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Is community energy our alternative energy future?

CommunitysolarPlymouthGreen Alliance associate Rebecca Willis reports on the project,
Cultures of Community Energy, which she worked on for the British Academy.

The green fields of Wiltshire have recently become the site of an impressive energy innovation. On the last day of 2015, the Braydon Manor Solar Array was connected to the grid, plugging in 9MW of solar energy, or enough to supply around 2,500 houses.

It’s a different energy culture
The Braydon Manor scheme was set up by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, with local people buying shares in the development, and is part-owned by a commercial partner. As you’d expect from a Wildlife Trust, the site will become a wildflower meadow, with hedgerow habitats for birds and bats. It’s not just wildlife who will benefit, though; shareholders get a return on their investment, and there’s a fund established for community projects, including energy saving schemes.

Braydon Manor is innovative, but there’s nothing new about the technology it uses. We tend to think of innovation in terms of technological gadgetry and widgets, but what’s new about Braydon Manor is the business model. It’s one that achieves social and environmental goals alongside financial returns; puts local people at the centre of the development; and gives them a chance to participate directly in energy generation. It is a very different model to the large scale commercial power stations that have dominated UK energy supply for decades. In short, it’s a different culture of energy.

Lessons for the UK from around the world
And Braydon Manor is not alone. There are now over 500 community-owned renewable energy projects operating across the British Isles. So, is people-powered energy a viable solution to our energy challenges, a genuine alternative to our centralised energy system? I was pleased to lead a team working for the British Academy, to investigate community energy through the lens of culture: focusing not on the technology, but on the social and institutional factors that play such a large part in determining outcomes.

We had a good look at countries like Denmark and Germany, where community involvement in energy is the norm; we also investigated projects in Chile, South Korea and Brazil, where community approaches are far less common.

In all, we profiled eleven projects, from the mighty Middlegrunden, the world’s largest community-owned wind farm just offshore from Copenhagen harbour, to the tiny Buan Power solar scheme in South Korea, initiated by religious leaders to demonstrate a different approach to energy and community.

We used these comparisons to assess the future of the fledgling community energy sector in the UK, and to inform a dialogue with government about the role of community energy in meeting the challenges ahead.

Clear patterns emerging
Despite the vast differences between the projects, some clear patterns emerged. First, local projects are heavily influenced by the institutional and political cultures of the national energy system. Denmark and Germany have the most developed and stable institutional support, and this is reflected in the scale and ambition of individual projects.

In South Korea and Chile, by contrast, markets are centralised and dominated by a few key players, making community approaches much more difficult. Looking across the international comparisons, it is clear that there is a need for a simple, long term strategy at national level; a preparedness to embrace innovation; and a willingness to allow local autonomy and responsibility.

Second, community energy projects should be seen as part of a wider social enterprise sector. In countries with stronger traditions of social enterprise, including Denmark, Germany and Belgium, it is relatively easy to adapt this model to fit the energy sector. Ecopower in Belgium, for example, is a social enterprise operating at scale, generating and supplying power to 40,000 customers. The social enterprise sector is less well developed in the UK, though in rural Scotland, community buy-outs of land have paved the way for community ownership of energy. There is a need for a greater understanding of the role of social enterprise as a sector, if we want community energy to flourish.

Third, all the projects that we researched were strongly local in flavour. Local circumstances exerted a strong influence over the type of project developed. Often, projects emerged out of protests against something else – nuclear energy, in the case of Buan in South Korea, and Ecopower in Belgium; or commercial renewables projects, in the case of Horshader and Hvide Sande. In these cases, protests were channelled into a positive force for good. More generally, projects were strongly motivated by environmental and social goals, including energy security, access to energy, carbon reduction and protection of the natural environment.

Gathering evidence from such a wide range of projects, from across the globe, helps to shed light on the UK’s fledgling community energy sector. It’s clear that community energy brings important advantages: public involvement in the energy system; achievement of environmental and social goals, including carbon reduction, alongside financial return; perhaps even greater energy security as we refocus energy supply and demand at local level.

But it’s clear, too, that a more localised, community-centred approach to energy will only happen if it is supported by a strong and stable policy framework, which sets out a clear vision for our energy future, while allowing space for local innovation to emerge.

Image courtesy of Plymouth Energy Community

Written by

Rebecca is a researcher at Lancaster University and an associate of Green Alliance.

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