What next for community energy?

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The 2010-15 Coalition Government was great for community energy. Sure, we had the 2012 Feed-in Tariff fiasco, where the government illegally halved subsidies because they didn’t have adequate controls in place to limit spending.

And no community group has managed to enter the energy efficiency market, despite the billions spent on the Energy Company Obligation and Green Deal.

But overall there was a huge expansion in community energy during this period. My first job in community energy was in 2009 and back then installing 10 kW of solar PV on a community building was seen as a success; now some of those same groups own 2 MW solar farms.

Now the Conservative Government elected in 2015 has come in and basically wiped the slate clean, regardless of how well the policy was working. Everyone agrees that the introduction of the Green Deal energy efficiency loan scheme had been badly botched by the last government, but completely scrapping it sends a message that nothing is safe. Now they are proposing to cut support for small scale renewables by up to 87%, despite the fact that the sector is on course to be subsidy-free before 2020. With all this uncertainty, you’d have to be pretty brave to put time into developing a renewables project now. Luckily enough, the government are paying community groups to do just that via the Urban Community Energy Fund!

So what does this mean for the community energy sector? I think the first lesson is that the government is not our friend any more. Ed Davey, the previous government’s energy secretary, spoke of a “community energy revolution” when he attended the launch of sector body Community Energy England in 2014. His successor Amber Rudd hasn’t bothered to speak to the sector at all since her promotion in May. We’ve heard good things about her, and of course we could have had a climate change sceptic in charge, but actions speak louder than words, and her actions have been pretty clear so far – implementing ideologically-driven budget cuts rather than supporting jobs and reducing carbon emissions.

The second lesson I draw from this is more positive. While it’s great to be able to install megawatts of renewable energy, the community energy sector now needs to focus on alternative business models and engaging with larger numbers of people. Many groups already do this of course, but for a lot of them this consists of promoting an investment opportunity and organising a few community events. But winter is coming and there are millions of people still in fuel poverty. Many of these people don’t understand their bills, how to read their meters or basic energy saving measures. In carbon savings, helping 1,500 households to save 10% on their heating bills is equivalent to installing a 1 MW solar farm.*

Doing this will involve different business models, creative thinking and much more effective working practices. Managing volunteers and information, as well as upskilling people to be able to deliver home energy surveys. Bulk purchasing of draught proofing materials, insulation or solar panels can help reduce the price. We created Community Energy Manager to help groups do this, and with the Community Hub soon to be launched, there is a wealth of information and tools out there to help groups develop these projects.

*Average domestic gas consumption 2013: 14,024 kWh (DECC). Approx. annual generation of 1 MW PV farm in Sheffield: 915,000 kWh (PVGIS). Natural gas carbon intensity: 0.19 kgCO2/kWh, grid electricity: 0.49 kgCO2/kWh.

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