Derrington Way Ahead is a pioneering low-carbon group in Stafford Borough, helping to cut the carbon footprint of this village community just outside the county town.
There are more than 5000 groups active in the UK's 'community energy' sector, engaged in projects of various shapes and sizes, ranging from draughtproofing the homes of vulnerable people to building and operating wind farms. Most are run by volunteers fuelled by a desire to improve the lives of their fellow citizens and bring about a low-carbon world. In a bid to tap into this enthusiasm and commitment, the government published a Community Energy Strategy at the beginning of 2014, which sets out ways to help and encourage community energy schemes.
The Strategy is also a recognition of the changing landscape of energy generation, where small-scale generation schemes initiated by local groups will play a much greater role in delivering the electricity and heating for homes and workplaces. Moreover, these groups are best placed to engage effectively with members of their communities in tackling challenges such as changing behaviour to reduce consumption, or introducing smart metering and other new technology. These grassroots initiatives often bring social benefits, whether in the form of revenue from the feed-in tariff, savings on fuel bills, or more intangible outcomes, such as community empowerment or fostering of new skills,
Energy roles for community groups
The Strategy identifies the many contributions that community groups make, and provides useful case studies, in five broad areas:
- Generating energy - e.g. by community-owned wind turbines, solar PV or hydro power.
- Generating heat for space heating - e.g. by promoting awareness of renewable heat technologies or partnering installations in community buildings.
- Reducing energy usage - e.g. by involving residents in energy efficiency projects or behavioural change programmes.
- Managing energy demand - e.g taking part in pilot projects to test and evaluate smart grid technologies and improve efficiency of electricity supply.
- Purchasing energy - helping consumers get better deals on tariffs, fuels and services, e.g. through bulk buying or collective switching.
Help for community energy groups
The path to a community energy project can seem like an obstacle course, through a maze of legal, financial and technical hurdles. Two recommendations in the Strategy are designed to make life easier and the barriers less daunting:
One-Stop Shop: The sheer range of information sources available can confuse and bewilder. That is why the Strategy highlights the pressing need for a 'One-Stop Shop' where all relevant resources can be accessed, with assurance that they are accurate and current.
Peer Mentoring: The correct mix of skills in the management team is vital to the successful outcome of community energy projects. One way of filling a skills gap is peer mentoring, whereby members of other groups provide advice and guidance based on their own experience of similar projects.
A community energy scheme almost always engages with partners on some level, be they public or private, commercial or not-for-profit. Such partnerships can bring valuable ideas, skills, assets and finance, and help to scale up projects. In particular, the Strategy sees an important role for local authorities in guiding and coordinating the formation of such partnerships, and supporting community energy schemes.
Roles for local authorities can include:
- Source for local information and data
- Provide help with technical, legal and planning issues
- Act as a faciltator in assembling partnerships
- Provide investment, land or procurement services
Working with commercial partners
There can be mutual benefit when a community group partners with a commercial energy company to deliver a project, especially when it involves significant infrastructure, such as a wind farm. In countries like Denmark, partnerships between local cooperatives and utility companies are an accepted model for such projects. Community acceptance tends to be easier to achieve, while the commercial partner is more able to deal with the high cost and financial risks. Moreover, the community is better placed to share in the rewards, whether through a community fund, or share offer, or via a joint venture business vehicle.
Resources to deliver the Community Energy Strategy in England
Formation of a Community Energy Unit within DECC.
Creation of various working groups to examine areas such as shared ownership, grid connections, hydro, planning and finance.
Guide to Community Energy on the GOV.UK website: lots of useful links about all major aspects
Rural Community Energy Fund: £15 million fund providing grants and loans for feasibility and pre-planning work for rural communmities developing renewable energy projects.
Community Energy Contact Group: an informal advisory body to help steer government policy on community energy. Minutes of their meetings with DECC officers are available on the DECC website.
Community Energy Coalition: brings together over 30 organizations, including the National Trust, Women's Institute and National Union of Students, to promote the involvement of communities in saving energy and generating low-carbon affordable heat and electricity.
Community Energy England: a body representing community energy organisations developing renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.
The Hive: a business support programme for people wanting to start or grow a cooperative enterprise. Includes online resources, training and advice.