The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

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Community Energy: lessons from Germany

5th August 2013

ResPublica's Caroline Julian reports on the first leg of her Winston Churchill Memorial Trust travel fellowship to Germany

The Department for Energy and Climate Change’s (DECC) call for evidence on ‘community energy’, which closes today, sets out a series of questions regarding the capacity of the sector, and the various barriers faced by communities across the country who wish to become collective producers of their own energy. The call for evidence is an encouraging move by DECC to explore how government and its partners can support and incentivise such initiatives to start up and grow. But meanwhile, on the continent, a much more integrated and visionary conversation is taking place: communities are not only being encouraged to start up their own means of energy production through individual projects, but to become a crucial part of their local energy market – all inclusive of production, transmission and supply.

I have just spent the past few days visiting a number of communities in Franconia (Bavaria, Germany) with the CSU (CDU) MP, Josef Goeppel, who can already boast that around 70% of the renewable energy produced in this region (which is itself 90%) is ‘community owned’ – owned by communities, farmers, co-operatives and small (often family-owned) businesses. The region is a patchwork quilt of fields, with a number of small villages nestled in nearby valleys and larger towns and cities, such as Ansbach and Nuremberg, not too far away.

As part of our travels, we visit Langenaltheim – a particularly pioneering rural community of around 2000 residents, which has seen the development of a series of production projects from a varied mix of local stakeholders. We visit, for example, a sandstone quarry, where the business owners supply most of their electricity demands from two wind turbines on their land, which were developed following positive consent from the local community in 2008. In the distance, you can also pick out two additional turbines that are owned by the community itself, which supply electricity to nearby residents, as well as solar photovoltaic panels on the rooves of houses, schools and other public buildings, developed again under the initiative of the community.

Just down the road, we also visit a biogas plant, which is owned by a local farmer and currently provides heating to around 200 homes. Because of increased interest and demand to receive the energy produced by the farmer – a well known local – there are already plans to develop a second engine. The plant feeds into the district heating network, which is itself a co-operative, owned by members of the local community, who work closely with the farmer and other local producers to deliver heat to residents and businesses. The glass fibre networks needed to manage heat demand and supply have further enabled the rural community to enter into wider markets by providing them with the infrastructure to connect securely to the internet.

District heating networks are in part by their nature decentralised, but the surplus electricity produced by this community, as well as many others across Bavaria, will be fed in to the national grid. Josef Goeppel is now thinking one step ahead, and encouraging these communities, and the producers within them, to support and feed into a regional rather than a national grid, in order to keep the economic and social benefits local.

As part of this plan, ‘N-Ergie’, the regional energy company for Nuremberg and its surrounding areas, would develop a local grid network that would see any surplus energy produced in rural communities to be channelled to towns, like Ansbach or Nuremberg, which have higher energy demands. This model would: keep production and supply – and therefore the economic benefits – local; encourage consumers to either produce themselves or purchase from local and known producers (incurring social benefits); and reduce costs of the transmission of electricity from up and down the country, or even from country to country, by virtue of its regional base and the lower voltage needed for local transportation.

Connecting to a regional grid would be a much cheaper option for producers than feeding into the national grid, as at present, which Goeppel believes could offer the incentive needed as the first wave of feed-in-tariff beneficiaries emerge out of the scheme in 2020.

Communities in the UK may be far from many of these energy-producing Franconian towns, but there are there are measures and policy initiatives taking place that are beginning to nod in this direction. The ‘London-Lite’ scheme, for example, spearheaded by the Mayor of London, seeks to localise production and supply in the city, and offer reduced bills to the consumer as a result. There is perhaps an opportunity here to broker in communities as part of the local energy mix, and reconnect the production asset – and those who own it – to the consumer on the other side, and in turn encourage the consumer to participate in the local energy economy in a tangible way. We may then ourselves have a far more integrated and visionary approach to our energy policy to communicate to the continent and beyond.

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