Authors: Nicky Ison, Jarra Hicks
Contributor: Alicia Webb

In this article we look at a brief history of community energy and the roles that various types of community groups have played. A combination of passionate community activists and external crisis points like the 1970s oil price shocks has helped create the right conditions for the development of community energy.

Since then, groups have organised for various reasons including fighting the proliferation of nuclear energy, advocating for appropriate (or alternative) technology and most recently, climate change adaptation.

Main topics covered in this article include:

The origins of community energy

A brief history of co-operative movements

Most community energy projects have been influenced by co-operatives. The co-operative movement began in England in 1844, when local artisans established a not-for-profit ‘provident society’ that operated a local store offering members goods they couldn't otherwise afford. This co-operative model quickly spread throughout Europe, becoming especially popular in Denmark.

In Australia, co-operatives were prevalent particularly in rural communities from the 1880s until the 1960s and 70s. They included community re-settlement, primary industry (especially agricultural), and consumer co-operatives.

The anti-nuclear and appropriate technology movements

The anti-nuclear movement rose to prominence in the 1970s, a period of peak nuclear power plant construction. The focus of the movement included the environment, the health and safety impacts of radioactivity, opposition to war and nuclear weapons, and support for indigenous people's land rights.

The appropriate technology movement advocates for technologies that are small-scale, not centralised, ecologically sound, resource-efficient, long-lasting, participatory, and where supply is based on need, not profit. 1

Many of these technological principles are the basis of contemporary community energy projects. The appropriate (or alternative) technology (AT) movement was taken up in developed and developing countries. In developing countries, the focus has been on using the most effective technology to address developing areas' needs. In developed countries, it has been on using more socially and environmentally acceptable technologies.

The evolution of the community energy movement

The anti-nuclear and AT movements have played a significant role in the growth of community energy. Below is a historical summary.

  • The anti-nuclear movement rose to prominence in the 1970s, a period of peak nuclear power plant construction.
  • The nuclear industry declined in the 1980s due partly to the success of the movement, and partly to a series of high-profile accidents, including Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
  • In countries like Denmark and Sweden, the anti-nuclear movement successfully established anti-nuclear policy and fossil fuel reserves were limited. It was these countries where community energy started to gain a foothold.
  • The AT movement came about partly through the 1970s' anti-nuclear sentiment, but more from a broad critique of industrialism. It was also heavily influenced by trade union movements and the 1970s' oil prices.

Following the rise of the political right in the 1980s and other factors, including the difficulty of funding technology research and development, the prominence of the AT movement declined. Nonetheless, its legacy lives on in organisations and demonstration sites such as the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, the Alternative Technology Association in Australia, and in the development sector with Engineers Without Borders, Village Earth and others.

According to academic Adrian Smith, the AT movement’s biggest lasting success was the development of wind energy co-operatives in Denmark.

Wind power in Denmark

Community ownership of modern wind turbines in Denmark dates back to the late 1970s. Denmark has the most community-owned renewable energy in the world, and is also the world leader in wind turbine manufacturing. Without a committed and passionate ground-swell of people, this large and successful industry may never have happened.

Early Danish co-operatives

The first co-operative in Denmark was established in 1866, and by 1900 most villages had several. These were mostly farming enterprises such as dairies and slaughterhouses. This history of co-operatives and local people working together builds on Denmark’s age-old and widespread cultural understanding of ‘joining hands’.

As the Danish Wind Turbine Owners’ Association explains: “wind co-operatives grew on these foundations. Co-operatives are some of the most important commercial developments in the history of Denmark.” 2

The oil crisis of the 1970s and fears for the safety of nuclear power turned Denmark's attention to wind power. This anti-nuclear, pro-wind movement directly influenced the Danish Government to pass a law in 1988 forbidding nuclear power. Importantly, it also linked activists with scientists, which enhanced the development of modern wind technology.

Technology development

As the technology developed into larger scale turbines, townspeople started to pool their money and buy turbines together. These partnerships were the beginning of community energy and were the most common form of wind ownership in Denmark throughout the 1980s and 90s. Legally speaking, Danish community wind farms aren't co-operatives, they're simply based on co-operative principles with the legal structure of partnerships, such as joint and several liability.

Community support for wind energy and collective investment in turbines meant turbine innovators had a guaranteed market for the early stages of their work. This provided crucial funds and testing grounds to develop modern wind turbines — the forbearers of those installed all over the world today. This is also the origin of today's leading suppliers, such as Vestas and Bonus (now Siemens).

The Danish Wind Turbine Owners' Association

The Danish Wind Turbine Owners’ Association was formed in 1978 and was critical to the success of community energy and the wind industry as a whole. It was established to “facilitate serious public information about the practical possibilities of wind power” and to work in the common interests of wind turbine owners.

They began a monthly magazine with practical information on turbines, and monitored production of turbines all over the country. The Association contributed to turbine research and development by providing statistics and feedback on turbine function to manufacturers. This helped to establish high quality standards in the turbine-manufacturing sector. The Association also lobbies and runs conferences to bring wind stakeholders, manufacturers and politicians together.

Government support

The Danish Government also supported the wind industry early on, through various subsidies, tariffs and taxes. For example, a tax on general electricity consumption was introduced in 1977, and a tax on CO2 emissions in 1992. As Paul Gipe explains: “Danish law encouraged mutual ownership of wind turbines... by exempting owners from taxes on the portion of the wind generation that offset a household's domestic electricity consumption”. 3

This policy encouraged individuals to form co-operatives, pool their money, buy a wind turbine, find the best site for it, sell the electricity to the utility, and share the revenues among its members. In 1979, the Danish Government introduced a significant subsidy (between 20 and 30%) to go towards establishing new renewable energy projects. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, several more Government initiatives and policies also encouraged local ownership of wind turbines. For more on Denmark, see Community energy in Europe.

Lessons for other countries

The Danish attribute the success of their wind industry to two major factors:

  1. Genuine opportunities for public involvement. As Paul Gipe explains, “Wind energy's general acceptance in Denmark and Germany has often been attributed to the dispersal of the wind turbines across the landscape and the distribution of ownership across hundreds of thousands of individual participants”. (Gipe 2003)
  2. Strong and stable Government policy on renewable energy leading to investor confidence. “Stable support schemes and sufficiently high payments per kWh, backed by ambitious political objectives."(DWTOA 2009)

Denmark now gets 20% of its power from wind, and aims to get 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Community energy worldwide

Community energy has spread to many countries, creating diverse organisational structures and using different technologies along the way. After Denmark came Sweden. By the turn of the millennium, Germany and the UK had also developed community energy sectors, with the US, Canada, Japan and many countries throughout the developing world following closely behind.

The recent rise in community energy projects is part of a worldwide climate change movement. Increasing support for the movement has led to the introduction of more supportive policies, such as grant schemes and feed-in tariffs.

The community energy sector faces many challenges, especially in a country like Australia that has very cheap traditional forms of electricity such as coal. However, with ever improving policy support, the urgent need to move to more sustainable energy sources, advances in renewables technology and the support of people, community energy can succeed where the AT movements of the 1970s failed. Community energy has come a long way and has a promising future.

More information

Alternative Technology Association
Co-operatives UK What is a Co-operative?
Centre for Alternative Technology
Danish Wind Turbine Owners Association
Winds of Change
Wind-works.org
Clarke, R. 1973. Technology for an alternative society. New Scientist 11, January.
DWTOA (2009) “Co-operatives: a local and democratic ownership to wind turbines".
DWTOA (2009 a) “Past and Present: successful developments followed by stalemate”.
Gipe, P. (2003) “Community Wind: the third way”.
Gipe, P. (1996) “Community-Owned Wind Development in Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands”.
Jordan, J. (2000) ‘An introduction to co-operatives in regional Australia’ in Proceedings of The New Competitive Energy Market: How Co-operatives and Regional Australia Can Benefit, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney.
Lovins, A. 1976. Energy strategy: the road not taken? Foreign Affairs 55, 1.
Schumacher, F.W. 1973. Small is Beautiful. London: Blond and Briggs.
Wikipedia: Appropriate technology

Related articles

Benefits of community energy projects
Community energy in Japan
Community energy in the developing world
Community energy in Europe
Community energy in North America

Footnotes

Footnotes
Ref Notes
1 Smith, A. (2005) ‘The Alternative Technology Movement: An Analysis of its Framing and Negotiation of Technology Development’, Research in Human Ecology, Vol. 12(2)
2 Danish Wind Turbine Owners Association “Co-operatives: a local and democratic ownership to wind turbines” 2009

3 Gipe, P. “Community Wind: the third way”, 2003