A few years ago there was a buzz of activity around community energy in Britain. Dozens of projects popped up, including hydropower, wind farms and solar. The government published a strategy and set a target to have a million homes powered by community energy by 2020. It looked set to make a big impact in democratising and decarbonising Britain’s energy landscape.
And then it was killed. The government changed its mind about community energy and systematically stripped out the subsidies and tax incentives that the movement was depending on. It was done with very little notice, leaving dozens of projects scrambling to complete the process. Most of them failed. From over 30 new community energy projects launching a year, in 2017 there was just one.
There’s little doubt in my mind that this was deliberate. It wasn’t just that subsidies or funding were withdrawn, which could have been excused in a time of austerity. Community energy groups were specifically banned from tax breaks that had been created to encourage investors to support start-up enterprises. Around the same time, chancellor George Osborne announced billions of pounds in new tax breaks for fracking, and for oil and gas in the North Sea . Community energy is a direct challenge to the fossil fuel lobby, and it’s not hard to put two and two together.
Despite the setbacks, community energy remains a resolutely good idea. There are so many benefits to community energy that it’s not going to go away. Announcing a possible change of approach, energy minister Claire Perry recently said that the government would “offer our full support to communities who want to take action to save energy and tackle climate change through developing their own local energy schemes.”
How serious this is remains to be seen, but the government has announced a new consultation. To shape the future of the movement, an alliance of community energy groups and agencies have launched a manifesto. It offers a series of points for supporting community energy:
- Value community energy as part of the system, making a level playing field for new projects, creating new post-FIT routes to market, and changing the rules so that community energy groups can serve as local energy providers.
- Encourage innovation in local energy, and ensure that funding for trials is accessible to community energy as well as businesses. Support renewable energy hubs that can help groups to navigate the complexities.
- Provide leadership that supports community ownership, through the planning system, taxation, and through energy efficiency and retrofit markets.
Will Community Energy 2.0 flourish? The politics has shifted, the subsidies have been retired, but the technologies are cheaper than ever and the demand is still there. Perhaps Community Energy is set for a comeback.
If you want to do something about it, you can sign 10:10’s petition here. And keep an eye out for community energy schemes in your local area that you can invest in.