One cheer for the Government's community energy strategy


This article was originally posted on Dave Toke's green energy blog on 23 June 2014 and has been reproduced here with permission of the author.

The Government has launched a discussion document aimed at ensuring that local people have the opportunity to gain shares or income from renewable energy developments, but in typically British centralising fashion it is ironic that this discussion seems to focussed on what the electricity majors want or are prepared to allow. The discussion documents can be seen at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/infrastructure-bill-the-community-electricity-right

The proposals hinge on the form in which the big companies will give up to 5 per cent community interest in various ways (e.g. through share ownership) in renewable energy projects. Little attention is being paid to practical measures to encourage real community ownership through projects initiated and developed by local people, and as usual even the needs of independent (non-community) generators seem to be passed over in favour of the needs of the multinational companies.

Now of course I support investment by the big electricity companies in renewable energy. Indeed they should do more. Community renewable energy schemes, it must be emphasised are a necessary addition to, and in no way a substitute for investment by the major electricity companies, at least as far as the UK is concerned. But the electricity majors are not the ones to deliver a community renewables programme. Why should the system be tailored solely to their needs, even when, ironically, the object of the policy is in promoting 'community' renewable energy!

The received opinion is that local people just do not have the expertise to put up community renewable projects. However, this can never be more than a self-fulfilling prophecy and there is a growing number of examples, especially in Scotland, that undermine this judgement. Research already conducted (eg by Scene Consulting and University of Edinburgh) demonstrates that such community renewable schemes have a very high rate of planning approval. Outside of Scotland there are some (relatively) large schemes, in particular the now well known 6.5 MW Westmill project brought into being by Adam Twine and Energy4All, and still awaiting development, the 4 MW Awel Aman Tawe project which has gained planning consent against the odds in a long running planning saga.

The Scottish Government has established the CARES system wherein local community groups can be loaned up to £150,000 to deal with planning applications. Why cannot Westminster set up a similar scheme? But a lot more could be done for no extra cost to the taxpayer or electricity consumer to help community renewable projects. So what should DECC be spending more of its time doing rather than having longwinded discussions with the (community-reluctant) big companies?

I would suggest that DECC draw up a list of genuine measures to promote community renewable energy schemes. These will include:

  • Set up a community renewable energy loan fund similar  to that run by the Scottish Government to cover England and Wales (the latter in collaboration with WAG)

  • Legislate to ensure that farmers who have signed away their renewable energy development rights to companies that do nothing about them can be released so that they can agree options with community schemes

  • Give decent premium power rates to community renewable schemes and to independent renewable energy projects in general - under Electricity Market Reform only the electricity majors/electricity suppliers who can trade on the electricity wholesale markets can get the premium rates whilst community schemes over a a few hundred kWs of generating capacity will effectively be paid around 30 per cent less than a multinational corporation per MWh generated  

  • Give Scotland energy devolution so that a Scottish Energy Regulator could allow the network electricity distributors to be more proactive in upgrading weak rural electricity networks - thus reducing grid connection costs for community renewable energy schemes  - preferably this regulatory reform could be applied to the UK as a whole as well 

Only when I see some action on items such as these which will give real extra opportunities to community renewable energy schemes will I be prepared to give more than one cheer for the Government's so-called community energy strategy.

David Toke

23 June 2014

Dr David Toke is Reader in Energy Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations in the University of Aberdeen. You can see his profile at http://www.abdn.ac.uk/socsci/people/profiles/d.toke

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