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Community Energy: was 2013 a turning point?

Despite some negative press, the last two years have been good ones for renewable and community energy. Renewables’ share of electricity generation in the first three-quarters of 2013 increased to 13.7 per cent, from 10.9 per cent one year earlier.

The UK now has over 19 Gw (Gigawatts – a thousand Megawatts) of renewable energy installed capacity. For comparison our last nuclear station – Sizewell B generates 1.91Gw, about 1/10 as much.  While 10.8Gw of that is wind power (up from 6.5Gw in 2011) over 2.5Gw is solar, up from just under 1Gw in 2011.

That’s a lot more clean energy. But lurking in there, and not easy to tease out, is a growing amount of energy generation owned and managed by local communities. The best estimate is that community energy (CE) schemes have a total capacity of about 60MW. That’s only about 0.3% of renewables capacity: compare and contrast with Germany where that figure is 46%.  See the recent Respublica report on ‘Starting up, scaling up and spinning out’ for more here.  It’s a tiny figure but it’s still rapid growth (1600% is one estimate and the Dyfi community turbine pictured below is part of that.). In 2002 my report ‘The Quiet Revolution’ (too old for a weblink!) on community action for sustainability struggled to find just two functioning CE projects.Community Wind Turbine - Dyfi Valley

That same Respublica report suggests that by 2020 the sector will grow (at current rate) grow nine-fold to 550MW, but adds that ‘with leadership and investment from local authorities and with the right national policy framework’ the CE sector could deliver up to 1/5th of total renewable energy capacity – 5.27GW – by 2020.

That would indeed be transformation: the amount of money coming into the community / cooperative sector would have a huge impact as would the jobs created.

So how do we get there? What does that policy framework look like?

We are waiting for the DECC Community Energy Strategy, due to be released this month. We know that it will offer some increased support for local action – a new mentoring /support scheme has already opened (and closed) its’ bidding process for funds. It will focus on generation of electricity and heat, energy efficiency, smart grids and managing energy (e.g. collective switching). But how far it will go to address the key challenges and policy issues identified by practitioners is still open to question, not least because some of those issues show how a growing community energy sector may (indeed will) not sit easily alongside established generators.

Two useful short reports from the sector came out just before Christmas. The first of these is: A Community Energy Strategy for the UK – A Community Perspective (here).  This comes from the Climate and Communities Action Alliance (CCAA) (on which I represent the Low Carbon Communities Network – LCCN) and sets out the key issues which we want to see in the DECC strategy and against which it should be assessed.

At the core of the report is the need for a ‘long-term consistent legal and regulatory framework’ if community energy is to thrive. “A clear and bold vision, placing community energy at the heart of energy policy, is required”. Some key points within that vision are:

  • The most tax-friendly international regime for investment in community energy (You may have noticed that the Coalition is putting forward its case for being the most “tax-friendly country for fracking projects”).
  • The most planning-friendly international regime for investment in community energy
  • Requiring and supporting Green Deal Providers and Local Authorities to demonstrate how they are integrating community action within delivery of energy efficiency retrofit
  • Mandating a % of community ownership for every commercial development

This last point is critical: the emphasis on community ownership over community benefit, with communities having the right to buy into local generation. Active community partnership with commercial developers will offer significant value to both.

Linked to this is the need for DECC and Ofgem to introduce a “right of first access” for community energy projects to the grid, whereby Distribution Network Operators are required to facilitate connection for community projects. Furthermore, all renewable energy schemes should have priority access to the grid in preference to fossil fuel, as required by Article 16 of the 2009 EU Renewable Energy Directive, which the UK is yet to fully implement.

The paper has a number of other important points and ideas – anyone working in the field should take time to download, read, and digest.  It’s also worth looking at this alongside the overview paper produced some months ago by ex-MP and renewables expert Alan Simpson here.

The second report is Community Energy: towards cooperation and collaboration (here).cee lgo

This is from a meeting set up by Westmill Solar Co-operative and co-hosted with Community Energy England (CEE – a body under development following discussion within the Communities and Climate Action Alliance). Again I will admit personal interest here – I am involved in the CEE work and co-facilitated the event, which took place on December 13th in Birmingham attended by 54 people from all parts of the CE sector. (It includes a useful guide to who is doing what for anyone phased by the acronyms and organisations in this piece!)

The meeting focused on how far ‘is there scope for community energy enterprises to work together in helping new CE schemes, each other and the sector at large to advance the sustainable communal provision and conservation of energy?’

The discussion on collaboration was much more ‘hands-on’ than the above strategy paper and provides a useful over view of practitioner concerns and needs.  It covered all aspects of CE work from the start-up phase, through launches and share offers to operational work, links with commercial developers, to the policy environment for community energy. The summary is just that – an edited list of key points, but those that emerge are largely similar to those in the strategy paper.

The meeting also looked beyond the DECC Strategy release.  There is support for an infrastructure body along the lines of ‘Community Energy England’ (CEE) (see here for details) which would:

  • act as a member-based organisation offering services to community energy enterprises
  • act as a democratic voice for the sector
  • support the collaboration / development of larger CE organisations;
  • act as a ‘way in’ to this work for newer and smaller organisations.

Alongside that support are some significant issues, not least who would be ‘members’, and who would have decision-making power? There was a clear feel that this should be ‘run by community energy projects’ with less clarity on how this would then engage and work with all the intermediary agencies and funding bodies that support C E etc.

There is as yet no organisation than can be signed up to. Over the coming months there will be work to develop a clear understanding of who is doing what (a practitioner survey), a vision statement, and agreement on both ‘content’ (priorities for work areas) and governance.

There is a mountain to be climbed if Community Energy is to deliver on anything like the scale that we see in Germany.  2013 may yet be seen as a turning point, but it could be yet another false summit with bigger pr0blems to resolve before real progress can be made. The issues set out here need action and determination by practitioners, intermediaries and policy makers. There are bigger ‘hearts and minds’ issues as the anti-renewables lobby continues to push half-truths and hysteria, and CE needs to be ready to take on this hostility.  The emerging CE sector has created a niche for itself but all these actions are needed to secure and grow that niche.

But there’s a wider agenda as well. Any really transformative impact will mean that CE has to build out beyond that niche and move on from being a network of committed practitioners to swimming in a much wider sea.  Two areas where more work is badly needed are very clear.

One is to work with local councils. The cuts in public sector expenditure have seen far too many councils disengage from work on climate and energy issues. There are some honourable exceptions but many are at best focusing only on internal energy issues and at worst are actively working against clean energy.

While my survey data is limited, it’s pretty clear that the councils where there is still ‘pretty good practice’ are the ones where the local climate / energy organisations – be they community groups or enterprises – are engaging with them proactively. Local innovators needs to do more to provide leadership and to stop councils quietly forgetting or even ripping up the targets they set for themselves during the 2008-10 ‘climate boom’ years.   There’s a workshop on  ‘stopping Local Government abandoning the Climate Agenda!’ in Derby on January 11th (I’ll be there)

The second is to work more closely with the wider voluntary and community sector.  There’s around 850,000 community / voluntary groups across the UK and energy and climate groups are perhaps 5-8% of that. There’s a huge range of organisations working for a better local future out there (and many of them have cold, draughty halls with roofs just waiting for a solar system). They offer access to high audiences, and if we want to see community energy as the ‘new normal’, then we need those groups and networks to see this as a huge opportunity. It may need a lot of learning by CE organisations who tend to work with other enthusiasts and professionals, but get this wrong and the potential for growth is going to be much lower.

And finally, any busy enterprise might do well to remember that much local enthusiasm for C E is rooted in concern for our changing climate. Community Energy is an important part of the package of the solutions, but at the moment it’s a small part.  Local action on climate change is at a lower level than it was three years ago, and those doing it need all the support they can get. No-one should be too busy running an energy enterprise to not put a little effort into the bigger picture. Here’s to an engaged and successful 2014!

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