Community energy is a promising movement within the clean energy transition. It shifts energy provision from large scale fossil fuel operations to small scale renewable energy, with the benefits flowing to local people rather than shareholders.
Unfortunately it’s had a rough time under the Conservative government. The Tories published a community energy strategy in support of it when in coalition with the Liberal Democracts, and then systematically gutted it a few months later once they had a majority. It was an illogical and undemocratic thing to do, and evidence of the power of lobbying. (Like the third runway at Heathrow, the Hinckley Point nuclear power station or ditching the zero carbon homes standard.) The energy industry clearly perceives community energy as a threat. When they saw the government publicly supporting it, they had a quiet word in their ear.
That undermining has continued, and 2018 was “the toughest year yet for community energy”, according to the State of the Sector report. The biggest blow was the complete removal of the Feed in Tariff – by some distance the main factor in that year’s 69 stalled projects.
The best thing we could do for community energy is to vote the Conservatives out of office for a generation. That looks unlikely, if the polls are anything to go by. If the sector is to survive, it will be despite the government, and it’s going to have to innovate. Some groups are focusing on energy storage, adding value to their existing sites rather than opening new ones. Others are focusing on energy efficiency or low carbon transport.
This year saw the launch of a new project in support of community energy: PowerPaired. Set up by Forum for the Future, it is a matchmaking service that pairs community energy groups with site owners. It helps to overcome one of the many obstacles to getting a local energy project started. Sometimes groups have willing participants and the potential to raise money, but lack the land or a suitable rooftop. On the other hand, there may be farmers in the area who would be happy to have wind turbines on their land, or a school with a south facing roof, but who couldn’t get the capital together to install it themselves.
Several big site owners have already backed PowerPaired, most notably the National Grid. They have listed 70 substation locations which have spare land that could host energy generation infrastructure. They are actively welcoming community energy groups to work with them.
Councils can also use the platform, and Oldham and Suffolk County councils have already listed sites and buildings that are suitable. Churches, schools and the St Mungo’s charity have also added sites. PowerPaired also has a wealth of advice, and lots of connections to other sources of legal or fundraising support.
Despite the headwinds, the community energy is surviving. It will at some point thrive, and play an important role in making our future energy system fairer as well as greener.