Nowhere is the power of business to achieve change more emblematic or more hopeful than the sunrise of the community energy sector across the UK. It has been an extraordinary journey to see new technologies for a clean future matched by new techniques for community organising, offering a very human scale domestic success story.
Ever since the first renewable energy co-operative, Baywind, started, the sector has been an exemplar for bootstrap learning and peer support. The backing of Esmee Fairbairn and the partnership we have had with Locality and the UK Government for our Community Shares Unit, focusing on local equity raising, has allowed us to experiment in how to build on this, with a practical project backing the energy and potential of peer support.
Every success story has many people that can claim to have had a share. But the practitioners are the ones that know how narrow the difference is between success and failure, and own the insights and experience that make the difference. So much advice and guidance in social enterprise and wider business settings tends to be provided by intermediaries without that hands-on experience – they can add value, but what practitioners can add is often invaluable. Or tends to offer pages on a website, when what is needed, at the early stage, is conversations with people.
Community energy comes in many different legal and organisational forms, but there is a natural co-operation across them all. Community energy pioneers and practitioners are often the most generous of people with their time and expertise. But again, it is all too common for this to be taken for granted. They are typically running enterprises that need their focus. Again, across the wider social enterprise and business sector, there is often an assumption that such people will volunteer to be mentors, to ‘give back’ when they have already given so much.
What is unusual about this project is that we have tried a methodology for business development that, as an alternative to the costs of traditional sources of business support, creates a modest but enabling reward structure for practitioners to be able to support those who are following them.
The idea for the work came from conversations with our members, in work completed by Becky and Jenny Willis who have made a huge contribution to our work at Co-operatives UK over time, to support the fledgling community energy sector.
Of course, some of the barriers that practitioners have faced are better simply removed, rather than advised on. Community energy is influenced by a complex policy and regulatory environment and there are lessons, and recommendations, for national policy that we draw from our work in this project that are set out in our Policy Report.
The challenge of creating a sustainable economy is sometimes characterised as about learning to adapt to the future we face. The challenge of scaling community energy, across all the relevant renewable technologies, is also about learning. How do we accelerate learning, in order to accelerate practice? One answer which can now be added into the mix is energy mentoring.
We would be keen and interested to share our learning, which we set out at summary level in a second Impact Report, and to engage with partners and in new partnerships to make the most of co-operation and learning for community energy and indeed for wider social and economic innovation
The challenge of creating a sustainable economy is sometimes characterised as about learning to adapt to the future we face. The challenge of scaling community energy, across all the relevant renewable technologies, is also about learning. How do we accelerate learning, in order to accelerate practice? One answer which can now be added into the mix is peer to peer mentoring.
Could the future for business advice be a co-operative one, based on a far greater degree of peer to peer mentoring?
We have put together Our Impact Report on what we have learned through the project. We would be keen and interested to share ideas on the approach and to engage with partners and in new partnerships to make the most of peer to peer models of advice, both for community energy and indeed for wider social and economic innovation.