Turning the community green: How groups can help their areas save while contributing to national energy targets

Turning the community green: How groups can help their areas save while contributing to national energy targets

With an ever-increasing focus on the need for green energy and sustainability in how we live our lives, I have written numerous times about initiatives to help individuals and families protect the environment.

But an initiative of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) wants to help larger groups do this - through the creation and support of SECs (Sustainable Energy Communities).

An SEC is a partnership with the SEAI focused on getting a community group to improve local energy efficiency, promote and use renewable energy where feasible and ultimately develop local energy production. The SEAI also provides specialised technical know-how and grant assistance.

There are 350 SECs in the national network spread over the 26 counties with more than 35 in Cork and 90 in Munster.

Conor O’Brien, SEC Mentor for Cork, explains the reasoning behind the focus on communities.

“The energy transition is more than just a technological revolution - it’s also a social one,” he says. “Communities have a huge social influence - GAA, Tidy Towns, opposition groups - they can be enablers of change or indeed obstacles for change “Community groups are at the heart of cultural nuance - they are aware of the local and historical sensitivities.” He also believes that introducing new ideas of sustainability to a key group in an area can lead to that information being shared more widely, to people the SEAI might otherwise struggle to reach.

“Community groups have a relationship of trust and communication with the wider communities, people who otherwise might never engage in the energy transition,” he says.

“Communities contain a wide variety of energy users with different needs, different levels of understanding, different abilities to change.

“Communities are multi-generational - older generations want to leave a better legacy for the younger ones.” Funding is available for the communities in the form of special SEC grants for establishing the local energy baseline (€10k -20k) as well as subsequent grants promoting energy retrofits and renewable energy. A national technical panel is also available for specialised knowledge inputs.

He says at least two people are needed to join the network, but ‘an SEC works best when the tasks are shared normally at least four’.

“Most SECs are an offshoot of existing organisations - Community Associations, Tidy Towns groups.” Having joined the network, the community group starts the SEC process starting at the Learn step which aims to develop the energy knowledge and skills of its members.

The next step is to progress to the Plan stage which leads to a grant aimed to support the production of a detailed energy baseline also known as the Energy Master Plan (EMP). The energy plan is a roadmap to get things done in a safe and efficient way.

“Some ideas include having an Information Evening/Day event with an invited speaker or exhibits by local energy retrofit installers,” he adds. “It is also important to ensure the wider community hears about the SEC activity by contacting relevant community groups such as Tidy Towns, sports clubs, community noticeboards, church groups, small businesses.” Mr O’Brien gives examples of potential projects through which communities can see real world improvements and savings.

“If your community has a community hall which costs a fortune to heat, or a church that runs up huge electricity bills, or older houses which would benefit from retrofitting, joining the SEC Network could provide the solutions your community needs!

“SECs also contribute in a very real way, to national energy targets and the reduction of negative environmental impacts.” If a community group wishes to create an SEC, where do they start?

“Get onto the SEAI website www.seai.ie/sec and click on Community Energy/Sustainable Energy Communities/Community Network and click Join Network,” Mr O’Brien says. “There is a very straightforward form with Contact Details, Community Structure and Aims & Targets.” The SEC Network in the mid-west and south-west is coordinated by Ballyhoura Development, in partnership with a team of Community Energy Mentors who support and work with over 100 communities in Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Clare.

For further information, or to discuss how your community can benefit from the SEC Network, you can contact the network on 087 9047810 or at sec@ballyhoura.org.

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