We are moving from a fossil fuel-based society to one based on clean energy. Unless we change the system along the way, we are going to replicate the inequalities that are built into our current system. There is potential for renewable energy to be better and fairer for people.”
The co-operative is involved in a wide range of projects, from running an energy advice service to installing solar panels and electric vehicle charging points. They have also established “greenways” between local towns and set up climate hubs.
To mark Earth Day, we spoke to Kate Meakin (Project and Operations Manager) and Richard Watson (Founder and Director) about the incredible changes they are making in their community – and the need for faster changes around fuel production and use.
Tackling fuel poverty and increasing renewable energy generation
Energise Sussex Coast has two core objectives – to tackle fuel inequality and to increase understanding and production of renewable energy.
As a community energy co-operative, they believe the best way to do this is through bringing renewable power generation under the control of local communities. As Richard explained, “We believe in a decentralised energy market, where local clean energy can be generated and owned by local communities and used to make bills affordable, and where any profits can go towards improving inefficient homes in the local area.”
The scale and impact of Energise Sussex Coast’s work over the last decade has been incredible.
Through their energy advice line, and the installation of energy saving-equipment and draught-proofing, they have helped thousands of low-income households achieve savings. One recent project saw 430 households achieve £152,473 of savings in just 5 months. 81% of these homes were living on a household income of less than £16,190 a year, with 46% having a disability or long-term health condition.
On the renewable energy and climate change front, their work is equally impressive. The co-operative has installed over 2,000 solar panels across Sussex. They run a wide array of events and festivals aimed at inspiring people and businesses to take positive, practical action towards low-carbon economies and lifestyles.
Although their work on fuel poverty and renewables is separately funded, Kate sees the two areas as intrinsically linked. “We are moving from a fossil fuel-based society to one based on clean energy. Unless we change the system along the way, we are going to replicate the inequalities that are built into our current system. There is potential for renewable energy to be better and fairer for people.”
“We provide a practical solution to some of the big global and local problems. Locally generated energy benefits people who are in fuel poverty – through making a house more energy efficient, you are both saving carbon and lowering the person’s fuel bill. You can measure what we do in quite an immediate way. If we access loft installation for someone, they will save X amount of carbon and X amount on their bills.”
Cooperation is key to tackling the climate crisis
Collaboration (with voluntary organisations, councils, educational institutions, and businesses) has played a vital part in Energise Sussex Coast’s work. As Richard put it, “Like most co-ops, we have cooperation written into our DNA. We really don’t mind who puts solar panels on public buildings as long as it happens. Partnerships have been key to our growth as an organisation and we have gifted projects to other co-ops.”
Kate continued, “The nice thing about being in the community energy sector is everyone is signed up to the values of working cooperatively. Our own organisation has seven part-time employees, but we are connected to community energy organisations across the country with different knowledge and technical expertise. It is a strong way of working because you’ve got so much more than your own organisation.”
There is a sea change in people’s understanding of climate change and recognition that it is an emergency. "
The climate crisis leaves no time for talk
While Energise Sussex Coast have achieved huge success through cross-sector working, they have often found that bureaucracy and profit motives have been obstacles. Richard and Kate agree that the current pace of change towards sustainable behaviours is far too slow. If we are to meet the daunting challenges of the climate crisis, we must shift towards more flexible, less bureaucratic, more collaborative ways of working.
“There is a sea change in people’s understanding of climate change and recognition that it is an emergency. However, local authorities have had their funding decimated. Many are on their knees and the people who were working on sustainability aren’t there anymore. Working with large organisations can take forever,” said Kate. “Our feeling is we need to stop waiting and do the things that need to be done. The time pressure of the climate emergency means it’s now time for communities to do it for themselves. [This can be achieved though] working with like-minded groups with complementary skills and across networks like the community energy network or the Locality network. We need to look at models that have worked elsewhere, pick them up and use them in our own community, rather than waiting for others to sign things off and get on board.”
Responding to and learning from the pandemic
As a grassroots community organisation, Energise Sussex Coast have always favoured in-person, on-site support. Until last year, most of their work took place in community centres or foodbanks. However, once the pandemic took hold they adjusted their services to ensure they could continue supporting their clients. Richard told us, “Covid forced us to take our energy advice service online and turn it into a telephone helpline service. This has been a steep learning curve, not without cost, but it has also turned out to be very successful.”
Despite these challenges, adopting online and telephone support has had significant benefits. For example, they have been able to increase the length of time and depth of support offered to each client. Kate elaborated, “We’ve been able to provide more interventions per person. The engagements are much deeper and we’ve been able to do more – from tariff checks to looking at the energy efficiency of their homes. It has turned into case work more than one-off interactions.”
During the pandemic, the overlap between fuel poverty and digital exclusion became increasingly apparent. Kate believes this knowledge will inform Energise Sussex Coast’s work beyond the current crisis. “Digital exclusion is becoming more and more obvious with so much being online. To win against the energy system you need to be online. You need to check all the different providers and the best tariffs they offer are online…You have loads of people who don’t know how much they are being charged, or if the costs are accurate.”
Both Kate and Richard also mentioned the increase in mental health concerns among their clients during the pandemic. As Kate put it, “People have been a lot more open and honest about mental health in this time.” In response, Energise Sussex Coast have been training their staff to better deal with these situations and provide appropriate support. “Depression and psychosis are effects of the pandemic,” said Richard. “We realised that we needed professional mental wellbeing coaching in order to deal with some of the issues that were surfacing for clients, but also to make sure we were looking after our team’s own wellbeing.”
The benefits of Locality membership
Being a member of Locality has been really beneficial to Energise Sussex Coast. They have particularly gained from the peer-to-peer learning and networking opportunities. Richard attended Locality’s 2018 Convention in Bristol, which he says was a “huge inspiration”. Richard continued, “We were in quite a small niche as an energy co-op, but we realised there was so much synergy with other social enterprises and third sector organisations and the collective energy was really uplifting. Having seen the founders of Fun Palaces and the Library of Things speak at the conference, we invited them to Hastings to speak at one of our Common Treasury project events. Both these ideas become embedded locally and turned into local projects two years later.”
Kate later attended a Locality event in Hastings, which gave her the chance to learn from other locally rooted organisations: “We went on a tour of a local community building project. To me, it fits into the cooperative values that we have…We take a lot of inspiration from having access to, and conversations with, community-led organisations who are doing similar things.”
Looking to the future
Energise Sussex Coast are always looking for new ways to raise awareness and stimulate conversation about the climate crisis, renewable energies, and the economic and environmental benefits of community ownership. Among a wide range of other projects, they are currently facilitating Hastings’ new climate hub and installing electric vehicle charging points across Sussex. They’re also preparing to mentor a number of local community energy groups in rural areas. Kate and Richard are hugely excited about the future of Energise Sussex Coast, and the role that community energy co-operatives in general can play in tackling the climate crisis.
As Kate said, “We are proud of what we have achieved in East Sussex – and excited by the projects we have on the horizon. However, we know that the cooperative values that drive our work need to be embedded into the changing energy system as a whole. Through leading by example, and sharing our ideas and learning, we look forward to being a driving force behind this change.”
- This blog is part of our series celebrating Earth Day 2021. Why not also take the chance to read about the incredible work of Stonegrove Community Trust.