The government wants a community energy revolution in the UK, but what’s needed for it to happen?
During community energy fortnight, which ended on Sunday, groups around the country showcased impressive projects and ideas. You could have visited a hydro scheme in Stockport, or learned about community heating in Oxfordshire, participated in an energy saving workshop in Dorset, or even taken a big red bus tour of Manchester’s green homes.
It was inspiring stuff. Unfortunately, these types of projects are few and far between. Many other interested and enthusiastic groups around the UK are still struggling to get their ideas off the ground. With the government devising its community energy strategy, there’s now a real opportunity to ensure that the successes are replicated.
To find out what the government strategy needs to do, Green Alliance recently researched the issues facing community energy projects through constituency workshops with three MPs and local stakeholders.
Views from communities
In Sheffield, with Paul Blomfield MP, we learned about a hydro project that had to be pulled after four years’ of planning as a result of changes in Environment Agency requirements. Lack of understanding of the benefits of local energy projects is resulting in considerable opposition to schemes from district and parish councillors and the wider community in Tessa Munt’s Wells constituency. And, in Mike Crockart’s Edinburgh West constituency, there was plenty of interest in energy efficiency and generation projects, but scepticism about the effectiveness of initiatives like the Green Deal .
It was revealing that groups in all three areas were facing the same issues, and struggling to knock down the same barriers to success. There’s huge potential for community energy to scale up and play a key role in the UK’s future energy system, but it is clear that it can’t happen without significant policy and practical changes.
Making the community energy revolution happen
In Constituency voices: realising the potential of community energy, Green Alliance has set out six recommendations for government based on this research, which would enable the expansion of schemes across the UK:
1. Strengthen national policy for community projects: the majority of low carbon energy policies are not designed with these projects in mind, making it difficult for community groups to benefit. By setting a clear, ambitious vision for community energy in the UK and considering communities explicitly in the design of energy policies and schemes, groups will be more encouraged to invest the time and resources needed to get projects off the ground.
2. Establish a nationwide information resource for community groups: for many, the enthusiasm and ambition is there but it isn’t always clear how best to put it to use. With an information and advice forum (which could be run by a not for profit agency) communities could find answers to their questions and learn from others’ experiences.
3. Reduce administrative, planning and regulatory burdens: as we saw in Sheffield, no matter how much time is spent planning a project, hurdles can appear at any stage, often without warning. Standardised processes agreed between the government and bodies, such as the Environment Agency, Ofgem and network companies, would make it far simpler to get consent for community projects. With priority access to the grid, many more projects could be established in a short period of time.
4. Improve start up and project finance options: a big issue for community groups is money, or the lack of it. Start up and project finance needs to be much more readily accessible. The government should work with the banks to encourage more of them to lend, and schemes like feed-in tariffs should be open to groups, regardless of whether they’ve received public funding in the past.
5. Ensure local energy projects feature a level of community ownership: renewable energy developers are increasingly recognising the need to ensure that local communities benefit, but this could go much further, with a level of community ownership in all projects. Local authority and community partnerships would also help to lower costs and administrative burdens.
6. Encourage community-led energy efficiency: the workshop in Edinburgh showed that there is enthusiasm for energy efficiency, but at the same time a reluctance to get things off the ground due to uncertainty about the level of benefits. Clear incentives would tackle this, and encourage community energy projects to cover energy use as well as generation.
Now it’s over to the government. Along with the many other organisations, community groups and individuals who responded to its call for evidence, we look forward to seeing the detail of the community energy strategy later in the autumn.
What’s clear is that there is a revolution waiting to happen: enthusiasm and ambition is definitely there in communities, and there’s no shortage of ideas. This time next year, a year on from the strategy’s launch, it will be interesting to see what community energy fortnight 2014 will look like.