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In recent years, community energy seems to have been teetering on the brink of a breakthrough into the UK energy mainstream.
But despite a large number of local renewables schemes getting off the ground, progress has been affected by factors such as the cuts to the rates of Feed-in Tariff (FiT) payments.
In Wales and Scotland, the Energy Saving Trust provides a support service to community groups looking to get projects off the ground and expand their scale and scope. In England, Energy Saving Trust works closely with Community Energy England, a membership body that supports organisations that want to see community energy grow.
We spoke to Emma Bridge, CEO of Community Energy England to get her take on the issues most affecting the sector.
Bridge admits that the tariff cuts weren’t ideal – but thinks that opportunities could still be abundant for community energy.
She said: “2016 saw the biggest growth in community renewable energy ever – but this was mostly due to a rush of projects being delivered before the drop in Feed-in Tariff rates and changes to tax relief.
“The changes have meant that the sector has had to take stock and think about its purpose and future direction. There aren’t the same number of viable generation projects around now, but community enterprises are also developing to contribute to the wider energy system, such as through energy efficiency, reaching those in fuel poverty and bringing private assets into community ownership. There is still a huge amount of enthusiasm across the sector to drive positive change at a local level.”
At a time of reduced subsidy, big changes such as the expansion of community energy’s interest areas outside solely renewables, are unlikely to be achieved by community groups alone. Bridge stresses the importance of collaboration.
She said: “All sectors need to work together to ensure greater impact from energy projects. One great example is Energise Barnsley, a partnership between a community benefit society, Barnsley Council, Generation Community Ventures, Ignite and British Gas Solar.
“These organisations have joined together to develop community owned renewable energy and heating projects across the borough and deliver lasting social impact through tackling fuel poverty.”
The project launch was the day the government launched the FiT consultation, which saw the FiT rate shrink dramatically. However, the project had received underwriting commitments, gone through full legal due diligence and had the support of Barnsley Council, from the leader to individual councillors, so the project team was still able to deliver a scheme with community benefits.
Tenants' electricity savings to date are over £60,000, due to over 1,400 megawatt hours of electricity generation which has in turn brought a 765-tonne carbon emissions reduction. The community fund from the project has financed over 300 volunteer hours in Goldthorpe through street cleaning and a ‘solar for skips’ scheme to reduce fly-tipping.
Not only that; the fund has financed and is working in conjunction with Age UK Barnsley as part of an energy tariff advice team for senior residents. A local school that had solar PV installed has also been a beneficiary of the community fund and has been able to rejuvenate its playground facilities. Looking into the future, Energise Barnsley have developed a 7MW battery storage stand-alone facility which will go live very soon.
Bridge added: “This partnership approach between the public, private and community sectors ensured the successful development of the project despite changes to Feed-In Tariffs, whilst enabling much greater community impact that might have been achieved otherwise.”
The who and the how of partnership working in communities will be crucial – and it will require no shortage of creativity.
She explained: “There is plenty of innovation, passion and robustness in community energy, with groups also looking to bring impact outside of their traditional energy remit.
“For instance, some groups are starting to look at whether solar projects could charge community electric vehicles, or how community energy could add value to local housing projects. The sector will continue to adapt.”
For a more collaborative approach to succeed, there needs to be some consistency governing how the sector approaches its business.
She said: “Community energy is not quite subsidy free yet, but with modest early-stage support, community schemes can achieve a huge amount. Our State of the Sector report found that organisations in England and Wales have leveraged over £190m in project finance from just £1.9m of project development funding. Of course, the sector also needs confident backing through long-term, stable policy.”
Energy in the UK is in the midst of a considerable shift, as part of the national effort to ensure stable supply, while meeting climate obligations and keeping up with the competition in the market for new, low-carbon technology.
Bridge commented: “The big plans to transform energy distribution towards smarter and more flexible options is exciting – but so far the discussions have been focused on technological innovation. We’re hoping that people, especially the vulnerable, don’t get left behind.
“There’s a chance to develop an open, more democratic and efficient energy supply in local areas. If this is blocked, it will be a big missed opportunity.”
Of course, getting local people on board with energy services based where they live will require concerted engagement, as well as clearly-defined benefits for everyone living in an area. Bridge thinks that this is more than possible.
She explained: “It’s not about forcing people to engage with energy, but enabling those communities that want to – creating new options around the country. Community energy is flexible in terms of size and type. Just a few years ago we were talking about 50kW projects on community building roofs, last year saw the biggest ever solar installation of 14.7MW.
“We’re not going to have the ‘Big Six’, or ‘Big Five’, forever, so there’s a chance to get communities embedded in every kind of energy service. Those with funds to invest in community shares or to put in an intelligent finance community energy ISA can be have a stake of ownership in the ‘energy revolution’, whilst giving those in fuel poverty getting a chance to benefit too.”
Whether community groups are working alone or with partners, they do have a unique advantage – local faces that are likely to have a much higher chance of gaining wide trust and support.
She said: “One of the key things about community projects is they are a trusted intermediary in the energy market, vital when reaching out to engage people.
“A good example here is Plymouth Energy Community, which has played a key role in the local area to address a largely inefficient housing stock and helping households in fuel poverty. Over 11,000 households have benefited from PEC’s services supporting residents, including accessing grants to clear energy debt, improving health by home improvements, energy-focused apprenticeships, tariff switching and a new programme assisting disabled residents to stay warm and well.”
With results like that, Bridge believes that a move towards greater local involvement in the way energy is generated and redistributed should only be a matter of time. She added:
“Local knowledge and trust is going to be key in the energy transition. And community energy will continue to ensure that people are put at the heart of energy.”
With the right support, perhaps 2018 will be remembered as the year community energy went from the verge of a move into energy ‘business as usual’, to fulfilling its promise. Local areas have potentially much to gain.