An Interview with Professor Stephen Frankel, chair of Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network. January 2015.
Professor Stephen Frankel is an activist and an idealist. A well-respected academic who holds chairs in Anthropology and Epidemiology at Bath and Exeter universities, Prof. Frankel has set up hospitals on remote islands, worked with the World Health Organisation and helped establish a multi-million-pound NHS Research and Development programme.
Stephen is a founding member of the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN), a co-operative with over 1,000 members that aims to turn energy from an individual cost into a collective asset, and sits on the Department of Energy and Climate Change Community Energy Group. He lives with his artist wife Lizzie-Jane on a smallholding near Wadebridge. Stephen spoke to us about starting WREN, being able to shame the Secretary of State and why playing music with your kids is important.
EF: You have been involved in WREN from the start. How did it come to exist?
Apart from the climate issue, if you know things could be better, where does that betterness come from? There has to be a core of activity – here, it’s the energy economy. Our launch was expressed simply in terms of: ‘Could we make money out of sun and wind?’ These things have huge value – £14m for a little town like this – so any percentage of that is quite a resource.
EF: How has your academic background benefitted WREN?
SF: There’s a theory in epidemiology called the Prevention Paradox. Whilst large change amongst a small percentage of the population makes no difference, small change amongst a high percentage does. So WREN had to be for everybody. It’s not about climate change, it’s about doing practical things that have meaning. I have dealt with very large issues, so I have a sense of potential. If things go well, this is a replicable model.
EF: What has been the secret to WREN’s success?
SF: Cheek! And coherence: unless you have a very clear sense of trajectory, things dissipate. Even if what you are saying doesn’t always resonate, if it is well founded, at some point that prevails. To succeed, you have to have a sense of expediency and a feel for opportunities. Also an understanding that the best ideas are the ones that people can’t remember not having had themselves.
EF: What are the biggest challenges facing rural communities today?
SF: It’s a whole overlay of things, but at its core, how do you retain the social geography of rural life – which has to do with autonomy. All the things that have undermined people’s lives have often been to do with interests that are hostile, exploitative or irrelevant.
EF: Which one public policy would you change?
SF: Get rid of first past the post!
EF: What are you most proud of in your life?
SF: My kids. Everyone says that, but it’s true. You always love your kids, but things do sometimes get in the way. When you’re playing music together, all that goes, so make sure you play music with your kids.
EF: What does the future hold for WREN, and your involvement in it?
SF: Having put a lot of care into the foundations, the next thing for WREN is to produce an at-scale, distributed energy system. In 2015 we will have share offers for local ownership of PV and wind generation. We want to establish Wadebridge as a pilot ‘Smart Market Town’, which will include building a Smart Innovation Hub providing mixed accommodation for tech companies as well as a cultural center; also a 50 gigawatt/per hour energy output facility which will bring in financial flows of about £200m per year.
EF: So you’re still planning to stay involved?
Things shouldn’t be too identified with individuals, so I did say I shouldn’t stand as chair again. But not that many people can look into the Secretary of State’s eyes and shame them, and I can do that. So I’ll do another year. But this is not about specialness, it’s about ordinariness. Once you’ve paddled up that crazy stream with the rocks coming down, there is a peaceful pool at the top which is normal. I’m looking forward to getting there!