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The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Community Energy Strategy: A ‘Second Way’ For The UK’s Energy Market

29th January 2014

Philip Wolfe, chairman of the country’s largest community owned solar power station, advocates community energy as a promising new alternative for UK energy users

Publication of the first Community Energy Strategy is a welcome recognition that the UK’s energy consumers don’t have to be abandoned to the mercy of faceless multi-national conglomerates. The community energy model is well proven in many parts of Europe – and the USA come to that – but hitherto hopelessly under-exploited in the UK.

Community energy is a viable, attractive and responsible channel for energy saving and delivery and is almost universally popular with consumers. This Strategy offers a glimmer of hope that it can now become a second way of serving energy users, alongside the existing dominant approach of commercial provision.

Before focussing on the commercial-community interface, let me touch on other high and less high points of the Strategy. The community energy sector has welcomed its publication and the creation of a Community Energy Unit within DECC. The establishment of the Urban Community Energy Fund alongside the existing fund for the rural sector was welcome too and plugs an obvious policy gap.

The Strategy must also lead to action to overcome some of the barriers it identifies. These include the current inability of community schemes to sell energy to their own members and into the broader marketplace; planning consents; grid access; and the need for new heat networks. There is disappointment that many of these key issues have not been addressed directly, but pushed into working groups and ‘dialogue’. While it’s good that community energy will now have a seat at the table, many of these talking shops have been around for years without any tangible improvement to the deployment of sustainable energy.

Community – commercial partnership

High on my list of the Strategy’s highlights is the government’s acceptance that commercial developments must engage more meaningfully with local communities, beyond simple benefit payments, which many see as little more than a ‘bribe’ to ease planning consent.

The document specifically encourages this type of partnership: “We expect that by 2015 it will be the norm for communities to be offered the opportunity of some level of ownership of new, commercially developed onshore renewables projects.”

While it is vague on how this should be achieved – another of those items deferred to ‘an industry taskforce to work with the community sector and report back’ – there is a hint that lack of progress could lead to further legislation.

Hitherto almost all schemes have been either community- or investor-owned, with little partnership between the two approaches. There are many technical, commercial, legal and financial issues that will need to be resolved if such joint projects are to become widespread. Community energy experts have therefore highlighted this as a priority for their own action programme.

An action programme for the community energy sector

To ensure that the sector itself plays a full part in delivering the vision, active community energy enterprises from around the country are coming together in a collaborative action programme, while a more formal community energy association is formed. This programme is referenced in paragraph 110 of the government’s Strategy and further described at www.c-e-a.org.uk.

The Community Energy Action Programme focuses on three priority areas for accelerating the development of the sector and engaging with the government’s Strategy. These are:

  • To set out the potential and the vision for community energy in the UK from the perspective of those active in the sector;
  • To map existing schemes and expertise as the basis for a platform to support new projects and to share know-how and best practice; and
  • To define how communities can engage with local authorities and commercial developers to maximise community involvement in all new energy projects.

Both the first and, more specifically, the third of these work-streams will address the all-important ‘second way’ for energy in the UK.

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