We were at the Hay Festival again this year, powering the site with 100% renewable electricity, sponsoring a stage, ‘swinging’ for power and curating a ‘Good Energy series’ of events.
The first day of this year’s festival featured ‘Hay on Earth’ — a series of five talks designed to invite people to imagine a cleaner, greener planet.
I joined the panel of ‘Small is Beautiful… Or is it Anymore?’ alongside Solitaire Townsend, Co-founder of green communications consultancy Futerra and author of ‘The Happy Hero’, and Kevin McCloud, designer, writer and presenter of Channel 4’s Grand Designs. Chairing the discussion was writer and green futurist Martin Wright.
The inspiration for ‘Small is Beautiful’ came from E. F. Schumacher’s highly influential 1973 book which focuses on movement towards smaller scale sustainable systems and away from 'bigger is better' industrialism.
Why we have ‘big’ energy today
Since Schumacher published his book, bigger has continued to be better, and there are few industries where this is more apparent than energy.
We have a ‘Big Six’ — the top energy suppliers who dominate the vast majority of the market and hold enormous power. We also have a grid that is designed to provide power from big power stations, to small homes and businesses.
But this is gradually changing. Not only are we seeing an explosion of smaller suppliers, the National Grid has had to stop looking solely at the TV schedules to plan their power — they’re also looking at the weather forecast, because of the impact of renewables.
Kevin introduced an idea to the discussion which he and his colleagues at Hab Housing often draw back to — Dunbar’s number.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that the number 150 was the limit to the number of people we can maintain a stable relationship with. Hundreds of years ago, people naturally formed smaller communities of around 150 people; but the industrial revolution led to far more of us living in cities, and far fewer of us getting to know the communities around us.
But going back to Schumacher’s original idea, living as part of a smaller community could have all kinds of environmental benefits, in terms of keeping things like travel and food miles down.
What’s more, it make us happier too, as Solitaire suggested that “Each of those communities you belong to gives you 11% happiness. That might be your street, your workplace, your sports club — each add to your overall happiness.”
‘Dunbar’ sized microgrids
Smaller scale community living has a practical implementation in energy, too. Kevin mentioned that Hab Housing’s goal is to have ‘energy positive’ housing schemes —where they are generating, using, storing and exporting; and sending back more energy than they use.
Good Energy has a history of supporting community energy schemes, and we have many on our books as PPA customers.
In the UK these schemes, designed around the generation, ownership and management of (normally renewable) energy, tend not to be fully independent microgrids. Our National Grid system is designed to ensure no one’s supply cuts out and not for electricity to be sent back and forth.
But this can change - true microgrids within schemes which can generate, store and use electricity should be able to flatten usage. This will make smaller level management more plausible, meaning we don’t need such a big ‘pipe’ to send energy back to the grid.
Simple, beautiful and everyday
The biggest lesson I took away from the discussion was the need to keep things simple.
This is something we’ve heard from customers too — being eco-conscious can be difficult. But it shouldn’t be, the environmentally friendly option should be the most commonplace. It should be the most straightforward, and the most beautiful, and that may well mean ‘small scale’ as Schumacher once imagined.