Community Energy Panel at SLF 2012I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel on Community Energy at the Sustainable Living Festival in Melbourne over the weekend, hosted by the Yarra Energy Foundation.

I’ve been introduced to the community energy movement through my role as a Director of YEF and am passionate about its mission and potential.

Community energy has been around for decades, but it’s enjoying fresh momentum in the wake of accelerating climate change and the collaborative consumption economy.

It lets local communities take control of their own energy needs and supply, managing generation and distribution in line with their particular resources, contexts and goals.

It helps move all of us to a fuel free future and wrests the hands of energy production from corporate and political elites whose special interests often trump the bigger picture (and result in higher prices).

Just like social media, community energy disintermediates and disrupts, it collapses boundaries, promotes access and offers opportunities for democratisation.

Joining me on the panel were Dan Cass, Director of Hepburn Wind Community Wind Farm, and Martin Brennan, CEO of ICLEI Oceania (Local Governments for Sustainability).

I was speaking about how community energy stewards can tap social media to mobilise their communities around the ‘big idea’ of community energy and optimise participation.

Here’s some of what we discussed.


Social media has provoked seismic changes in the ways we express ourselves, fight our battles, access and organise information that matters most to us every day.

But what cuts through the noise is never technology. It’s a story that makes us feel part of something.

Before you can instigate behavioural change, you have to let people see that behaviour brought to life in a way that doesn’t feel like marketing or or spin.  People have to be exposed to the behaviour they’re being asked to emulate, in human terms.

There is little better than social media for visibility. Instead of good work or important news being reported at the whim of a politicised mainstream media, the people with the lived experience can share their stories and demonstrate that experience, first hand.

A YouTube video showing a family talking about how proud they are telling their kids they own their own energy is a more useful movement building tool than a research report proving the long term value of community energy.

Once people are on the journey with you, then you can start to introduce them to deeper dive resources to support that journey. Keep it short, shareable (don’t lock your content down) and authentic. The more we know about each other, the more we’re likely to connect meaningfully, and the more I’m likely to develop an interest in that thing you tell me is changing your life.

Find your stories. Make your stories visible. Empower your community to tell their stories and help share them. Find ways to channel people’s authentic passions. Real enthusiasm is infectious, while manufactured cheer-leading makes us tune out.

We all run a subtle cost-benefit analysis before we do anything. By sharing our victories in human terms we increase the likelihood that our message will resonant, tipping the balance in favour of benefit.

Caitlin fields questions for the panelSocial validation

By having challenging conversations in public (and managing those conversations respectfully) we give others confidence to take a risky action and share in the wins of others. When our friends, families and colleagues are able to praise us publicly about our efforts, it helps us keep going when it gets tough (as it always does) and encourages us to do more.

Community energy collectives should consider how they can regularly surface the wins of individuals and the community as a whole (and how those can be rewarded in creative ways). How can they let supporters celebrate milestones? How can people proudly show off their energy ownership to other communities (and make them jealous)?

Rapid action

As you build and nurture your network of curious, ready, willing and able, you can explore opportunities to deploy them in real time. Don’t let a database languish out of the loop. Build a present, mindful network of contacts that are available for ‘activation’ when they’re needed. They want to help, so connect them with as many opportunities as possible.


By actively listening to your community and the social web at large, you can identify opportunities for transformative moments.

You can discover who is talking about your projects, where they are and the shape of their communities and networks.

You can correct misinformation, connect people to resources that meet their needs and lets them take an action. You can discover hidden advocates and equip them with what they’re missing to take up the torch for your work.

Existing armies

It’s hard work to identify and collaborate  with advocates, build a network of supporters and have an impact over the long term. Connecting with existing armies can get you there faster (and signals to those armies that their reasons for being are real and required).

There are passionate groups within fan culture, the social change community, the data community, the developer community and the crowd/micro-philantrophy community that are constantly looking for ideas and projects to throw their weight behind. They have the time, the diverse specialist skill sets, and will to help. They are often local to you.

Why not join a local hack day to get a mobile or iPad application built for your community members to be able to check on the health and status of their community energy system with one click?

Daily, embedded access to what powers my world is a pathway to positive habits and long term change. It makes me feel connected and included, and my trust of the network grows with transparency.

Data aggregation

Your community are your eyes and ears. How they can use their mobiles, tablets and laptops to gather and pool data that advances your cause? Can they document negative and positive impacts?

There’s a data nerd in every community. Find yours and collaborate with them to access information that helps you build better systems and share better stories.

Consider wiki’s to warehouse the community energy brains trust.


Even though people may live in a geographically bounded area, they may not consider themselves part of a ‘community’ in any classic sense. Think carefully about the language we use and remember that real world communities find new ways to connect and thrive online.

If your community energy project is struggling to gain traction because there isn’t the sense of community or trust locally that you had hoped for, social media might be surprisingly helpful.

The most important work here undeniably happens face to face, but people who are learning to trust are often more comfortable engaging through the perceived safety of the screen. You could  carve out an online welcome lounge to break the ice and help neighbours discover aspects of each other that demystify ‘across the fence’. Promote a local meet and greet through social networks to help grease attendance.


Find ways to have it.

Community energy is serious, life changing stuff. Amidst the meetings, decision making and important business, make time for relaxed socialising. Remind folks that the objective here is happier, healthier communities, not communities where living and connecting feels like work.

Utilise social media to get ideas for social events, disseminate news and manage attendance.


As Jane McGonigal has taught us, questing culture is alive and well.

Millions of us plug into socalised universes on a daily basis to accomplish tasks as a team, toward an epic objective.

Community energy is a quest that could benefit from simple, embedded tools to ensure the mission consistently feels as inclusive as it is in practice, and to make saving the world addictive.

It’ll only succeed if we make it a shared journey (it’ll also be less lonely).

Got examples of social technology being used to help build the community energy movement? I’d love to learn about them.


One thought on “Powering community energy with social media

  1. This actually reminds me of similar ventures in areas such as banking, for example. Community banks have had varying levels of success in trying to achieve the same things with how they manage people’s money. Would love to hear more about such things and how they are harnessed!

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