Plymouth Energy Community (PEC) began life in 2013 as a manifesto pledge. Plymouth City Council supported its foundation as a Community Benefit Society, helped recruit 100 founder members, developed a business plan and provides an on-going service level agreement. Beginning with advice and switching, and then including insulation and upgrade measures, the organisation operates independently, with a membership of over 1600 individuals and organisations. PEC established its sister CBS, PEC Renewables, in 2014 and has successfully funded and built 33 community-owned renewable energy installations in the city. Surplus profits from PEC Renewables are invested back into PEC’s grassroots projects. PEC became a charity in 2019 and is led by residents and organisations who have experience of energy issues and the impacts they cause.
The government has consistently moved the goalposts on the support mechanisms for renewable energy development, resulting in a slow-down of delivery of new projects and reduction in community benefit. Whilst PEC is developing and exploring new innovative ways to increase locally owned renewable generation, there has to heavier reliance on grant funding that had been originally desired.
People at the Centre
PEC is taking an increasingly person-centred approach to tackling fuel poverty, as it is a complex issue, affecting different people in different ways. What’s more, PEC recognises that there is little point in advising people on energy-saving methods, and giving them armsful of LED lightbulbs if they are pre-occupied with other problems which need addressing first. PEC’s energy advisors are trained in a range of aspects relevant to working with vulnerable people, including suicide awareness, mental health, refugee awareness, etc.
‘Energy can be a good way to open conversations’, says PEC Programme Manager Clare Mains, ‘because it’s practical, and there’s no stigma attached’.
PEC finds these in-depth conversations in people’s homes invaluable in understanding the full picture of how fuel poverty is affecting the household, and what are the ‘blockages’ to them being able to take action to improve their situation. The advisors can link people with over 40 specialist means of support.
But PEC does not stop there. Recognising that there is a great deal of energy and skill within the community that could be put to good use in alleviating fuel poverty and related issues, they run a scheme called PEC Pals, where individuals and organisations interested in supporting PEC’s work can sign up to attend free training, and find the right way for them to work together. Sometimes this might be by helping with an existing programme, in other cases it might lead to whole new initiative. Clare tells me about a woman who was first involved with PEC as a beneficiary through their Warm and Well programme, supporting those living with disabilities or illness who are affected by fuel poverty. She has become a PEC Pal and is helping to develop a ‘curtain bank’, which collects and repurposes curtains to help keep homes warmer.
Clare explains that PEC’s offer to members has evolved to provide a wider range of opportunities for involvement, beyond receiving newsletters, voting or becoming a volunteer Director. PEC had been struggling to find a way of effectively illustrating the work of the Lottery-funded Warm and Well project, and helping people to understand fuel poverty as a whole. A local social enterprise photographic agency consulted participants in the project about what to show people, and the result was Cold Realities, a striking exhibition that has been widely used in Plymouth and further afield, including in the House of Commons, and at national conferences.
Some of the images from PEC's Cold Realities exhibition.
This experience has made PEC realise how effective the arts can be in connecting with people. A new project, Pretty Useful, has run a number of workshops with member of the community to explore the creative potential of pliable solar PV technology, and plans an installation in the city in the future.
Is there a danger of ‘mission creep’, with all these new ideas and angles? ‘No!’ says Clare. ‘We don’t draw lines like that: it’s about enabling people’. An example is Gareth, a PEC Pal who was keen to develop a water-refilling station to reduce single-use plastic at festivals. PEC linked him with someone from SouthWest Water, also a PEC Pal, and he has now launched a new Community Interest Company.
What does the future hold? PEC has noticed that it is harder for them to find an appropriate way of engaging the skills of older, lonelier people, but that might be about to change, with the development of Warm Zones, pre-existing community hubs, be they community centres, libraries, cafes, even chip shops. The idea is to provide friendly, warm spaces for people to get together without needing to worry about the heating, as well as providing a boost for local businesses in their quiet periods. PEC hopes older people will be the ones to help coordinate and run this initiative.
PEC is building on its experience in community renewable schemes with a venture into community-led housing. This could give local people the choice to live a healthy, affordable lifestyle in a highly energy-efficient community-owned home that prevents a legacy of fuel poverty. Again, they will be able to shape the outcome to suit the needs of the community.
For PEC, the future is likely to be more political. With such a wealth of grassroots experience in this area, they feel it is important to participate in tackling injustice through advocacy. They have already worked with the All-Party Parliamentary Group in fuel poverty, and have plans to work more closely with the NEA, a national campaign group. One of the areas they feel it is important to comment on is the fact that eligibility criteria for fuel poverty relief are far more complex to get right than they are for carbon-reduction measures: ‘This is not just about the maths, it’s about people’, says Clare.
A case study by our Knowledge Guru Nicola Frost
For the last two years Devon Community Foundation have been able to support PEC with grants from the Surviving Winter Campaign. They have used these funds to provide emergency fuel vouchers for residents in crisis, preventing disconnection of their gas or electricity.
To read more about the Cold Realities exhibition please click here.
Read more of our funding stories here.
To donate to this years Surviving Winter Appeal please click here.
To find out more about the appeal please click here.