Creating a framework for the assessment of the socio-economic benefits of community energy

In connection with my MSc thesis I am interning at Scene to develop an initial version of a framework to measure the socio-economic benefits of community renewables. My thesis aims to be a starting point for a potentially larger research project on the assessment of the socio-economic impacts of community renewables to be carried out by Emily Creamer (Edinburgh University) and Anna Harnmeijer (Scene). To maximise the value of the framework for informing governmental policy towards community energy, the project will be carried out in close cooperation with ClimateXChange (Centre of Expertise on Climate Change, providing independent advice, research and analysis to support the Scottish Government).

Why this research?

Community involvement in renewable energy is broadly recognised to have much wider impacts than simply energy generation and carbon reduction. The overall picture that arises from studies that have been carried out so far shows that communities that are involved in renewable energy projects tend to be more confident, resilient and wealthier than those without involvement in renewable energy development in their community.

Especially to rural economies with few options for economic development, sustainable community energy can deliver significant economic benefits. Examples include direct benefits such as job creation and revenues from electricity sale. These gains have a potential to be multiplied within the community. Part of the financial gains can flow back into the community through local spending of wages (e.g. groceries) and investment of revenues into community projects.

It is relatively easy to evaluate these financial outcomes on a project-by-project basis. However, the non-financial benefits that are believed to derive from community energy projects are much more difficult to assess. Examples include local autonomy, resilience and community empowerment.

At this point in time, the evidence base for socio-economic benefits of community renewables is rather thin. Especially regarding non-financial benefits, very little empirical evidence is available. However, evidence of the benefits of sustainable community energy is relevant to many!

A call for evidence

Governments , businesses and civil society call for more evidence on the socio-economic benefits of sustainable community energy projects.

Policymakers are in need of evidence on the benefits of community renewables to support the creation of a policy and funding environment that is more favourable towards renewable energy. Communities involved in renewables require insight into the benefits of their projects to help keeping up commitment amongst participants in the longer term . Communities can also use the information from the assessment to optimise the benefits of existing and future projects. Furthermore, measurement of socio-economic benefits makes community renewables more interesting to investors in the in the growing field of social investment.

However, as of yet there is no comprehensive framework to assess both the social and the economic benefits of community renewables.

That is where this research comes in: by developing a tool for the assessment of the social and economic benefits of sustainable community energy projects, I wish to contribute to narrowing the gap between assumptions and empirical evidence on the socio-economic benefits of community renewables .

This is certainly very interesting and relevant, but not an easy task: One of the most important challenges within this research project will be to measure the non-financial benefits in a way that does justice to the inherent uniqueness of the evaluated projects, but simultaneously offers room for generalisation and systematic comparison.

About the Author:

I am Esther, a Dutch MSc student of Spatial planning at Radboud University Nijmegen . I specialise in European and environmental planning. My main fields of interest are citizen empowerment and sustainability. I am particularly interested in bottom-up initiated action for systems change towards sustainability. My personal belief is that radical and far-reaching transitions can only occur if there is involvement and support from civil society. Sustainable community energy has my interest as it is a very upcoming and dynamic development in which citizen empowerment and the pursuit of sustainability intersect. My internship here at Scene offers me the opportunity to increase my knowledge of community renewables, learn from Scene's professional team and to be a part of the field. 

I attended the CARES Conference 2015 over the past two days, in Stirling. The people and stories in the room were impressive - it's exciting to be working here in Scotland.