The Best Time is Now

LEANNE WOOD discusses her new role as director at Community Energy Wales / Ynni Cymunedol Cymru and how communities can get involved in creating their own sources of energy

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Zoë Brigley: So maybe we could start by you just telling me a bit about this organization that you’re working for now.

Leanne Wood:  Community Energy Wales is in an organization representing people who have formed groups within communities who are creating or in the process of creating renewable energy. That’s how the organization was started. It represents those members to governments, and groups who want to create their own renewable energy, putting them in touch with people who have already been on that journey. In more recent times, since the end of the feed in tariff, it has become more difficult for community groups to come together and generate results. So we are looking at measures like energy efficiency, and we are working on low carbon transport. We look in to see what we can do in each community or district, but the main purpose of the organization is to bring together the expertise that exists within our communities. We want to ensure that our communities are beneficiaries of renewable energy generation, and the values are very much in line with the Well Being of Future Generations Act passed in 2015. So it’s all about collaboration, thinking about the economy, as well as social and cultural and environmental priorities.

Zoe: That sounds amazing, and important as well, because we’re coming into a winter where things are looking a little bit scary. People are talking and sharing how their energy bills are going up, and we are going to see some people who are not going to be able to afford to keep their heating on over the winter. I wondered what you thought about that, and whether your organization might be able to help at all.

Leanne: Well, community renewable energy can be provided cheaper than conventional fossil fuel energy. The prices in energy have generally gone up in recent times, but the cost to produce renewable energy has improved, and technology has improved. The problem is the market and the way in which energy is priced, the way in which the national grid works, and the way in which it is regulated. So what we should be able to do, and what should be very simple to do would be for communities to produce their own renewable energy and sell it back to either the members of cooperative or whatever kind of community has been built around it and to local residents within that area. That is very, very difficult however under the current conditions. So we need to change the markets, and it’s a great opportunity now, even though it’s a difficult time for everybody. At least now we can see how the market makes no sense whatsoever. It’s a chance to change things.

But the recent announcement by the new British prime minister Liz Truss takes us away from what should be done. Fracking bans are going to be lifted. More licenses are going to be issued to extract oil from the North Sea. It’s going completely against what we need. We need investment in community energy. We need to be thinking about alternative grids, and that involves a lot of infrastructure and investment. But that is what we have to do, otherwise we are going to see our energy bills rise.

Energy is a something we all need. So it’s something that the government should be thinking about ensuring is affordable for everyone over the long term, and if they invested and removed the barriers from community renewable energy generation, we could go a long way.

Zoe: That’s that sounds very sensible. I was really interested to know about your specific role as well, and what you see yourself doing within the organization. What’s your role?

Leanne: I’ve just accepted the role of executive director for the organization with my colleague, Ben Ferguson, who is someone who’s been around in the renewable energy community for a long time. He’s very experienced, very knowledgeable, and very well connected. My previous experience is in the field of politics, and so together, we bring a wide range of skills beneficial to the organization. I can connect to the political world. I can organize political campaigns. I can communicate messages both to government and community groups and everything in between. Together we’ll ensure that the organization has strong leadership, and that we are making the most of any opportunities that arise. Everyone is talking about energy now. We need to see some action, and we are in a great position to support the government to deliver that.

Zoe: It sounds like you’re relatively optimistic. It’s hard sometimes, because we might not feel like there’s very meaningful action from governments or corporations. What would you like to see happen in future?

Leanne: It’s a big job to overturn capitalism. But if we want to mitigate the worst effects now of climate change, then we are going to have to change the economic model, because that is causing the problem. It’s all built on consumerism and profit and growth, and all of those things are contributing to making the climate situation worse.

The biggest challenge we face is climate change. The contribution we’ve made towards the climate crisis with our actions in the past is seen now in countries like Pakistan, where a third of the country’s land is underwater. People in Pakistan currently and historically have not caused these emissions. So in terms of the future plays and the global challenge, I hope that we consider our response to climate change equitably on a global level.

But there are other questions like war. For example, we’re in a war situation in Europe now, and if you think about the waste and the destruction and the loss of life, and the waste of money and everything that comes with a war when we should be doing everything that we can to combat those outcomes. There’s an awful lot that needs to change, and a lot of it is not within our grasp, unfortunately, so we can only focus on those actions that we have control over. And that’s where my optimism comes from. Because I see within our communities’ incredible power, incredible people doing incredible things, and even more people would like to be able to do incredible things but have barriers in a way at the moment. People understand the challenges ahead of us. They are anxious because they’re going to be living with the consequences of this for a long, long time, but in many cases, they turn that anxiety into something positive, where they want to get involved in in actions that can combat climate change, and whether that be political actions or practical actions.

Zoe: I love your vision. But if you’re like someone in Wales or elsewhere and you care about this kind of thing, if you’re interested in having green energy and don’t know where to start, what advice would you give them?

Leanne: I did a podcast recently with Meleri Davies and Elin Hywel, both of whom are community building through Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog and Partneriaeth Ogwen, and I put this question to them. They said when they began their process, the first thing to do is just to talk to as many people as possible, get as many people around the table interested in in the idea of creating energy. Then, once you’ve got people together, reach out to organizations that might be able to help like us.  The Welsh Government runs an energy service, which is also a good source of information. The key thing is building a group of people who can drive this forward. There are many obstacles in the way, and there are difficulties, but they’re not insurmountable, and with the right people and the right advice, projects can be successful, and if they’re in touch with an organization like ours, we can put people in contact with groups already creating this kind of energy project. They vary in scale from a very small hydro project that just supports some funding in a community center right up to plans for a solar farm. All of this should have been done twenty years, ago but in the absence of that, the best time to do it is now.

Colourful signage reading "Renew"
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