Generating energy gives you power in more ways than one. Communities that have gained control of their electricity supply have been able to bring in income and reinvest it according to their own priorities.
They begin to move from dependence to interdependence. Revenue from community-owned energy projects gets invested for the common good.
Could this be the kind of transformation Prime Minister David Cameron was thinking of when he proclaimed in July that the 'Big Society' was 'about liberation – the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street'?
The third of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's seminars on community assets was headlined 'community resilience to climate change'. But mostly it was about power – not just the power to heat community centres or keep the lights on, but communities’ struggles to take control over their futures.
As the day progressed it became clear that there is far more to liberation than overcoming 'elites in Whitehall'. And when the men and women on the street start addressing shared concerns, they find blockers as well as backers.
The event, held in Edinburgh in recognition of the progress made by many Scottish communities, considered local food growing projects as well as energy generation. Both deal with issues at the heart of the climate change challenge – how can we reduce fossil fuel use, source more produce locally and reduce dependence on imports which may be vulnerable to price changes and insecure supply?
Attendees were treated to a parade of inspiring projects – from the explosive expansion of community gardening in Scotland to the wind turbines of the Isle of Gigha, known as the 'dancing ladies', which bring in £100,000 of profit each year for local people.
But behind every inspiring story were struggles for power. Some are with government departments that fail to understand that 'empowerment' can mean little without support.
Local authorities can be reluctant to give up power too. Carin Schwartz, of Transition Town Forres, described her local authority as one of the main obstacles to getting anything done: 'When it comes to any permission or any straight answer, they’re gone.' Others reported similar experiences. Several, though, spoke of councils that had been supportive and proactive – Edinburgh, for instance, has identified 20 potential new allotment sites. That inconsistency can exist within councils too, with different officers giving conflicting advice.
One of the main barriers to community growing or energy projects lies with the power of private landowners or corporations. The community buy-out of Gigha was prompted by decades of neglect by a landowner that had left three quarters of the island’s homes unfit to live in. It's significant that the proceeds from the island’s community-owned turbines have been used to repair islanders’ homes and make them more energy efficient – creating a direct link between energy production and local resilience.
The proposed Barvas wind farm on the Isle of Lewis is another example of the different priorities of commercial enterprises and the community. The original commercial plan would have seen a consortium of utilities building 234 turbines, the largest onshore project in Europe. It generated 10,000 objections.
The land is now owned for the community by the Galston Estate Trust. A different, much smaller, community wind farm was approved in August 2009. As Joseph Murphy of the Sustainability Research Institute at Leeds University commented: 'This illustrates that the community weren’t anti-wind or Luddite – they just had a different vision about the role of renewable energy.’ He stressed the significance of local culture: some of the sites originally proposed for development were historic landmarks for local families.
So what about the big picture on climate change and community resilience? The targets on carbon emissions reduction are ambitious – a 42 per cent fall on 1990 levels is required in Scotland by 2020. Governments want to move quickly.
That could work against building community resilience. It was suggested that it was easier for government to work with big corporations that can deliver renewable energy installations quickly – bypassing smaller, more complex community-run projects.
As one attendee asked: 'How can big business get us to reduce energy use when they make their money by getting us to use more?'
Liberation is unlikely to come easily. Those who want local food and energy may keep finding themselves in the front line of some revealing power tussles.