UK councils urged to stop blocking community energy initiatives

Brixton Energy’s Agamemnon Otero with Southern Solar’s Howard Johns speaking at a community energy event in January. Photo credit: Simon Scarfe.

By Anders Lorenzen

A new report out by UK think tank ResPublica highlights the huge growth potential for community owned renewable energy, but warns that councils are not doing enough to encourage it, and in some cases even blocking it.

In the last decade, community energy projects have grown at breakneck speed at approx 1300%, and today there are 600 community energy projects in the UK equalling 60 megawatts (MW) of capacity. Despite this, only 0.3 % of renewable capacity installed in the UK is community owned, in a stark contrast to Germany where the number is a whopping 46%.

The ResPublica report, ‘The Community Renewables Economy: Starting up, scaling up and spinning out’, argues that if community owned energy is to become more commonplace, councils must make development easier. Community energy could generate £30m a year in tax revenue for cash-strapped local councils, and drive down high energy bills by increasing competition in the energy market. But ResPublica warns that councils must step up to the challenge, understand their new role and help, rather than hinder progress.

A wind turbine being hugged at Westmill wind farm co-operative. Photo credit: Renewable UK.

As things stand, by 2020 the community energy sector could grow ninth fold to 550 MW of capacity. However, if local authorities were to make it a priority and invest in this combined with the right national framework, the growth could be as high as 5.27 gigawatts (GW) which is as much as a fifth of UK renewable energy generation.

To achieve this type of output, the key is joint ownership in which communities are able to partner with private developers, local authorities or businesses, with greater capacity, resource and financial capability. But there are a number of barriers to be addressed, including funding, financial know-how and legal advice. Local and national Government must work together to understand the financial benefits and help catalyse growth, the report states.

Minister for Energy and Climate Change, Greg Barker, has said that the government is committed to community energy, commenting on the report that: “The Coalition is committed to helping hard pressed consumers with the rising cost of living. When it comes to energy bills, this includes supporting communities to take more control over local generation projects, while also empowering them to reduce their energy demand, tackle local fuel poverty, and get the best deal on their energy supply. I warmly welcome the ideas in this report on helping communities navigate the planning system, and on forming productive partnerships so that they are better able to take an active role in their own local projects. Our aim is to help communities and local businesses seize this exciting opportunity.”

A recent poll by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) shows that 80% of the British public wants renewable energy, but so far the opportunity for community owned projects have been limited. In the wake of this report clean energy campaigners and renewable energy enthusiasts will be sure to put pressure on local politicians and say the time is now to follow in the footsteps of Germany.

Sub edited by Kirstie Wielandt

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