What is community energy?
Community energy refers to energy generated, owned and managed by a community for the community, or when local people group together to reduce energy consumption. Energy generation projects focus on renewable energy, most commonly solar. These installations are predominantly rooftop solar PV, although some organisations are developing larger ground-mounted solar farms. Wind turbines and hydropower also feature, but require more hurdles to overcome.
There are 424 community energy organisations across the UK, according to a 2021 report on the sector. This excellent video gives a flavour of projects in Europe. I resonated with one particular message when watching it; people are more likely to want to transform from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources when they take ownership of the process and see the benefits in their local communities.
Electricity generation and distribution in the UK
Electricity is produced commercially through power stations (renewables, fossil fuels and nuclear). It flows at high voltage into the transmission network, run in the UK by the National Grid. From here, it flows through distribution networks, managed by District Network Operators (of which there are six), at lower voltage into homes and other buildings. Smaller generators, such as those from community energy projects (known as Distribution Generators) feed energy into the distribution network. This website is fascinating, as it shows live data of energy generation proportions.
Benefits of community energy
- Contributes to mitigating climate change, as communities become less reliant on burning fossil fuels responsible for a large proportion of carbon emissions.
- Gives a shared sense of purpose within the community, forges collaborative relationships, connects people to our shared resources and encourages energy efficiency behaviours.
- Can provide an income stream to benefit the community, helping people with fuel poverty, food bank provision and access to energy efficiency advice, to name a few.
- Creates opportunities for local jobs.
How does community energy work?
- Individuals join together to form a community energy team, ideally with a range of knowledge, experience and skills; for example, energy sector knowledge, finance experience and project management skills.
- The energy needs of the community are assessed.
- A renewable source and location is chosen, such as solar panels for a suitable commercial or community building.
- Finance is sought, through one or more means, including grants, community share offers, donations, awards and loans.
- The kit can be installed and the rewards reaped. There are commonly two income streams, one from the premises using the energy and one from any surplus energy exported back into the grid.
- Members of the community that invest in the project through the community share offer will often receive an annual income. Their original sum is repaid within the lifetime of the project, typically being 20 years.
What sorts of projects are involved?
Andy Extance from Community Energy Exeter (ECOE) was a guest on the podcast. They started in 2014 with 8 people, originating from the Transition Exeter energy group. They have focussed on rooftop solar energy, and now have 10 installations; sites include a commercial business, library, church and technology centre. With the income generated, they run a Healthy Homes for Wellbeing project providing free advice on energy and ways to save money. From September 2020-March 2021, they helped 1145 households save over £1m collectively. Energy efficiency projects align well with community energy organisation values and are often at the heart of an energy project. Additionally, ECOE has sufficient income to run a community fund – in 2019/2020, ECOE awarded £6,990 to 11 groups. Pretty inspiring! This success has earned them a place on the shortlist of the UK Social Enterprise Awards 2021.
Beyond energy generation
Financial support from the government has dwindled with the removal of the Feed-in Tariff and other subsidies. This means energy generation is a much trickier prospect, and as a result, installations for energy generation have fallen. Community energy organisations are adapting and broadening their business model to a whole energy systems approach. The project areas being explored include heat (air and ground source pumps), retrofit, flexibility (timings of energy supply/use), and low carbon transport (community electric cars, e-scooters, e-bikes and charging points).
The main barrier to community energy
Despite being in a climate emergency, it seems the main barrier to community energy is policy. For example, the withdrawal of several government financial schemes in addition to high network access costs make community energy challenging. The Local Electricity Bill, instigated by Power for People, a not-for-profit organisation, could help by enabling community energy organisations to sell the energy they generate directly to local homes and businesses.
Want to get involved?
So, if you want to be a part of the renewable energy movement, find out if there is a community energy group near you to support. They can be found through the organisations advocating for community energy and supporting new and existing groups. In the UK, these are Community Energy England, Wales, and Scotland. If there isn’t one near you, then perhaps you might want to start your own?