Making community energy strategies work

Two cheers go to DECC for publishing its Community Energy Strategy.  It’s been long overdue; energy production and energy saving at community level has long had enormous potential. Indeed, other parts of Europe are far ahead of us in this context. For example, in Germany almost 50% of energy generating plant is owned or run by local groups. This makes for an entirely different landscape as far as the generating market is concerned, as well as providing resources and income for local communities themselves as a result of those generation activities.  And you could of course say that we’ve been through an extended period of reduction in what might be regarded as community energy. After all, what were the original town gasworks if not a long-lost version of this very concept? Indeed up to the end of the last war, local authorities in the UK generated almost 50% of their income from trading up, mostly through the aforesaid gas works and local electricity plants.

To some extent, DECC’s Community Energy Strategy follows the increasing trend of communities beginning to take matters into their own hands as far as local energy is concerned. But it also puts the emphasis on newer technologies – running small scale onshore wind farms and securing the proceeds for local use; installing community level solar plants; developing local purchasing schemes to benefit from bulk energy  supply in off grid areas and beginning to develop local district heating schemes that also generate electricity through CHP plants.  As the Secretary of State describes in his forward to the report, with a really fair wind we could see a substantial return to a localised energy landscape, with the possibility of schemes involving local communities supplying enough electricity for 1 million homes by 2020. That level of provision would take community energy out of the niche into which many ‘exemplars’ of community action are often placed in – interesting but inherently small time – and into the realm of significant. Furthermore it would also secure contributions to the national energy balance.

The report also mentions the possible role of the community in the other side of the equation – energy efficiency and demand side reduction – and the role that communities can play in developing their own programmes of mutual benefit through saving energy.  I personally think there is more than a little mileage in the concept of local authorities looking to be the providers of retail energy supplies. Imagine perhaps that you get your dual-fuel bill from a consortium of local towns that have together secured the supply to put into the grid.  It wouldn’t be desperately difficult to do and would secure the proceeds of energy supply for local purposes. Essentially it would finally take us back, almost full circle, to the old town gas works supplying their towns.

So there’s much to praise about the new strategy if it really can get momentum into the process. And, as is apparent, this won’t come solely from the pretty modest level of funding that might come forward. Rather, it is easing the ability of local communities to take action, supporting them when they do, and placing in their path the opportunities for securing successful partnerships that will enable local projects to fly.

That’s not quite the end of the matter though.  I can’t help thinking that for any sort of community energy strategy to work, there needs to be some joined up policy between DECC, local government institutions, and the Treasury (to name but three departments) to ensure that the landscape really is propitious. One very recent example which evidences the need for such cohesion well comes to mind.  The Community Energy Strategy tells us that the department is going to have ‘a programme of engagement with communities and local authorities in the Energy Companies Obligation’. But wait, haven’t we heard that somewhere before?  A number of local authorities and local communities HAVE been very engaged in ECO, to the extent that they were doing exactly what the strategy says – getting local partnerships together, securing external funds, building local interest, and easing the path for large schemes of community energy efficiency uplift – using ECO. The local authority in Southampton (which is my constituency) has, among a number of others, enthusiastically trodden that path.  Southampton was about to sign up for a programme that would have secured the cladding of hundreds of hard to treat homes, to the immense benefit of local residents. But then the Prime Minister ‘reviewed’ ECO, as I predicted he might in the last column I wrote here. The result of that review has been that such schemes up and down the country have seen partners pull out because they are no longer obliged to bank the carbon savings they thought they were obliged to over the period originally stipulated.

The net result of this is that some very bruised local communities and local authorities may not go near such schemes again because of the mess they now find themselves in as a result of believing that such community energy projects could work. It’s all well and good to have a strategy but it will only be as good as what follows from it. More work to be done here I think.

This article was first published in The Environmentalist magazine.

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