30. 01. 2014

New Community Energy Strategy

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So, we have a shiny new Community Energy Strategy, launched on Monday by Secretary of State Ed Davey. It’s been under discussion for a long time, with umpteen consultation processes, and lots of organisations involved, including Forum for the Future, through its convening of the Community Energy Coalition.

True to my New Year resolution (to try to be nicer to the Coalition Government), I’m happy to report that after taking lots of soundings myself) that this is indeed an important step forward. Even a couple of years ago, both officials and Ministers in DECC had not a clue as to what was going on at community level. Yet there’s such enthusiasm out there, in more and more communities, and at long last at least a few people in DECC seem to have cottoned on to its potential significance.

Right now, we’re way behind many other European countries, but at least there is now a Strategy and an Action Plan that could get us seriously into the business of catch-up. By 2015 “It will be the norm for communities to be offered the opportunity of some level of ownership of new, commercially developed renewables projects.”

A new Taskforce has been set up to enable ownership of bigger schemes (with the potential for revised Feed-in Tariffs to take in proposals up to 10 MW), and there’s some good stuff in there about collective purchase schemes and expanded benefit packages for communities themselves.

BUT (yes, there’s always a “but”, and all New Year resolutions have their limitations!), one can’t help but think that the 200 people I shared an uplifting afternoon with in Oxford on Friday last week will still be pretty disappointed.

The event was hosted by Oxford’s Low Carbon Hub to launch OxFutures: Action on Energy, with the active support of both the City Council and the County Council (a fairly rare thing in itself!), with funding from the EU’s Intelligent Energy Europe. Building on all the work already done on community energy in the county over the last three years, the event set out a new ambition level (“to position Oxfordshire at the forefront of low carbon innovation and to lead on the UK’s transition on a sustainable energy future”), mapping out the kind of cross-sectoral commitments and actions that will help make that happen.

Practitioners at the event were pretty sceptical about the new Strategy. Nobody thinks that DECC has really got its head around the true potential of community energy, and the kind of chronic ambivalence at the heart of DECC (the Strategy’s funding proposals, for instance, are hopelessly inadequate; it says nothing about the difficulty communities have getting access to the grid; the chopping and changing on levels of support through Feed-in Tariffs continues to have a massively damaging effect on the industry, etc etc) means that many communities will still struggle to achieve the kind of breakthroughs that we should now be aiming at.

There are already 500,000 households in the UK that have installed PV on their roofs, but that’s a fraction of the total potential here. Interestingly, DECC seems to have little interest in the “Big Society” drivers involved, giving communities an opportunity to reduce their dependence on the universally reviled Big Six energy companies, and to build real community spirit through co-ownership of both renewable energy solutions and retrofit schemes to address built property.

In other words, we have a strategy, we have a Community Energy Unit in DECC, we have an emerging Action Plan, but we have no vision.

If you want to know what that vision looks like, go online through Green Futures to download a .pdf of “Energy Culture”. Sponsored by the Low Carbon Hub and the Community Energy Coalition, this Green Futures Special Edition provides just a taste of what could be happening right now, at scale, across the whole of the UK. And it’s already happening in Scotland – unlike here in England.

Both the Renewable Energy Association and the Solar Trade Association have welcomed the new Strategy, as well as Forum for the Future. But cautiously. It’s obviously good to have Ed Davey, DECC Secretary of State, rooting for the potential of community renewables – but there’s such a long way still to go.

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02. 02. 2014
Philip Wolfe

The UK community energy sector is now working to plug the vision gap, which you so rightly highlight Jonathan.

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