It’s time to democratise our energy sector

The present government is too slow to commit to sustainable energy – we should let community energy take the lead.

Earlier this month the UK slipped out of the top ten of a respected global energy ranking – the World Energy Council’s Trilemma Index - for the first time. The Council’s Chair warned that the future of support for low-carbon energy was unclear beyond 2020.  This happened in the same week that we saw horizontal fracking given the go-ahead in Lancashire, despite vociferous opposition from both the local community and Lancashire County Council, and follows hot on the heels of the decision to persist with the multi-billion pound white elephant that is the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.

What we’re lacking is a credible plan for making the transition to sustainable energy which will be necessary if we are to meet the UK target of an 80% reduction from 1990 levels by 2050, as set out in the Climate Change Act.  The government has promised to ratify last year’s historic Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to keep the global average temperature rise below 1.5ºC, before the end of this year and yet the long-awaited carbon emissions plan is not likely to put in an appearance before next spring.  It should also be noted that we are currently not on track to meet the current or even previous carbon budgets, largely due to slower than expected progress on renewable heat, low carbon transport and domestic energy efficiency. 

The UK has plentiful wind, geothermal, hydro and even solar resources, and the times they are a changin’ as a newly crowned Nobel Laureate for Literature once wrote.  Community energy won't ever provide all of the UK’s power but it does have a key role to play in our energy mix, alongside large scale deployment of renewable energy, energy efficiency and demand side response technologies which help to balance the National Grid.  

Despite a lack of government support for renewable energy, social enterprises and community energy groups are proving their resilience, and are decentralising ownership of energy resources and reinvesting profits back into the community.  This is a chance to democratise our energy sector: a network of micro-grids under community control, working for local people and providing myriad benefits in addition to clean green energy and mitigating against climate change. 

Community energy programmes bring new jobs and skills, a strong sense of community cohesion, and a place for people to invest in something they believe in, with a strong return on that investment.  

Take the example of Repowering London, joint winner of this year’s Ashden Award for Community Energy, who are creating renewable energy projects in deprived areas of inner city London, delivering energy to, for and by the people. Solar energy cooperatives have been set up in Brixton and Hackney, and more are on their way. Their schemes are financed through share offerings, and investors – who are nearly all local residents - receive a healthy return on their initial outlay which starts from as little as £50.  Young people aged 14-24 from the housing estates involved are given the opportunity to follow a 40-week paid training programme to become solar apprentices, acquiring business skills and increased confidence in the process.

Over in Oxfordshire their fellow Award winner Low Carbon Hub has an extremely compelling vision for the county’s rivers and rooftops to be the power stations of the future, delivering economic, social and environmental benefits for residents.  Their surplus, in the form of community benefit funds, is ploughed back into local sustainable energy initiatives that are reducing carbon emissions in the county.  Projects include solar panels on schools, businesses and community buildings, a hydro project on the Thames, and making homes more energy efficient.

In Wales a new community energy model is transforming the electricity market and taking the Big Six on at their own game.  Energy Local, supported by Ashden Award winner TGV Hydro, is a social enterprise which has the potential to establish thousands of local not-for-profit community energy service companies which allow local renewable energy to be used locally.  Domestic customers benefit from lower energy prices that are lower than the retail tariffs and savings of 25% off their energy bills.  Local generators - roof-top solar panels, a local hydro or wind turbine - can also be members of an Energy Local club and the power they generate can be pooled across all the energy club members.  They will receive a higher price for their electricity than what they get for selling it to the grid, making local renewable projects more viable.

So pioneering community energy schemes in the UK are happening in spite of the hostile policy environment - a lack of funding for innovation, the recent withdrawal of tax relief for community green energy schemes, and drastic cuts to the Feed-in Tariffs for renewable energy. Constant change in the sector and a lack of ambition from the government mean that investors are skittish about committing their money.

At the COP22 climate talks in Marrakesh next month, the UK will doubtless project itself as a country which is committed to tackling climate change.  We can only hope that their new carbon emissions reduction plan, when it sees the light of day, will include provision for promoting community energy.  We can’t just let something that good die.

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