Community energy: what have we achieved in the last 10 years and where are we heading?

Community energy in the UK is a fledgling sector that has grown over the last decade from representing a negligible proportion of the total renewable energy sector in 2005 (<0.01%) to just under 0.4% in 2015. Our most recent effort at mapping the sector suggests that the UK is currently sitting at a total of 104MW installed community-owned capacity - equivalent to powering approximately 65.500 homes in the UK.  Based on these figures, a total of 140 million pounds has thus far been invested in community-owned renewable energy assets, a large part of which comprises investment by local individuals and organisations.

In large part thanks to the introduction of the Feed-In-Tariff in 2010, the sector was able to flourish into a great diversity of business models, featuring wide range of technologies and increasingly complex joint venture projects. 2015 saw the installation of the largest single community energy project in Lewis (Point and Sandwick Power, 9MW) as well as the first community owned tidal project (North Yell Development Council), and the first local community buy-outs of existing private or commercial generation assets. The last five years in particular we have seen the development of local expertise and maturation of start-up local community organisations into full- fledged energy service companies servicing the wider community, as well as the development of a small service industry catered towards facilitating co-operative finance, project management and installation.

What is striking about the UK community energy sector is that, compared to countries with a far more substantial proportion of community energy penetration, the role of local authorities in facilitating local ownership through enabling identification of resource potential, suitable sites for development and accumulation of local awareness and expertise has been minimal (read: dismal).  Regional energy planning co-ordinated by local authorities and OFGEM is the only way to lower the barriers to entry into projects and ensure that renewable energy projects are equally accessible to everyone. However, the news in the last month suggests we are moving ever further from an institutional framework amenable to supporting distributed ownership and generation.  

Where we are heading, given events since July 2015?

Our data suggests that ~80MW of community-owned capacity is currently in the pipeline. Of this, just over 250 projects (that we are aware of) have not reached planning and are under threat due to recent government policy changes around elimination of FIT pre-accreditation in hydro, on shore wind and solar PV. Scene’s work on comparative risks and costs of commercial and community owned energy shows that while the cost of community energy has come down substantially since 2005, it takes 50% to 1100% longer for community organisations to get to planning. There is no doubt then that elimination of pre-accreditation is likely to hit the community energy sector particularly hard.  In Scotland, routes to both ROC’s and CfD for onshore wind are closed and closing respectively, along with the prospects for community ownership in large scale wind projects.  

To this end, the statements and turns in energy policy emerging from the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change are puzzling and quite simply inconsistent. Amber Rudd states that she is “considering options for continued support for community onshore wind projects through the feed-in tariff (FITs)”. Why then i) dismantle pre-accreditation, ii) issue what has already been claimed as Feed In Tariffs that do not accurately reflect the current cost of production, iii) subject both DECC and local authorities to further funding cuts, and iv) simultaneously provide unprecedented degree of support for both nuclear and shale gas (for instance in the form of fast track planning procedures to circumvent local planning authorities)?

The speed and manner in which this combination of policy amendments are being made suggests this has little to do with economics. CfD auctions have demonstrated that onshore wind is 18% cheaper than Hinkley Point power. Neither has it anything to do with MP’s representing their constituencies. So what is this then? Does this really come down to a House of Commons micro-culture driven by a bunch of (by and large!) grey haired men in their 40’s and 50’s whose decisions are determined by trivial power play? Have they really set their sights on destroying the clean energy industry?

They would do well to remind themselves that this is a fledgling industry in which an awful lot of real people have done good work, that this country has spent billions of pounds to build, and which in many cases is just years off from grid parity.  

The data supporting these statements is derived from a community energy platform initiative co-ordinated by Scene Consulting and its partners, EnergyArchipelago. Anna Harnmeijer is Research Associate with Scene Consulting, a social enterprise that facilitates community energy through project consultancy and research.