16 December 2019

Renewables at no upfront cost?

It’s safe to say that addressing climate change is moving to the top of local authorities’ agendas across the UK. Over the last year, more than 260 - or two in three - councils have declared a climate emergency; others who have not are coming under growing pressure to do so.

Declaring a climate emergency equates to a bold public commitment to achieve ambitious carbon reduction targets, and it’s encouraging to see so many local authorities imbuing climate action with the sense of urgency it deserves. That said, what comes next?

Decarbonising our nationwide power system will require strong political leadership and huge investment. But the good news is that we don’t have to wait for national government to take action. In order to achieve the necessary change, local authorities can, and must, engage and empower their communities to take back ownership of their energy future.

That’s where community energy comes in. Simply put, by offering up your land or buildings to community energy groups so they can start renewable energy or energy efficiency projects you are bringing together carbon reductions, community empowerment and climate action into one neat package - and at no upfront cost to you. That’s not to mention the fact that these projects bring your energy costs down and in many cases generate cash for local causes that can benefit the community.

At a time of increasing frustration around the lack of real action from the institutions that the general public relies on in its day to day life, when a local authority works with a community energy group they also create a real sense of local empowerment, strengthening relationships and increasing positive sentiment. They also nurture resilient, engaged communities that are ready to take and support action on our climate emergency in diverse ways.

The potential for creating new, local, energy capacity is huge: in 2019, community energy created a total capacity of 168 MW of power; enough to power nearly 300,000 homes. If that rose by just 25% next year, the increase would be able to supply power for all the homes in Carlisle for an entire year.

Key stats

  • There are currently almost 400 projects across the UK, including electricity generation, energy storage, energy efficiency, heat generation and low carbon transport projects
  • Despite a challenging landscape following the termination of the national Feed-in Tariff programme, there were still 119 community energy projects planned in 2019
  • The sector now boasts 46,000 active members and over 200 full time employees, a 23% increase over 2018
  • The social impact of community energy groups is growing every year. In 2016, these groups allocated £620,000 to community benefit funds, particularly focused on education, environmental projects, job creation and reducing fuel poverty and electricity prices

Action from the ground up

Some local authorities already lead the way in offering their assets to community groups. For example, North Kensington Community Energy and Repowering London worked together with 149 local investors to install solar panels across the rooftops of two primary schools and their local community centre. The project will generate a community benefit fund of £28,000 over twenty years, which will be used to support local educational initiatives.

Oxford City Council is also a pioneering supporter of community energy, offering both its assets and a £2.3 million revolving loan facility via the Low Carbon Hub to speed up innovative renewable energy and energy saving projects in its district. These projects have helped to generate revenue through electricity sales and feed-in tariffs, which in turn support community action and deliver further carbon cuts across Oxfordshire. Almost £400,000 in community benefit funds have been generated so far, with an estimated £2.6m over the life cycle of the current portfolio of projects.

Oxford City Councillor Tom Hayes said: ‘We’re proud to be supporting a social enterprise that’s out to prove we can meet our energy needs in a way that’s good for people and good for the planet. With the days of fossil fuels numbered, we need to accelerate the shift to renewable generation, and this financial support will ensure we do that in a way which puts energy and power in the hands of the people.’

So how can more local authorities follow suit in responding effectively to the climate emergency, whilst delivering these types of social benefits at the same time?

Matchmaking for success

Through on-the-ground research and many conversations with community energy groups across the UK, we at Forum for the Future found that one of the biggest barriers to growth is the difficulty in finding asset owners willing to host community energy projects. Even for an experienced and established group, it can take up to 30 or 40 exploratory meetings to find a roof to host solar panels. This results in long delays, a growing sense of frustration, and the closure of some groups before they have even begun.

To address this, Forum set up PowerPaired, a new online platform being rolled out across the UK. Receiving support from organisations like the Greater London Authority, Oldham Council and Suffolk County Council, the platform is specifically designed to link up local energy groups with asset owners who are willing to have a conversation about hosting community renewables. The site aims to reduce the time and cost it takes to identify and secure sites for community energy, whilst demonstrating the financial and social value to a growing number of asset owners.

This is where local authorities could come in. There are 317 boroughs, 408 principal councils and 343 local authorities across the UK, covering 66 million people and owning a huge range of physical assets in the form of land or buildings such as schools, leisure centres, libraries, offices and more - many of which could be ideal host sites for energy projects.

Listing your assets on Powerpaired - be they buildings or land - could help to catalyse a new wave of conversations that could bring new community energy projects to fruition. That roof on a school, community centre or car park could host a community energy project – providing you with cheaper, greener energy whilst also directly benefiting the local community.

Alongside decarbonisation and decentralisation, the democratisation of energy absolutely needs to happen in order to transform our energy system. This is why local authorities will play such a vital role, and why community energy will become increasingly visible in the coming years. You can lead the way in empowering your constituents and creating a fairer, more equitable energy system for your area, district or county - and crucially, forging a path towards a 1.5°C future.

Rebecca Lawson is principal sustainability advisor at Forum for the Future.

To find out more, go to powerpaired.org.

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