Power to the people: How a charity is helping nurture sustainable energy projects and inspire communities

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The Independent Online

More than a few eager job hunters will have been cheered by Gordon Brown's announcement earlier this month that the green pound is set to create 400,000 jobs over the coming years. The Prime Minister spoke of a "green new deal" which would rebuild the global economy on low-carbon lines, investing in the sort of environmentally responsible technologies that have been championed for years by organisations, such as the Ashden Awards in its work with sustainable energy projects in the UK and abroad.

As its UK programme manager, Simon Brammer is responsible for liaising with the businesses, charities and local authorities who've won one of the Ashden Awards' annual grants of up to £30,000 to develop and maintain existing renewable energy projects.

Brammer has only been in the job since last May, but has already seen the positive impact a grant can have on the projects. The Energy Agency, based in Ayrshire, won second prize in the charity and community sector in 2008 with its idea of setting up a community wind-fund to improve the energy efficiency of homes in three local villages. Almost two-thirds of households in the area have now taken the opportunity to make improvements such as solar water heating and insulation. Some energy supply companies are so impressed that they are paying for the Energy Agency to work in other villages and deprived urban areas.

Global Action Plan won first prize last year. It helps businesses find ways to reduce energy consumption, using interactive tools such as the Energy Bike (right) to highlight energy efficiency.

"It is very difficult to choose a favourite project because they are all so different," says Brammer. "But Global Action Plan does phenomenal work to shift individual behaviour, and enable people to really understand how they're making a difference."

The Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy are a Sainsbury Family Charitable Trust and were set up in 2001 by Sarah Butler-Sloss, eco-warrior and trustee of Jonathan Porritt's Forum for the Future. More than 100 projects have benefited from prize money, but it is the ongoing relationships and sharing of ideas, experience and technologies between winners and further afield that has the continuing impact on structuring a low-carbon future.

One part of Brammer's job is to champion the award winners, both at Westminster and to anyone interested in following their example. "I do a lot of work with government or partner organisations," he explains, "to really sell what it is our award winners do.

"On the one hand they are very easy to sell because they have already demonstrated their successes as a business, local authority or charity. But on the other hand, I don't think the issues around sustainable energy are well understood. So a lot of my role involves explaining what they are, and what part energy may play in a low-carbon future."

Typical days are hard to come by in this sort of job – one of its many appealing characteristics – but Brammer might spend a day in London attending a Government policy briefing to talk about award-winners and the ways in which they are implementing sustainable energy solutions, and to explain how to develop actual policy. Another day might involve a meeting with one of the grant winners to discuss a project and offer advice on business strategies. Brammer also spends time running workshops and other events to spread the word about the activities of Ashden winners.

"I might introduce one local authority to another," he explains, "or run a series of seminars which, for example, look at the role that energy might play in farming."

Brammer travels around the UK with his job – he feels getting to know winners personally is important. His role with the Ashden Awards is a part-time position, and the rest of the week is spent working as a grant-maker for the Ashden Trust, another Sainsbury family charity.

Brammer's career did not start off in the green sector. After an undergraduate degree in social policy he pursued postgraduate qualifications in public health and leadership and management. His first "proper job" was as a youth worker for Plymouth and Torbay health authority.

After a volunteering adventure in South America, Brammer returned to London six years ago and was appointed chief executive of the London Cycling Campaign, an experience which piqued his interest in environmental issues and sealed his reputation as a successful operator in the policy field.

"I had been wondering how I could step out of a career in NHS management and do something using my skills which I felt personally involved with," he explains. "I guess the transition for me was the day I saw the ad for the cycling job, which meant I was able to take all of my management and leadership skills and place them in a different sector."

Anyone who has lived in London for a decade or so will have noticed the growing army of cyclists. "We saw an 80 per cent increase in cycling in London in the time I was at the London Cycling Campaign," acknowledges Brammer. "Although it is a charity in its own right, a lot of the work we did was with the mayor's office, and at that time Ken Livingstone was looking at ways of radicalising transport in London – looking at how to use the additional road space created by the congestion charge and how to construct a liveable city with lower levels of pollution and more space to exercise."

Despite this experience in transport issues, Brammer was a novice in the sustainable energy field. "I'm still learning," he says. "But when I connect one of our award winners to a policy maker, it is the winner who has the expertise."

One of the highlights of the job is the annual awards ceremony where all of the Ashden Awards winners are presented with their prizes at a glitzy reception, and spend the evening sharing ideas and experiences. Recent speakers include Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Green Belt Movement, and former US vice-president Al Gore. Ashden also runs a set of awards for international applicants, and the winners are flown to London for the event.

If you like the sound of Brammer's job and fancy something similar, he advises looking at your skills and qualifications with fresh eyes, as management and project management are transferable skills. From there, "it's just about acquiring the relevant knowledge". Brammer also emphasises the importance of making contacts in the field who can help and advise you, and seeking volunteer work or an internship programme to prove your interest and learn more about the industry. He is currently looking into setting up a internship programme with some award winners.

Just like with the cycling job, Brammer senses that he is part of something important. "It feels like it is making an urgent and very major difference for the UK, and at the end of the day you go home feeling you have contributed something valuable to society," he says. "It isn't me who contributes directly, it's our award winners, but I still feel I'm in a very privileged position."

Read more about the Ashden Awards at http://www.ashdenawards.org/

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