Sustainable use and supply A role for energy citizens

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Energy policy debate focuses largely on what governments can achieve on behalf of society. However, concern about climate change is growing throughout society and many communities and individuals are beginning to take initiatives for themselves, becoming engaged with energy issues as producers and as citizens, not just as consumers. Energy policy has key roles to play in encouraging and facilitating such a transition, and in removing obstacles to such initiatives. Where people are offered reliable and attractive financial rewards for cutting carbon emissions or exporting electricity, for example in Germany or Denmark, investing in domestic or community scale renewables rapidly becomes common sense, rather than a fringe pursuit. In the UK, by contrast, community initiatives more often take place despite government policies than as a result of them.

People often feel that what they can do as individuals to tackle climate change is limited and could be futile. However, when others are doing the same and a sense of social cohesion develops around a goal this sense of futility can be overcome. In the words of the UK government's Sustainable Development Commission (SDC, 2006) 'a critical mass of citizens and businesses is ready and waiting to act on the challenge of sustainable consumption. But to act, they need the confidence that they will not be acting alone, against the grain and to no purpose.'

Barriers to people taking an active role as energy citizens in part stem from the legacy of centralised energy provision. People are thought of as 'demand', while energy companies represent 'supply': all of energy policy has been built on this increasingly unhelpful distinction. The outcome of this orientation has been that households are passive: they have not had significant choice about where their energy comes from or even how the bulk of it is used in their homes. People have been able to largely ignore energy as an issue, and when they decide to become active they find it extraordinarily difficult. For example, people are aware that leaving electrical appliances on standby wastes energy, yet manufacturers are allowed to produce goods that discourage such a simple act as switching them off fully. They are also aware that microgeneration technologies such as solar panels can reduce their 'carbon footprints'. There is growing evidence that those who do make such an investment become more aware of their overall household energy use and take steps to reduce it, and that neighbours often emulate one another in investing in such visible signs of 'green' living.

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