example:
- More of the money the community spends on power is now being retained in the community, with profits reinvested in the community transformation fund, returns flowing to community shareholders, and economic gains from the local multiplier effect.
- The community transformation fund is now making complex retrofit and programmes targeting energy poverty possible, where before they we considered too difficult.
- In the end the municipality agreed a power purchase price from the co-operative 10% less than the energy company option. These savings are going into development of a new local-food park
- The hard work of this community has removed regulatory barriers to others following this model. Their leadership has gained them national and international profile and funding. Visitor numbers have doubled in the last year. They have now set up an advisory service helping other communities to emulate their lead
- A company assembling solar photovoltaic systems has just opened a new manufacturing facility in Sončna Vas, creating 30 new jobs - alongside the 25 people now employed in the four new solar installation companies that have started locally. The community co-operative has taken a 20% stake in this manufacturing venture, accelerating revenue flows into the community transformation fund.
- The community has gained the confidence to expand this sort of approach. Similar initiatives on housing, food, mobility and biodiversity are now accelerating, and involving an increasing breadth of the community
I have made up these stories of Sončna Vas, though they reflect different parts of my experience working on transformational change in cities. I hope that they help to illustrate the potential of working deeply on the full breadth of enablers of change.
I would love to hear some of your stories of community action played out through the lens of these 12 enablers. Did your community need them all to be successful? If you tried and failed, does working through this list help to identify some reasons why?