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Stacking the last plate into the dishwasher and turning it on, Lucas is not at all surprised to see the “on hold” light start blinking. Dishwashing is the energy grid’s lowest priority right now. At 7pm, lights are on, dinners are cooking, TVs are blaring. The dishwasher will kick in when there’s spare capacity in the grid.

Just a few years ago, people would have baulked at this inconvenience. But Lucas knows it good for the environment and saves him and his neighbours money. The district he lives in, St Mark’s, now generates more power than it uses – putting renewable energy back into the national grid and bringing extra income to residents.

Five years ago, the district was notorious for being run down, its residents under-employed and earning below the national average. With energy prices rising fast, Lucas realised that some members of the community were being forced to choose between basics like heating or cooking. After speaking to some of his neighbours, Lucas developed a vision for a community-owned renewable energy system which would cut bills, provide income for the community, and also reduce carbon emissions.

He recruited people from across the district and formed a committee to examine the idea in practice. They developed a plan, began to promote it online, and managed to access funding through a new “double match crowdfunding” programme: one third donations from the crowd, one third funding from the city’s matched crowdfunding pot (which happened to be focused on energy and environment that year following the annual participatory budgeting process), and one third low-interest ethical loan. They named their project Ciklo.

Rooftops were covered with solar panels and micro-turbines installed around the district. Residents could choose to install other technologies such as transparent solar on their windows, and buildings were insulated to reduce heating and cooling needs. Taking advantage of the district’s coastal location, small scale tidal and wave energy generators were built. To give real ownership to the community, and further reduce environmental footprint, a lot of the parts for these installations were tailored and produced at Casa Luminata, the local fab lab. Apartment buildings were fitted with batteries to help bridge differences between supply and demand.

Within homes, smart appliances were programmed to operate depending on when energy was available. Non-urgent tasks like dishwashing would operate when there was spare capacity in the grid, while time-sensitive activities like lighting and cooking would be given priority. Householders could override these settings if they wanted, but they’d have to pay more to do so. To help them plan and to increase transparency, every household had a dashboard, called the Cikloboard, showing aggregate, anonymous energy usage across the district. People could ask a connected virtual assistant for insights, trends and tips.

Decentralised ownership and varying prices created a complex system of energy payments. Apartment buildings shared the rights to rooftop generation and battery storage equally. However, some apartments generated more energy, while others used more energy. Households had to pay for energy they drew from the district’s tidal and wave energy, but the district paid residents for the right to store its excess energy in shared battery storage. The system as a whole earned money when selling its excess to the national grid.

To address this complexity, open-source blockchain technology was used to track each unit of energy and its price. Smart meters in homes, batteries and generators measured and verified what was given to and taken from the grid, providing the whole community with precise monthly bills and tailored information and insights.

Dishwasher on hold, Lucas heads to the community hall for the local energy management board meeting. Joining for the first half of the meeting is Citizens’ Agency. They’re interested in the scheme and the community’s experience. Their eventual aim is to understand user behaviour better in order to extend the approach to other areas.

The second item on the agenda is the economic report. Households have the choice to pledge to spend the money they’ve saved on lower bills in the local currency to support the district’s shops and services, and the board is thrilled to see that over half of households have now opted in, chiming closely with local businesses’ reports of increased footfall and spend.

Finally, the board discusses the Community Pot. This fund receives half of the income generated from selling back to the grid (minus loan repayments), and is shared between local community projects. Lucas knows competition is tough, but is ready to push for funding to go to his niece’s school, which is beginning to develop a new VR platform to share refugees’ stories. Lucas takes a deep breath, and begins to state his case.

Projects and organisations which inspired us

  • Jouliette @ De Ceuvel (NL), a blockchain-based energy token which empowers individuals and communities to easily manage and share their locally-produced renewable energy
  • Brooklyn Microgrid (US), a community-driven initiative which reimagines the traditional energy grid model, with the concept of a communal energy network.
  • Matched crowdfunding programmes, such as Goteo’s (ES) or the Mayor of London’s (UK), and Nesta’s research on the topic
  • Decode (NL/ES), which aims to provide tools that put individuals in control of whether they keep their personal data private or share it for the public good