There have been a number of concerns raised recently about the future of community energy – with some local groups understandably worried about cuts to Feed-in Tariff rates. However Graham Ayling, Head of Energy Saving Trust Foundation, thinks its time is coming.
He said: “There’s no denying that the past year has been incredibly tough for community energy groups who’ve put their heart and soul into projects, only to have to go back to square one as government policy changed. However, this is an incredibly resilient sector, full of people determined to drive forward action on climate change and bring about a fairer, more democratic energy sector. It isn’t about to roll-over and give up.”
“In the short-term, there's still a lot going on as many community groups pre-registered for the Feed-in Tariff (FiTs) so their projects should go ahead. For example, there's a great project we've been involved with in Swansea, where the council is setting up a community solar PV scheme in some of its most deprived areas, with the aim to directly benefit those wards. These schemes will make the sector stronger, generating income for new community projects, as well as renewable energy.”
There have been lots of projections saying solar PV will reach grid parity in the next few years, and these economics could mean solar no longer needs financial support to thrive. In the meantime, there are plenty of options to explore for enterprising community organisations and social enterprises. Ayling explained:
“Potentially, communities could choose to buy into existing commercial installations such as wind and PV farms. Then there's direct supply – selling electricity to the site where its installed, at retail rather than wholesale price. This could be a big opportunity for motivated local authorities and businesses to buy into the most ethical energy out there, benefiting the community as well as the environment.
“We've also had a role in another interesting scheme in Wales; the Welsh Government-supported Energy Local pilot. This looks at using solar as a starting point for local energy management and behaviour change, it’s a step towards peer-to-peer energy sales – selling the excess electricity you generate to your neighbours. This really is making use of local renewables in the local area and, if successful, could be a game-changer.”
Energy storage is beginning to attract mainstream buzz – and Ayling is not for dampening the enthusiasm. He said:
“There's a pilot happening in the south west to install a large solar PV system with battery storage. The great thing about that is it’s the start of a move towards self-sufficiency and tackling the issue of intermittent supply that's often associated with solar, while also helping to integrate with the grid.
“It's quite difficult to tell exactly how fast things are going to move on energy storage, but we hear that 20GW of storage projects are already planned in the UK, and there are lots of clever controls and software becoming available, to enable operators to offer multiple energy services. It looks like industry is ready to go.”
The Paris climate agreement may well change the game for renewable partnerships – and Ayling is convinced that communities can play a big role, if they can find mutually beneficial ways to work with businesses looking to make big energy changes. He said:
“A number of big corporates have made ambitious pledges on renewables – with some saying they're looking to go 100 per cent renewable. The question is, can we reach out and line them up with community organisations who could provide some of that energy? This is something we're exploring at the Foundation, with our networks of communities and corporates.
“You could imagine a situation where supermarkets or DIY chains could host renewable installations and buy the electricity at a rate that works for both them and, most importantly, the community. Standard contracts for energy schemes along these lines could also reduce legal costs for community groups.”
Although the debate doesn't seem to have been quite won in Westminster, the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland still seem to have considerable appetite for the community energy sector. Ayling said:
“The Welsh and Scottish community energy programmes do have capital budgets to help bridge the funding gap for community projects, and we're working with those governments to try and get the best outcomes. For example, we've recently been training planners in Wales and are working to continually improve the advice and funding available in both countries.”
“With manifestos in the recent elections in those countries promising a greater involvement for communities in the energy supply side, and with a community energy target in Scotland, it seems clear that there is genuine commitment to making this work there and in Wales.”
Community energy is not just about solar panels on roofs – and the Foundation is looking to further the work Energy Saving Trust has been doing for many years with individuals and households. Ayling explained:
“We're supporting the diversity of community projects, and that of course includes energy efficiency. We're launching a community version of our Home Energy Check to help communities provide energy advice and track who they’ve advised and what measures are needed. Groups will be able to use this to help them better understand what energy efficiency measures are needed locally and possibly even run schemes such as group buying. It could also help them track the impact of their work.”
It's impossible to deny that it's renewable energy that has caught the public's imagination and widened the debate on green options. Ayling is quick to point out that the UK missed its target to generate 10 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources in 2010, but, just 5 years later in 2015 was up to nearly 25 per cent by 2015. He said:
“It's incredible growth and a pattern that’s being repeated globally. This is the future. Look at solar PV - a few years ago there was no financial payback, now it’s on the verge of becoming one of the cheapest ways to generate energy. Uptake has been way beyond what anyone expected, because it’s a popular technology. This isn't going to go away.
“In the past, there was a perception that making a greener choice was always a compromise, but now people can see that the technology is good and can fit in with their lifestyle. It's really going to take off. What's needed now is policy that recognises and grabs the opportunity.”
Ultimately, Ayling is confident the DIY culture of community energy will see it through current challenges. He added:
“Community energy has always been about going out and doing it regardless. Of course funding helps, but it feels like we're on the verge of finding ways to do without subsidy if needs be. Then, who is going to stop it?”