Dr Philipp GrunewaldThe far North Sea coast of Germany is so flat and featureless that the tourist board tried to market it as ‘the land of horizons’. Imagine green fields with black and white cows, blue and white skies and not a lot else. People liked it that way and I was one of them. However, the view has now dramatically changed.

Today, rows and rows of majestically large wind turbines are slowly winding as far as the eye can see. How did this change come about? Don’t these Germans know how to NIMBY? Or did nobody listen to them?

When the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman was recently sent to his desert island [on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs], Kirsty Young asked him about the wider implications of his work on behavioural economics and prospect theory. His answer was simple and profound: our aversion to loss makes those who have something to lose fight much harder than the potential winners. Because of this asymmetry, big reforms will always be slower and harder than we anticipate. That probably rings true for most who work on energy policy.

The fundamental changes, which our energy systems will need to undergo, inevitably bring about plenty of winners and losers (see John Loughhead’s blog). ‘Losers’ may require some attention, if change is to happen more quickly. This was illustrated to me – not on a desert island – but on an island with around 1200 inhabitants off the flat North German coast. People on the Isle of Pellworm live predominantly off farming and tourism (for those in need of plenty of horizon).

But around 20 years ago there was trouble brewing behind their dyke. Many families moved to the mainland seeking better economic conditions. Of those that remained a rift formed between a largely conservative population and a group who harboured ambitious plans for a “sustainable island”. When it came to a stalemate between the local council and this “extra parliamentary opposition”, some islanders decided that the antagonistic approach was itself no longer sustainable.

With such a small island community it was important to be able to look their neighbours in the eye when they next met at the butchers’ or the village fête. They formed working groups, which deliberately brought together a range of views from various camps. These discussed issues more holistically and openly than their council would, and more and more citizens felt they could participate and be heard in this forum.

The breadth of interests within these groups meant that the attention was not on generation technologies alone. Efficiency, demand reduction, transport, tourism and many other aspects could be raised and would be heard, such that interdependencies could be recognised and the scope became far more holistic. One key lesson these working groups learned was how valuable it was to involve the community very early on, not when the plans had been drawn up, but long before then. This created buy-in and a sense of ownership.

And at this point, I believe, Kahneman’s insight really came into play. Many citizens may individually consider themselves ‘losers’ in the proposed changes. At the individual level the loss of a wind-turbine free view counts a great deal more than the collective upside of this ‘airy-fairy’ future energy system. This fear of individual loss tends to mobilise quite stern resistance. However, on the Isle of Pellworm it became quite clear that we are not ‘individuals’.

The concept of ‘individuals’ implies autonomy and independence. On a desert island that might be so. Yet, in our highly interconnected and interdependent world, such a view has never been less appropriate. Not only do we depend on those around us, they shape our views and values all the time. We are therefore much better understood as members of ‘communities’ (in all their guises) than as individuals.

Through their community engagement, potential individual ‘losers’ became part of the collective winners. The result? Almost all wind turbines are community owned. The island produces a surplus of energy, became carbon negative, tourism has been strengthened by its green image, and even more importantly, people no longer desert the island and still see eye to eye when they meet at the butchers’.

And they want to go further still. The first round of wind turbines will soon be upgraded to higher ratings. Now they have a choice: same power with fewer turbines or keep the same number and use the surplus to pay islanders child support to help with schooling on the mainland and other services.

In the words of Uwe Kurzke, who for 30 years engaged in the sustainable concept for the island: “When the anonymity can be suspended, when the individuals feel collective, then it can work. When you rush it past the people and leave it to the large corporations, then I believe it isn’t necessarily condemned to failure, but it takes even longer.”

Dr Philipp Grünewald, is a research fellow at the University of Oxford and currently researches community energy business models as part of the Supergen HiDEF project. He recently completed an interdisciplinary PhD studentship funded by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC).