• Niamh Kirwan

The conversation about energy efficiency has to move from global to local, from polar bears and melting ice caps to boiling your kettle and adjusting your thermostat, if we are to make a real impact; says Dunleer Energy Team Manager and community leader, Eugene Conlon.

Climate change is the most significant threat faced by our world today. We all have a say in what our energy future will look like - and we all have a responsibility to act.  As we settle into 2018, we know that if we are to meet our energy targets, we all need to take action. Critical to this success is grassroots movement at a community-level. This is where we’ll begin to see real change occur. Niamh Kirwan, recently had the pleasure of speaking to Eugene Conlon, Chairperson of the Dunleer Sustainable Energy Community network. Below Eugene shares his experience of getting involved in the network and the impact it is having on his local community.

A passion for climate change at a community level

I am extremely passionate about working within the community for the benefit of everyone. My mother was a founding member of the local credit union, so I grew up appreciating the real impact local communities can have when they come together. I also feel very passionate about climate change and my responsibility to reduce the negative impacts climate change is having on communities across Ireland, and indeed the world.

Starting up a sustainable energy movement in my home town of Dunleer was a no brainer! I wanted to do something concrete and meaningful, something that would have a lasting impact on the community I grew up in. I wanted my community of Dunleer to be a place people wanted to live and where people could enjoy a good quality of life. So many communities were negatively impacted by the boom, where there was little concern for the resources and infrastructure that communities need in order to thrive and grow. In Dunleer, we wanted to make sure that we would survive and thrive as a community.

Engaging the community about their energy use

The Dunleer Community Development Board (DCDB), an umbrella organisation for 24 community groups in our area, became part of the SEAI’s energy community network. We formed an Energy Team to manage the energy programmes within our network. Our aim was to engage people, to relate to people about the realities of climate change and show them how together we could make a difference. So much of what we hear about climate change is about the Antarctic and polar bears, but people sometimes struggle to relate to this, to see how it connects to them, and to understand how they can make a difference. I like to give the example of how often we boil the kettle, leave the room and then have to boil it again before actually making a cup of tea! People always laugh at this in our education classes, because they can relate to it. We have also found through our education programme that 51% of people have no heating controls in their homes, no thermostats or zoning This can be easily be tackled and would mean a reduction in energy wastage and cost to homeowners.

As a community, we wanted to get people to start thinking about when they use energy and the simple changes that they can make to reduce their energy use. We all have a responsibility to tackle climate change and we need to focus on the practical things that we can do in our homes and communities. This was the message we wanted to get across.

The energy team in Dunleer secured funding through SEAI to upgrade 150 buildings across mid-Louth. Upgrade works included installing more efficient heating systems and insulation in 140 homes, a GAA club, a soccer club and a local community office. The works have made a massive difference to the comfort people feel in their homes and community buildings. They are also now saving money on their energy bills due to the reduced energy consumption.

The Energy Ambassadors: Interactive energy education

We also identified a need for greater education on reducing energy use, using more renewable energy and accessing grant funding to upgrade homes. We partnered with software developers Energy and Renewable energy experts and commissioned the development of an education programme called the ‘Energy Ambassadors’. This interactive fun programme shows people the things that they can do and has already been delivered to over 300 people in Louth, Dublin, Wicklow, Limerick, Roscommon and Monaghan. This kind of community education empowers people to make changes that they know will have real impact. Through this education we also inform people how they can work together as a community to build an application for grant funding under the SEAIs Better Energy Communities.

Working with SEAI has been fantastic in terms of giving us the support we need to deliver a project of this scale. SEAI helped us every step of the way and we couldn’t have done it without their really practical help and support.

Communities talking to communities can inspire real change

Many people are simply not aware of the power they have to reduce their energy use. They feel their actions would be a drop in the ocean – can turning my home heating down 1oC in rural Limerick really address climate change? Can the small actions I take really make a difference?  Our education programme helps people come together as a community to make real and lasting change. It shows the kind of collective impact they can have. Communities talking to other communities is a critical influencer when encouraging behaviour change and has a much bigger impact than an institution telling communities what to do.

Through our Energy Ambassadors education programme, we are finding out the big issues people in Ireland are experiencing when it comes to managing their energy use. We are then able to educate on what they can do and where they can get support. One simple example is that a lot of people in Ireland still have open fires, some people even have two. If you spend 10 euro in fuel in an open fire, seven euro of that literally goes up the chimney in wasted heat. Only three euro of that fuel goes towards heating your home. If you change to a wood burning stove, you reverse that. People are always shocked by this simple fact.

Recently I was speaking with a lady in Limerick who attended our Energy Ambassadors programme who was really frustrated because her home was so cold. We advised her on how to reduce heat loss and fix her home. It makes such a difference in people’s lives. It means a lot to people when they see the big savings in their pocket as well as knowing they are helping the environment. They are spurred on to do more.

Citizens need to take ownership of their energy use

Ireland has a long history of creating meaningful change nationwide through community led movements. Right now, there are more than 150 energy communities in SEAI’s network undertaking long term energy efficiency projects just like we are in mid-Louth. These communities are stepping up to the plate and are taking action.

We have a vision for an energy future where people have respect for the environment and where their actions reflect that. If you look at the statistics, 69% of our energy needs are met through imported fossil fuels. That is a horrendous figure. Every time, we use coal or oil we are contributing to that figure. It is not enough to just blame the Government. We need to collectively, as citizens, take ownership.
Eugene Conlon, Dunleer Energy Team Manager and Community Leader

The energy team in DCDB is made up of Eugene Conlon, Elizabeth Kearney and Gerry Reaburn. Eugene is one of the founding members of DCDB and has led the establishment of Dunleer as an SEAI sustainable energy community. Eugene works in change management and has over ten years’ experience delivering skills training services and solutions to Irish business. Gerry has a Masters and Post Graduate Diploma in Renewable Energy Systems. He works at Centre for Energy and Renewables at Dundalk institute of Technology. Eugene and Gerry deliver the group’s education programme. Elizabeth looks after the administration of the retrofit programme, supporting homeowners and community organisations complete upgrade works.

Find out more about the SEAI’s Sustainable Energy Communities Network and our range of energy grants