Enormous Potential, Diminishing Support - Community Energy in the UK


­­­­This post forms part of the SDG series at Scene Connect for Global Goals Week. As global representatives gather at the UN Headquarters in New York for the Sustainable Development Summit 2019, we reflect on how our own projects support the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

In this blog, Dom describes the broad benefits that community-based energy projects can generate for the local economy, regional decarbonisation contributions, educational schemes, and involvement in local governance. Despite the enormous value, however, the community energy sector is currently in need of far more support.

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If we had to choose just one way to give us the biggest bang for our buck in getting us closer to a cleaner, more equitable world, it would most likely be through the promotion of community energy schemes. Through the democratic community ownership and control of cost-saving and low-carbon energy assets, well-implemented community energy projects have the potential to tick a handful of Sustainable Development Goals simultaneously, addressing social, environmental, and economic goals together.

By boosting the amount of renewable energy in the global energy mix, community energy helps reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases, directly addressing SDG7: Affordable and Clean Energy. A key driver for many of these projects is the additional income which they can unlock. Communities can sell excess energy to local suppliers, local business users, national grid systems, and they can reduce energy bills through local energy use and through energy efficiency initiatives such as energy audits and insulation schemes. That helps with SDG1: No Poverty.

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Furthermore, since community energy groups are often run on a not-for-profit basis, any income they do make often goes directly back into the local area, supporting initiatives such as educational awareness campaigns, school trips for children, or advisory ‘Energy Cafes’ and workshops. This addresses SDG4: Quality Education. And, if the local people have suggestions for more engaging or effective projects, many community energy groups are member-run and democratically managed organisations, allowing for a representative decision-making process at a local scale.

Community energy groups are small and often volunteer-run. Seeking to make the best use of the finances, skills, and resources available to them, they often find themselves at the forefront of technological efficiency and innovation schemes. Repowering London are trialling a peer-to-peer solar energy trading scheme in South London, reducing local residents energy bills and maximising uptake of available renewable energy; Meadows Ozones Energy Services are using energy monitoring and storage technology to reduce grid demand; and the Scottish island of Orkney community is involved in active network management strategies to reduce grid constraints and match local renewable energy supply with demand. Together, community-focussed projects such as these are helping to trial and promote innovation in the energy industry, ticking SDG9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure.

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While urbanisation is increasing worldwide, community energy schemes are pushing to make this process one which is sustainable, prosperous, and inclusive for all, echoing the aims of SDG11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. Electric car-sharing schemes help make towns cleaner and safer, while community-owned district heating systems help emphasise the value of public ‘commons’ space such as parks and allotments.

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Community energy has enormous potential to transform how we generate, own, and use our energy. However, with unclear regulation, and a lack of both government ambition, and suitable support mechanisms, the sector is facing some serious challenges. For the past 3 years, Scene’s State of the Sector Report has explored the opportunities, benefits, and challenges of community energy across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Commissioned by Community Energy England and Community Energy Wales, this year’s Report found 2018 to be the toughest year so far for the 275 participating community energy organisations.

Despite these setbacks, community groups are demonstrating inspiring drive and creativity to make their projects successful, by realising new revenue streams, trialling new technologies, and diversifying their services. Given the growing local awareness and participation, Scene is confident that the sector will remain resilient, and a modest and powerful force for change.

- Dom Stephen

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