Changing THE System

Warning – this is long but given that it is a summary of almost 3 years work there’s not much else it can be. There are lots of links to follow for more information if it’s too brief for you!

Almost 3 years ago LEAF – Laois Environmental Action Forum, set the wheels in motion on an energy event that would bring ordinary people together to devise a grass roots led charter for energy transition in Ireland. We invited those knowledgable in their field so that people could ask questions and bounce their ideas off. Figure out if they were being realistic. Introduce ideas to people with limited or no knowledge of energy solutions, to the challenges of climate change, energy security and affordability. Claiming Our Future funded the venue and an online news source,, reported on that event as did local media. Report from the event.

It’s been over two years since the actual event where the People’s Energy Charter – PEC, emerged. PEC was driven by Transition Ireland and Northern Ireland – part of the international Transition Network. I believe PEC played a major part in shifting the Department of Communications Energy and Natural Resources – DCENR, attitude towards public participation in policy. The early days blog of PEC. The change of minister played a big part too

Interacting with the system officially started for PEC at a meeting with officials from DCENR. My report from April 2nd 2014 – “the People’s Energy Charter got commitment from officials at the Department of Communications Energy and Natural Resources to work with us on a comprehensive public participation model for national energy policy consultations. It has the potential to be a pivotal meeting in Irish energy policy.” It all sounded very promising!

A few weeks later saw the launch of a consultation for the Irish green paper on energy policy. My report from the launch event which I called “Where were the “Public” at the launch of the Green Paper on Energy Policy in Ireland?” I happened to be there however I wasn’t invited because of my involvement with PEC. In fact our interactions with the department officials didn’t seem to make much impact and often times we were completely ignored. After the launch I handed Minister Rabbitte an envelope containing PEC communications we believed he may not have been made aware of and my personal belief is that he completely ignored it. It was very ironic that the first priority addressed in the green paper was “Empowering Energy Citizens”. One would think that empowering them may actually be helped by inviting them to the launch. That was May 2014. DCENR had hoped to have the white paper published by year end – December 2014.

This was the first step in the process of writing a national policy, or the White Paper on Energy. Committed to the belief that no “one size fits all” dictate could work and undeterred by not being invited to the launch we agreed that PEC would be calling for comprehensive public participation in Irelands national energy transition plan. This meant an immediate campaign to ensure that as many people as possible would be accommodated in the consultation process.

Having taken on PEC as an entity to pursue the most inclusive means to developing a national energy transition plan I decided to dedicate my spare time to it. That meant getting to know the system. What is business as usual? How is policy usually devised? Who does what and what or who are the influencers? My time in the energy world of Ireland was a real eye opener. I know that many areas of society are much the same but for me it had a greater impact by experiencing it.

Some blog posts that show the reasons change is needed and the steps we took to bring it about.

My report from the Renewable Energy Summit 2014. “I agreed with Tim McSwiney from Tralee County Council that events like these are a great idea to raise awareness and education of renewable energies and the community options available. However I did point out that at €300 a ticket most communities were excluded. I then asked who was involved in writing the green paper on energy draft consultation document and secondly what supports there are for communities who want to become informed and host events. Who would support them?”

My summation of the day “In all a day of denial. Lets all clap ourselves on the back. Wind is great. We’re on the right path, climbing the ladder. How will we get “community acceptance” while throwing in the token acknowledgment of “their very valid fears”. Anyone who critiqued or questioned their system was shut up. They commented at the end that this was the most interactive conference they had with the most questions ever. I asked 4. I estimate that accounted for about a third or more of them all!”

My report from NESC National and Economic Social Council workshop “Wind Energy in Ireland: The Challenge of Community Engagement and Social Acceptance” The crux of the problem:

“What we need is a comprehensive, informed and facilitated participation process. In order to participate you need some insight and information about what it is you are to contribute to. You need to discuss it with others and feel safe asking questions – safe in the knowledge that you will get unbiased information. We need to empower our public to participate confidently.

While policy makers and developers get plenty of time pre-planing, contemplating, discussing proposals and content, communities do not. They are very often planning without true insight into the community their plans will impact most. Local involvement at the pre-planing stage can help flag local issues that may arise. A call for submissions, on a draft which could have been years in the making, is usually put out.

So after plenty of deliberation the public is presented with some plan or framework with which they must get acquainted, informed, discuss, agree or not, consult, discuss again and then comment on – all in a 6 to 12 week window? On national policy? On decisions that shape the world our children inherit? That may be sufficient when it comes to a playground on the green but national and regional energy policy will have a much greater impact on the world around us and future life on earth.”

So to June and the Energy Ireland conference bearing in mind that the Green paper consultation was under way. Report here including ” a whole panel agreed that our system of community engagement isn’t working yet when I ask about plans to improve public participation I get referred back to the existing system – which is causing the problems we are discussing?!?!? I’m still not sure if some people are scratching their heads wondering how to involve the communities, achieve comprehensive public participation for a consensus and shared vision? Or if they are scratching their heads wondering how do they force society to accept the changes they plan on making!”

My conclusion “In all it was a positive experience knowing that I am using these opportunities to continue to question the participatory system we so desperately need to change if we are to do anything sustainably.”

Junes event report the Irish Wind Farmers Association annual conference. “began with the affirmation that 120 wind farms WILL be coming on stream within 2 and a half years, in Ireland. Given such a short time the audience was advised that they need to move fast. They need to talk to their legal teams, their consultants, their banks, the ESB. Absolutely NO mention of their neighbours or the communities they plan on developing next to!”

So to Julys event, the launch of the National Economic and Social Council NESC report “Wind Energy in Ireland : Building Community Engagement and Social Support”. My report which states “Someone from the department suggested that a lot of the anger was probably misdirected, that it is actually a result of our economic circumstances. A sort of reaction to austerity perhaps – it’s not really about the infrastructure at all. To that person I say you are very wrong. Many of the people protesting are not particularly angry about austerity so please come out of your bubble and face the reality that the system has failed the people. The concerned people are normal, decent, everyday citizens who would not usually kick up a fuss. Theirs is a completely normal reaction when everything you have is under threat from developer led, capitalisation of your country, welcomed and facilitated by your government.”

Some thoughts from, including the submission I worked on with Transition Ireland and Northern Ireland to, the green paper consultation as it closed in June.

Around this time, July 2014, I was asked to represent Feasta on the Environmental Pillar plenary and was subsequently elected to the steering group. I believe that over the coming year this opened doors that may well have remained closed.

So to September and the launch of the next phase of the national energy policy – final consultation on the white paper. This is where I met our new minister, Alex White. I actually gave him the same brown envelope I gave his predecessor Pat Rabbitte four months previously. The difference – he opened it and read it as he sat at the top table. In fact in his final address it actually sounded like he had absorbed some of it. Report from the day which included a new initiative in public consultation – 6 workshops / seminars to be hosted by the department over the coming weeks. Perhaps someone had been listening after all 🙂 In fact there ended up being 12, all live streamed and interactive with 4 of them regional!

I only got to attend three of the public consultation seminars.

My report from Empowering the energy citizen, feeling very disempowered! Climate change – greatest challenge we face – potential to wipe out humanity. More turf anyone? “After attending a seminar to explore empowering citizens I ended up feeling more disempowered than ever. I returned to the dark days when I wrote Inheritance and again I say to my babies, I am sorry that greed has been let ruin your world.

My next event was “Planning for Energy Infrastructure, Engaging with Stakeholders & Communities” was organised by Eolas Magazine. “So this whole presentation just begged questions but I kept it to the basics 🙂 I repeated the presenters message that the pre-application consultation on strategic infrastructure developments is mandatory and must contain substantial information about the project. This he had clearly stated in his presentation. I asked that given this fact is public participation mandatory for the applicant, in the preparation of the preplanning material and plans for that consultation?

The answer was effectively an evasion of the question. I was told how An Bord Pleanala considers public participation very important and all applicants should make sure to incorporate it. I asked for clarity and if public participation was mandatory for the pre-planning consultation. The answer was NO.”

This was on the same day as DCENR had their event “Planning and Implementing Essential Energy Infrastructure” identified as priority 3 in the Green Paper.

“One piece of wisdom I did conjure up was the need for us to recognise a false start. For years I have been trying to get communities to plan their own energy transition. It was almost impossible to get people interested never mind engaged. I know it was similar for many of the energy companies too. The interest is usually sparked in reaction to some plan or other. Now, at last, there are plenty of people ready to engage in developing a national plan. I propose we consider events of the past few years, decisions taken, plans proposed as all part of a false start. Now that we have more people in the race lets go back to the starting line and begin again”

On to 2015 “This year there are three ways of measuring the impact grass roots and NGOs have on government policy.

  1. If the climate bill is amended as per the campaign undertaken by Stop Climate Chaos
  2. If the national energy policy reflects the input from the extended and improved public participation process
  3. If the climate talks in Paris produce anything meaningful “

So to meeting with Minister White as part of an Environmental Pillar delegation in April 2015. It’s not enough to simply link the blog – I really must quote lots!

“What has been missing in Ireland is intent. There is no national voice reiterating the urgency of climate change. The media hardly ever mentions it and the political parties avoid it like the plague unless it’s current and then the usual placid responses are rolled out. Energy security comes up if war looms in the east. This has been a major obstacle to those initiating action in their community. There is no validation that what “Theresa O’Donohoe” is saying about climate change and energy security is fact or something we should take action about. This just leaves the initiator high and dry.

So we need intent. We need leadership on this. We need politicians who are not afraid to state that we face major challenges. Not just EU fines for missing targets but the state of the world we are passing on to future generations. We need the media to start taking climate serious and relaying facts and realities more often. Not necessarily negatively or doom and gloom but supporting the transition process, validating the actions being taken to move from fossil fuel all the while repeating the fact that we do need to act.

We need participation. Usually the people who participate do so when they are aware. Awareness could come at a relevant course, awareness raising or information event or start up meeting. What makes for a good community meeting, inclusive of as many people as possible? How do you go about inviting them all? Why would they bother coming, especially if they’re too busy or tired fighting?

Who do we want to participate? These challenges are not something any government can fix. These challenges are something each and every one of us must engage with. We must all play our part. This is not up to DCENR or Department of the Environment. This is a collective responsibility. Government can get the ball rolling but we must get on to the pitch and run with it. I emphasised the importance of having the farming community at the table. The fact is that if farmers need to keep their methane emissions high sacrifices will have to made elsewhere and that will take a collaborative approach. It may be that a local anaerobic digester will cut out fossil fuel heating for some area of their town bringing the communities collective emissions down.

How do we participate? First you need a venue. Then you need refreshments – I always do whatever I can to make sure we’ve tea at everything! A good facilitator is very important. Finally you need the people and for this it helps if existing groups are involved.

My proposal is to host a national conversation akin to the ideal community conversation by bringing  representatives of all of the national bodies of organisations with branches throughout the country to a workshop together and encourage them to replicate the workshop in communities all around the country. 

What might that look like? One or two key decision makers from bodies such as the GAA sports, IFA farming, ICA women, Youth groups, local media networks, shops, religious orders and other stalwarts of community life in Ireland, together in a room to explore a national transition plan to be developed by the people. Spend some time presenting and discussing the enormity of the challenges we face with climate change, peak oil, fuel poverty and energy issues in general. Then we could explore the transition process followed by a workshop on how these groups could help kickstart the community response that is essential.

What might happen? We could end up with a proposal that the GAA, Scouts or religious orders would approve the use of their halls as venues. Musgraves, Tidy Towns or the ICA would supply the tea. The GAA, Scouts or IFA may offer to organise the events. Local media would raise awareness. All of them would encourage their members to attend and engage with planning the transition for their community. Some may be in a position to sponsor facilitator expenses.

Is it problem solving? This is an idealistic scenario however that does not mean it is unachievable. Many communities have been working on climate issues, energy security and the transition from fossil fuel for years solving all sorts of problems as they go. A side affect of transitioning away from fossil fuel is the resilience it brings with a more localised supply chain and circular economy. This means that many problems may never arise because they’ve already been solved in the transition process.”


Behind the scenes – collaboration and communication

While I was going around creating a fuss and blogging there were numerous other organisations and individuals making similar noise. Most were linked with PEC. We would meet at these events. They would lobby separately. They would write their blogs, give their feedback, communicate with each other. We were all on a similar mission – public participation in community energy. We were all talking and complimenting each others work – Energy Co-ops Ireland, Friends of the Earth, Tipperary Energy Agency, Transition Kerry, Climate Conversations, Good Energies Alliance Ireland, the Environmental Pillar, An Taisce, NESC to name but a few. Between us we were lobbying hard. It was difficult for the politicians and civil servants to ignore all of us.

Now fast forward to December 2015


We have an international climate agreement from COP21 – A Climate Deal in Paris

A year later than planned and the launch of the White Paper on Energy Ireland’s Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future.

I’m going to focus on the “Passive Consumer to Active Citizen” specific actions in the energy White Paper.

4.5 Actions

  1. Achieving our energy transition, and the vision set out in chapter two of this White Paper, will be a huge collective national undertaking. It will depend on the active engagement of citizens and communities. It will also require a deeper national awareness of the nature and scale of the challenge, and the development of consensus about the broad policy measures required to meet it. To help achieve this consensus, we will:
    • establish a National Energy Forum modelled on the successful National Economic Dialogue, which took place in July 2015. The National Energy Forum will meet periodically to consider evidence-based inputs on the challenges arising from the energy transition outlined in this White Paper and a report on the findings of the Forum will be published thereafter. The first National Energy Forum will take place in Q3 2016
    • invite representatives of community and environmental groups, politicians from Government and opposition, as well as business, unions, research institutes and the academic community to participate in the Forum with a view to maximising and maintaining consensus on the broad policy measures required to meet existing and emerging challenges. The Forum will have a respected independent chair and rapporteur. It will also work to stimulate constructive and informed national debate on energy-related issues.
  2. Meaningful public consultation and engagement by Government and infrastructure developers are prerequisites for the successful achievement of the energy transition [25] [26]. We will:
  • work with energy agencies, community experts and local government to ensure that information is provided to citizens in a timely and accessible manner10
  • Work with NESC and SEAI to encourage the development of local intermediaries with expertise to facilitate and support local engagement
  • keep legislation and procedures under review to ensure that citizens have ongoing opportunities to input into energy policy development, and that they are properly consulted on infrastructure developments that affect them.

100. The development of this White Paper revealed a wide citizen and community desire to be consulted on, and participate in, Ireland’s energy transition and the development of energy- related projects. We acknowledge the need to develop mechanisms and instruments to make this happen. We will work to widen the opportunity for participation by:

  • supporting community participation in renewable energy and energy  efficiency projects, via the SEAI, to share best practice, provide information and ensure that local strategies align with broader Government policy
  • facilitating access to the national grid for designated renewable electricity projects, and developing mechanisms to allow communities to avail of payment for electricity, such as the ability to participate in power purchase agreements
  • providing funding and supports for community-led projects in the initial stages of development, planning and construction. These will be defined using criteria such as scheme size and degree of community ownership
  • providing a new support scheme for renewable electricity which will be available from 2016
  • developing a framework for how communities can share in the benefits of substantial new energy infrastructure which is located in their area
  • establishing a register of community benefit payments
  • examining shared-ownership opportunities for renewable energy projects in local communities
  • supporting, in particular, the emerging energy co-operative movement as one means of facilitating community participation
  • exploring the scope to provide market support for micro generation. This will be informed by an SEAI analysis of the potential of technologies in the field of small-scale wind, solar, micro-CHP and small-scale hydro
  • engage with local government on advising consumers on energy efficiency initiatives and clean energy options, integrating energy options, scoping the opportunities for demand and supply related local energy action through integrating energy issues into local area planning, and bringing stakeholders together to find locally appropriate solutions that bridge the gap between demand and supply (E.g. biomass fuel, district heating solutions).


Meeting Minister White a year ago at some energy event or other!

Do you think we influenced the system at all?

Feel free to give me feedback as this is a work in progress – I’ll never publish it if I wait to perfect it!

Theresa O’Donohoe 19th January 2016

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