Power to the People: How Can Civic Tech Help Create a Local Energy Revolution?

Civic technology helps communities put power into their own hands - quite literally. New open source technologies can provide powerful tools to those looking to set up local renewable energy grids.

Author Mark Newton, 10.13.21

Translation Sarah-Indra Jungblut:

Civic technology aims to provide citizens and community members with tools to maximise their impact in the range of important areas, whether that is local environmental conditionsscientific research or political engagement.

However, civic technologies also have the potential to radically overhaul one of the most important elements of our modern infrastructure: energy production.

Traditionally speaking, energy production comes from two primary actors: either the state or private enterprise. Both of these sources often have a national perspective when it comes to energy production, while the private sector in particular, is extremely vulnerable to making energy profitable. In these conditions, the development of low-carbon alternatives is not always immediately attractive, either due to concerns in energy production – at least compared to older, dirtier sources – or commercial reasons.

Civic technology has the potential to offer a third “institutional world”, in which local, smaller cooperatives and initiatives develop their own energy which is more responsive to the local needs and concerns of the consumers. As a British research paper, Realising Transition Pathways, explains:

“Civil society is able to provide goods and services in a way which claims to transcend both the bureaucracy and ideologies of state forms of welfare and service provision, and ameliorate the amorality of pure market approaches.”

Of course, reaching this point isn’t as easy as simply encouraging households to stick solar panels on their roofs. The idea of a civic society approach to energy is to combine these efforts into cooperative networks and infrastructure. To do this, community projects often need specific information that in the past was only really accessible to larger energy companies and government institutions. However, thanks to civic tech, such prized information is now much easier to find, and understand.

For example, the combined use of satellite imagery, machine learning algorithms, image recognition and even drones can be used to give an unprecedented bird’s eye view of regions, which is often distributed on open source platforms. This information can be used to pinpoint good locations for local solar or wind farms, as well as other considerations such as infrastructure and construction. This technology is being increasingly used in the Global South to inform ‘mini-grid’ and other electrification projects, such as Village Data Analytics, which combines information from various sources into data that can be easily understood and disseminated. However, it still has a role to play in the Global North.

Meanwhile, projects such as Open Climate Fix can provide ‘nowcasting’ technology, which can predict the likely cloud cover over an area during the next few hours. This is invaluable to solar power which is often vulnerable to fluctuations in cloud cover. Although designed to mitigate the need to keep gas turbines on constant standby, it can also give community power projects insight into how much power they will generate in the near future. Previously such information would have been difficult to locate, but today it can be shared openly on platforms such as OpenStreetMaps. Flo Wirtz, co-founder of Open Climate Fix, told RESET:

“Open Climate Fix’s solar forecasts will help run a local energy scheme based on a mix of solar, battery storage and grid connection more efficiently.

By knowing in advance when the sun is going to shine, the system can choose when to charge or discharge the battery – or even when to turn off appliances.”

When all of this insightful information is packaged together, it can become invaluable in explaining the concept to new members and proving its viability. This is perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of civic tech, it provides small, grassroots groups with the information and tools to take on the bigger guys at their own game. Previously, the lack of cheap access to this information would have likely ended such projects before they had started, but now increasingly sophisticated technology can act as an oracle for likely future developments.

Closer and Cleaner Power

This community-led renewable approach has several significant advantages over traditional power generation, such as from coal power stations. Traditional power stations are often extremely centralised, which increases their already inefficient nature. This energy is then sent across the nation in high-voltage power lines, some of which is lost. It also needs to be “stepped down” to a distribution voltage before it can be used. All this requires land, results in some loss of electricity, and includes equipment insulated with sulfur hexafluoride, which is a potent greenhouse gas.

However, if the energy is generated locally – where it will be used – it can be generated much more efficiently and at lower voltages. Less land is needed for transmission lines or substations and it is responsive only to local, not national, demand. Local initiatives are also more effective at controlling such demand, as well as introducing programmes to increase the energy efficiency of homes and other buildings. All of this helps mitigate the intermittent nature of renewable energy, which has previously made it undesirable for centralised energy production

Another important benefit of this energy transition, is the ability to provide cheaper, renewable energy to areas that are already underserved by major utility providers. Using civic technology, communities can take matters into their own hands and define their own energy futures. For example, in New York, local initiatives have added solar panels to buildings in traditionally marginalised districts to generate cheaper electricity and pay for high-speed wifi, which one-third of New Yorkers lack. This democratisation of energy is important if we wish to transition away from a system that has generally been dominated by a handful of powerful corporations, which are largely responsive only to their shareholders.

There is now also a plethora of resources online to help individuals join community projects, or set up their own. One such platform in the UK, Community Energy England, contains extensive information on how to get started, as well as sources of finance – which is often of central importance. Generally speaking, most cooperative efforts largely depend on local investors to gather up the initial capital. But, as more and more states, and cities, make pledges on climate change and de-carbonisation, various grants and funds are being made available for such community projects – although more action is needed in this regard.

The article is part of our Special Feature “Civic Tech – Ways Out of the Climate Crisis with Digital Civic Engagement”. You can find all articles of the Special Feature here: Special Feature Civic Tech

The Special Feature is part of the project funding of the German Federal Environmental Foundation (Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt – DBU), in the framework of which we are producing four special features over two years on the topic of “Opportunities and potentials of digitalisation for sustainable development”.

More information here.

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